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The prosecution of Liberian war criminals in Europe is good news

Last month, a special court in Paris sentenced Liberian rebel commander Kunti Kamara to life in prison for his complicity in “massive and systematic torture and inhumane acts” against civilians in Liberia in 1993-1994. This was the second guilty verdict delivered in Europe for crimes against humanity related to Liberia’s bloody civil wars. In June 2021, rebel commander Alieu Kosiah was convicted on similar charges in Switzerland. Another alleged fighter, Gibril Massaquoi, was tried in Finland but was ultimately acquitted for lack of evidence earlier this year.

The convictions of Kamara and Kosiah, and even the prosecution of Massaquoi, were small but welcome victories in the battle to bring justice to millions of Liberians who still bear physical and psychological scars from the conflict that claimed more than a quarter of a million lives between 1989 and 2003. .

Under normal circumstances, three trials and two convictions in connection with a brutal 12-year conflict that came to an end nearly two decades ago would not deserve much attention, let alone celebration. But the circumstances are not normal: these few European convictions and prosecutions are the only concrete steps to hold Liberia’s war criminals accountable for the unimaginable pain they inflicted on civilians.

In fact, Liberia itself has yet to try a single person for the many war crimes committed during its civil wars.

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More than 10 years ago, in 2009, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued recommendations that included the establishment of a special court for war crimes. However, despite many promises from governments, such a court never materialized.

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Liberia is not prosecuting its war criminals primarily because many of those criminals have since become powerful politicians. The path to the presidency in the country is through forming alliances with such figures who control large voting blocs, so no president seems overly eager to greenlight a comprehensive prosecution effort.

Prince Johnson, a former warlord facing many credible charges of crimes against humanity, is now one of Liberia’s longest-serving senators. His influence over the populous Nimba County has made him a necessary ally for all of the country’s post-war presidents.

In 2020, the Liberian Senate proposed establishing a Transitional Justice Commission (TJC) to provide “restorative, not retributive” justice for people affected by crimes committed during the civil war. However, even this moderate attempt went nowhere, leading many Liberians to seek justice outside the country’s borders.

Very soon, foreign courts, especially those in Europe, began to be seen as the only forum where Liberian war criminals could be held accountable.

But this does not mean that trials abroad can fully satisfy the Liberian people’s desire for accountability, justice and closure.

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There are, in fact, many pitfalls in trying to find justice abroad.

First, Liberians have little access to trials in other countries. Most Liberians are unable to travel internationally to follow a trial, and courts often do not bother to stream proceedings online. This means that the people who can get the most out of these trials remain uninformed and unable to engage with the evidence that the prosecution uncovers. Many of Liberia’s major media organizations that are tacitly owned or controlled by local political actors also largely ignore these judgments.

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Second, nations around the world have little appetite for “universal jurisdiction” prosecutions like those that resulted in the convictions of Kamara and Kosiah. “Universal jurisdiction” is a principle of international law that establishes the jurisdiction of a state over crimes against international law even when the crimes did not occur on the territory of that state, and neither the victim nor the perpetrator is a national of that state. . Such processes are not only time consuming and expensive, but can lead to unwanted inter-government disputes where the prosecuted party has the support of the State.

This is why there have been only three such prosecutions to date related to crimes committed during the course of the Liberian conflict. The United States, for example, never gave the green light to any such trial, instead prosecuting the Liberian war actors only for immigration fraud, arguing that they had concealed their involvement in the conflict in their visa applications. While these trials can also uncover crimes, they are by no means ideal for accountability.

Last but not least, the vast majority of Liberia’s war criminals and victims still reside in Liberia. This means that most victims of war can only get justice if Liberia itself begins to prosecute those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In short, it is truly worth celebrating that some of those who committed heinous crimes against Liberians during the country’s civil wars are being imprisoned in Europe. These trials not only give hope to victims, but also help local justice organizations to keep pushing for more. However, this is not enough.

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As the 20th anniversary of the end of the conflict rapidly approaches, it is time for Liberia’s leaders to stop putting their political interests above the needs of the people and start working to establish a mechanism that will lead to meaningful trials for war crimes in the country.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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