In 1822, the state of Liberia was established by the American Colonisation Society to resettle freed slaves of African descent and Africans freed from captured slave ships. Liberia gained independence in 1847 with the descendants of the slaves, generally known as Americo-Liberians, dominating the political, economic, social and cultural life of the country for decades. 

In April 1980, an indigenous Liberian, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, an ethnic Krahn, took over the leadership of the nation following a successful coup d’etat against the government of President William Tolbert Jr, who was publicly executed, with several of his ministers and close associates meeting a similar fate thereafter. Doe suspended the Constitution and established a People’s Redemption Council to rule the country, underpinned by the promise of a new system of governance and equality for all Liberians. 

However, the old way of governance remained firmly in place, as allegations of corruption and infighting in Doe’s government grew rife. As Doe became increasingly paranoid, ethnic cronyism and political suppression by his government led to intensified disillusionment among the population. Following an attempted coup in 1985, Doe clamped down even harder on his real and perceived enemies, and in 1989 an insurgency against his government was launched, which plunged Liberia into years of conflict. 

First Liberian Civil War (1989 – 1996)

The First Liberian civil war was among the continent’s bloodiest conflicts, resulting in almost 150,000 civilian casualties and around 850,000 refugees.1 On 24 December 1989, Charles Taylor, together with the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel group, invaded Liberia from Ivory Coast with the intention of overthrowing Doe’s government. President Doe engaged the Armed Forces of Liberia in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, marked by indiscriminate killing of civilians, sexual violence and looting. 

In an attempt to quell the violence, in 1990, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) established and dispatched the ECOWAS Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), to serve as a peacekeeping force. Alongside the peacekeepers, ECOWAS initiated a diplomatic peace process that sought to find a political solution to the conflict. In 1990, the NPFL splintered, and the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) led by Prince Yormie Johnson was created.2 

During a visit to ECOMOG headquarters in September 1990, Samuel Doe was captured by Prince Johnson’s INPFL rebel group and taken to its Caldwell military base where he was tortured and killed. As the fighting continued, new rebel groups joined the conflict. The Krahn and Mandingo groups, often targets of the NPFL, formed the United Movement for Democracy and Liberation in Liberia (ULIMO) in 1991, which later split into two factions in 1994, namely ULIMO-J (mostly Krahn, led by Roosevelt Johnson) and ULIMO-K (mostly Mandingo, led by Alhaji Kromah).3 That same year the NPFL splintered once more and the NPFL-Central Revolutionary Council (CRC) was formed. By 1995 there were at least eight major factions as well as many more minor ones.4 

In the course of the conflict, several peace accords were negotiated, only to subsequently be broken. Finally, the 1995 Abuja II Peace Accords ended the civil war.5 On 19 July 1997 elections were held in accordance with the timetable laid out by the supplement to the Abuja Peace Accords. Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Party won a landslide victory with slightly more than 75% of the vote. While generally considered free and transparent, the elections were held under a climate of intimidation as many Liberians believed that the conflict would resume if Taylor lost the elections.


Second Liberian Civil War (1999 – 2003)

In 1999, just two years after the elections, a second civil war broke out when the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) resumed their fight for power against President Taylor. By 2003, LURD controlled the northern third of the country, while the Movement for Democracy in Liberia took the southern third of the country. As the groups began closing in on Monrovia, Charles Taylor agreed to participate in an ECOWAS-sponsored peace summit in Ghana. 

During this time, the Office of the Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone unsealed an indictment against him for his role in aiding and abetting international crimes during the civil war in Sierra Leone. The warrant for Taylor’s arrest was served on Ghanaian authorities and transmitted to Interpol. Ghana did not apprehend Taylor and he was allowed to return to Liberia. Despite the continuing peace negotiations, intense fighting continued until finally, having lost control of most of the country, Taylor accepted an ECOWAS-brokered offer of asylum from Nigeria. He stepped down as Liberian President on 11 August 2003. The vice-president, Moses Blah, completed Taylor’s term, before handing over to a transitional government.

Citations & References

1: United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (1993-1997) “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry mandated to establish the facts and circumstance of the events of 28 September 2009 in Guinea” (S/2009/693), December 2009

2: Prince Johnson was elected Senator of Nimba county during Liberia’s 2005.

3: Truth and Reconciliation Mission of Liberia (2009) “Final Consolidated Report” 

4: C. Tuck (2000), “Every Car or Moving Object Gone, The ECOMOG Intervention in Liberia” African Studies Quarterly 

5: United Nations Security Council (28 August 1995) “Abuja Agreement to Supplement the Cotonou and Akosombo Agreements as subsequently clarified by the Accra Agreement” 

Accountability in Liberia

Priorities and challenges for strengthening accountability for international crimes in Liberia

April 1980
Samuel Doe comes to power through a coup

Master Sergeant Samuel Doe carries out a military coup against President William Tolbert Jr who is executed. Doe establishes a People’s Redemption Council and suspends the constitution. He presides over a repressive government for a decade.

24 December 1989
Start of the first civil war in Liberia

Charles Taylor and his Libya-trained, National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels invade Liberia from Côte d'Ivoire in an attempt to overthrow Doe.

August 1990
ECOMOG sent to Liberia in attempt to implement ceasefire

ECOWAS sends a peacekeeping force to Liberia known as the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). This marks the beginning of a long peacekeeping effort that is later taken over by the United Nations.

September 1990
President Samuel Doe tortured and killed

Samuel Doe is captured and brutally killed by the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), a breakaway rebel group of the NPFL. The fighting between warring parties continues. Prince Johnson, the leader of the INPFL, who was shown watching Doe's torture while drinking beer. Johnson was elected senator in 2005. 


17 August 1996
Peace accords end first civil war

After several peace accords are signed and broken, the "Abuja II" peace accords eventually end the war. The accords call for a ceasefire, disarmament of combatants, free and fair elections, and sanctions for non-compliance. 

19 July 1997
Charles Taylor wins election to become President of Liberia

Taylor wins election with more than 75% of the vote. Elections are held under the implicit threat that the fighting would resume, were he to lose the vote.

1999 - 2003
Second civil war in Liberia

In 1999, attacks by rebels who identify themselves as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) begin. By 2003, LURD controls the north, while the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Model), controls the south. Government forces are pinned down to one final stronghold, Monrovia. 

June 2003
Peace Talks held in Accra, Ghana, indictment against Taylor unsealed

Charles Taylor agrees to participate in peace talks in Ghana aimed at ending the civil war. While he is in Ghana, the Office of the Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone unseals a 17-count indictment accusing Taylor of war crimes and crimes against humanity over his alleged backing of rebels in Sierra Leone. Ghana declines to arrest Taylor and he returns to Liberia.

11 August 2003
Charles Taylor accepts offer of asylum in Nigeria

Taylor agrees to step down as president and hands over power to vice-president Moses Blah. Taylor leaves Liberia for exile in Calabar, Nigeria. Blah serves the remainder of Taylor’s term before handing over power to a transitional interim government.


18 August 2003
Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed

The parties to the conflict sign the comprehensive peace agreement bringing an end to the second civil war. The agreement provides for an intervention force to monitor the ceasefire, calls for the establishment of a TRC, and provides for the establishment of a two-year transitional government, among other measures. Elections are scheduled to occur no later than October 2005. 

November 2005
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf elected president of Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf becomes the first woman to be elected as an African head of state. She begins an ambitious program to rebuild a nation ravaged by war.  

February 2006
Truth and Reconciliation Commission inaugurated

President Sirleaf inaugurates the TRC commission with a mandate to investigate gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law among other egregious crimes committed in Liberia between January 1979 and 14 October 2003. 

March/April 2006
Charles Taylor arrested and transferred to the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL)

Following international pressure, Nigerian authorities arrest Taylor as he attempts to flee the country. He is flown to Liberia and promptly handed over to the SCSL, where he pleads not guilty to an amended 11-count indictment. He is later transferred to The Hague where his trial is held.

9 January 2009
Charles Taylor's son sentenced to 75 years in prison on torture charges

Charles McArthur Emmanuel, also known as Chuckie Taylor, was arrested in 2006 for a passport violation and indicted on torture, firearms and conspiracy charges. He was convicted in 2008 for the indicted crimes, which he committed while he was the commander of the Anti-Terrorist Unit between 1999 and 2003 in Liberia.

29 June 2009
Liberian TRC submits final report

The TRC submits its report to parliament, recommends persons who ought to be prosecuted, lists others who should be barred from public office, among other recommendations to promote justice, national reconciliation and healing. 

6 February 2012
George Boley convicted on immigration charges in the US

Following his arrest on 15 January 2010, ex-Liberian Peace Council leader Boley is convicted for US immigration offences. The conviction marked the first time the use of child soldiers had been used as a grounds for removal from the US. He was deported to Liberia one month later. Boley won a seat in the Liberian legislature in the 2017 elections.

26 April 2012 / 30 May 2012
Charles Taylor convicted for international crimes

The SCSL finds Taylor guilty on all eleven counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of IHL for planning, aiding and abetting crimes committed by rebel forces in Sierra Leone. He is sentenced to 50 years imprisonment the following month, to be served in the UK. The decision is upheld on appeal.

October 2013
Launch of national Palava Hut program

President Sirleaf launches the “Palava Hut Program”, a traditional conflict resolution mechanism through which victims get the opportunity to confront perpetrators in public hearings. The aim of the program is to provide an avenue for reintegration, reconciliation and community-based atonement.

17 September 2014
Suspected NPFL commander arrested by Belgian authorities

Martina Johnson is under investigation in Belgium for suspected Crimes Against Humanity committed during the first Liberian Civil War, while she was alleged to be a commander of the NPFL. 

21 April 2017
Arms dealer sentenced in absentia by Dutch Court

Guus Van Kouwenhoven, a Dutch businessman, was sentenced in absentia to 19 years imprisonment by the Dutch Court of Appeal for aiding and abetting war crimes, breaching UN sanctions and involvement in arms trafficking during the second Liberian civil war. Kouwenhoven fled to South Africa where he has been fighting extradition proceedings since.


1 June 2017
Charles Taylor's ex-wife arrested in the UK

Agnes Reeves Taylor, ex-wife to former president Charles Taylor is arrested in the UK and charged with torture and conspiracy to commit torture, allegedly committed while she was a member of the NPFL during the first Liberian civil war. 

26 December 2017
George Weah elected president

George Weah, a former footballer, wins the presidential run-off, marking the first time there is a peaceful transfer of power from a democratically elected president to the next in decades. Charles Taylor's ex-wife Jewel Taylor, Weah’s running mate, becomes vice president.

19 April 2018
ULIMO-K commander convicted in the US

Mohammed Jabbateh (ULIMO-K) is convicted in the US on fraud and perjury charges relating to his asylum application, where prosecutors had to prove rape, torture, etc. as part of immigration proceedings. He is sentenced to 30 years in prison, which is upheld on appeal in 2020.

23 July 2018
Swiss NGO launches complaint against ULIMO commander for torture

Swiss NGO Civitas Maxima launches a complaint against Kunti Kumara, former ULIMO commander before the Office of the Prosecutor in Paris. He is arrested 3 months later on 4 September 2018.

September 2019
Weah seeks guidance on implementation of TRC report

Weah submits a letter to the national legislature seeking guidance on legislative and other measures that would see the implementation of the TRC report, including the establishment of the Economic and War Crimes Court.

6 December 2019
Agnes Reeves Taylor released

The Central Criminal Court in the UK dismisses all charges in torture trial against Agnes Reeves Taylor on the grounds that she was not acting in an official capacity at the time she was alleged to have committed crimes, a prerequisite of the 1988 UK Criminal Justice Act.

12 April 2020
Jucontee Thomas Smith Woewiyu dies

Woewiyu dies of Covid-19 in the US while awaiting sentencing. He was convicted on 3 July 2018 by a US court for immigration related offences relating to his application for naturalisation as a US citizen. He had been charged with fraud and making false statements about his membership in the NPFL during the civil war. 

26 November 2020
Kunti Kumara to stand trial for torture in France

Investigative judge orders Kumara be sent for trial for crimes related to torture and barbaric acts.

1 February 2021
Trial against former RUF spokesman opens in Finland

Gibril Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean national and former SCSL informant is accused of involvement in mass atrocities in Liberia. He is arrested on 10 March 2020 in Finland.

18 June 2021
ULIMO commander convicted for war crimes in Switzerland

Alieu Kosiah, a former ULIMO commander was charged with 25 counts of war crimes allegedly committed in Lofa County, Liberia between 1993 and 1996. His trial marks the first time a Liberian is convicted for war crimes under universal jurisdiction. He is sentenced to 20 years in prison.

June 2021
Transitional Justice Commission

Liberian Senate recommends that the president establish a Transitional Justice Commission.

15 September 2021
AFL commander found liable for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in US civil court

Moses Thomas, a former colonel in the Armed Forces of Liberia, is found liable for torture, extrajudicial killing, and attempted extrajudicial killing under the Torture Victim Protection Act, as well as for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under the Alien Tort Statute. The four plaintiffs in the case were survivors of a church massacre that occurred during the Liberian civil war on 29 July 1990. Thomas left the United States and returned to Liberia in 2019.

Domestic accountability

The Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed by all parties to Liberia’s second civil war on 18 August 2003.6 It provided for the establishment of a two-year transitional government, outlined a roadmap to elections, and recommended the establishment of a number of institutions, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Liberian TRC was established two years after the end of the conflict and submitted its final report in 2009 offering concrete recommendations for further justice and accountability measures in Liberia.7

Since the submission of the report, implementation of the TRC recommendations has been sluggish, raising questions over the lack of a genuine interest in addressing the crimes committed during the civil wars. Efforts to conduct prosecutions either through the national courts or a hybrid tribunal have been tied up within the legislative process. The National Palava Hut programme, which was recommended as an avenue for reconciliation and healing, has gotten off to a slow start.

A few trial proceedings have been brought against suspects in European and American courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes committed during the Liberian civil wars. As victims continue to wait for justice, many challenges persist. The apparent lack of political will to establish a war crimes court, the influence and positions of status occupied by persons who played a role in the civil wars, the international lack of interest in establishing yet another hybrid mechanism, the lack of funding in general to implement justice and accountability processes in Liberia, are among the stumbling blocks that remain to be overcome. 

Play Video

Will there be justice, national rehabilitation, reconciliation and healing in Liberia?

Hassan Bility, Executive Director of the Global Justice Research Project in Liberia, discusses the importance and impact of the criminal trials against suspected perpetrators of crimes in the Liberian civil wars in European and American courts, a result of a collaboration between his organisation and foreign jurisdictions. He also shares his thoughts on the key steps needed to achieve justice and accountability in Liberia, whether the long-proposed extraordinary criminal court will ever see the light of day, and the challenges that he faces as a human rights defender in Liberia.

Laying the foundation: the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created by the TRC Act of 2005.8 The Act was passed into law by the National Transitional Legislative Assembly. The mandate of the Commission was to investigate gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law among other egregious crimes committed in Liberia during the period January 1979 to 14 October 2003. The Commission was further mandated to establish the background and history behind the conflict, the context within which violations were committed, the motives behind the crimes and the impact on the victims.

The nine-member TRC was inaugurated by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in February 2006 and went into operation on 22 June 2006. The Commission conducted public awareness campaigns, collected thousands of witness testimonies and held public hearings in all 15 counties of Liberia as well as in the diaspora.9 The TRC submitted its final report in 2009 and made wide-ranging observations and recommendations on the way forward for the country.10

In its findings, the Commission established that all factions to the conflict were responsible for the commission of egregious violations of domestic law, international criminal law, international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It recommended, inter alia, the establishment of an “Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia” to try those responsible for the most egregious crimes, national “Palava Hut” hearings to promote healing, closure and genuine reconciliation, plus a trust fund for victims.  

Play Video

The Massaquoi trial in Finland: implications for Liberia and West Africa

Thierry Cruvellier,  Thierry Cruvellier, Editor-in-Chief of, reflects on the ongoing trial of the former Sierra Leonean rebel commander Gibril Massaquoi in Finland. He points out that uniquely in the practice of universal jurisdiction, the Finnish justice system held the main portion of the trial in Liberia close to the victims and the affected communities. Cruvellier then discusses the decline of international justice in favour of national jurisdictions, and shares his views on the future of international justice, taking into account reparations and non-judicial initiatives.

Citations & References

8: Truth and Reconciliation Commission (30 June 2009) “TRC Mandate”

9: Human Rights Watch (2019) “Q & A Justice for Civil Wars – Era Crimes in Liberia” 

10: Truth and Reconciliation Commission (30 June 2009) “Consolidated Final Report”

Commentary & Reports

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia: Final Consolidated Report (TRC: 2009) 

This report contains major findings on the root causes of the conflict; the impact of the conflict on women, children and the generality of the Liberian society; responsibility for the massive commission of Gross Human Rights Violations (GHRV); and violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), International Human Rights Law (IHRL) as well as Egregious Domestic Law Violations (EDLV). The report also determined and recommended that Criminal Prosecution for these violations, Reparations and a “Palava Hut” Forum were necessary and desirable to redress impunity, promote peace, justice, security, unity and genuine national reconciliation.

Human Rights Watch “Q & A Justice for Civil Wars – Era Crimes in Liberia” (HRW: 2019) 

Liberia’s history has been punctuated by periods of profound social upheaval underscored by injustice and serious human rights violations. These dynamics in large part led to two devastating civil wars in the last 30 years. This question-and-answer document addresses the abuses committed during these wars and efforts to bring those responsible to justice, including through a proposed war crimes court.

The proposed Hybrid Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia   

One of the strongest recommendations made by the Liberian TRC was for the establishment of an Extraordinary Criminal Court (ECC) for Liberia, which would try suspected perpetrators for egregious domestic crimes, gross violations of human rights and serious humanitarian law violations, committed in Liberia between January 1979 and 14 October 2003.

In its findings, the Commission established that it was not only the individual combatants from the various armed groups who were responsible for serious violations committed during the armed conflicts, but also their financiers, leaders, commanders and advisors. The factions were categorised into two groups, designated as more or less significant violators, depending on the number of violations they had allegedly committed according to witness reports.

Apart from the commanders of all the warring factions, the Commission provided a list of 116 notorious perpetrators to be tried before the ECC and 58 perpetrators recommended for prosecution in domestic courts. Forty-nine others were recommended for public sanction as financiers, 45 for prosecution for economic crimes, and 54 for further investigation with regard to their role in economic crimes.11

In its final consolidated report presented to the president and national legislature in 2009, the TRC submitted a draft statute proposing the competence, jurisdiction, structure and other relevant frameworks for the functioning of the ECC. The Commission also made recommendations on the form of the court, which was to be hybrid in nature, with both domestic and international elements. Further recommendations were made on the nomination of judges, and the appointment of the prosecutor and registrar. The inclusion of economic crimes in the ECC’s mandate was in recognition of the links between pillage and plunder of natural resources during the years of conflict.12 Despite the strong foundations laid by the TRC, a war crimes court has yet to be established. Several Liberian NGOs continue to campaign for the establishment of the Court.

Play Video

Justice for Victims in Liberia: Application of the Principle of Universal Jurisdiction

Alain Werner, Director of Civitas Maxima, looks back at the trials that took place in France, Switzerland and the United States for war crimes committed in Liberia. In this interview, Werner presents the work of Civitas Maxima as well as the different judicial mechanisms that were implemented to bring justice to the victims. Werner underlines the importance of these initiatives and hopes to one day see justice done on Liberian territory.


Citations & References

11: Truth and Reconciliation Commission Press Release (30 June 2009) “TRC Releases Consolidated Final Report”

12:  Human Rights Watch (2019) “Q & A Justice for Civil Wars – Era Crimes in Liberia” 

Healing and national reconciliation: the National Palava Hut Process  

A major challenge to the accountability process in Liberia was the recognition that widespread violations had been committed during the civil wars, with several thousands of perpetrators responsible for these crimes. In the opinion of the TRC, pursuing all of these suspects through the Liberian criminal justice system would be a virtually impossible task. 

They therefore recommended the establishment of a National Palava Hut Forum; this is a conflict resolution mechanism, common to rural communities in Liberia, in which select members of integrity in the community adjudicate matters of grave concern to the community and seek to resolve disputes among or between individuals and or communities and deliver binding decisions.13 Victims would get the opportunity to confront perpetrators through these public fora, thus providing an avenue to hasten reintegration, reconciliation and community-based atonement. The TRC made recommendations on the competence, structure, functions and authority of the National Palava Hut Fora, which were to be coordinated by the Independent Human Rights Commission.14 They further listed just a little over 7,000 persons who ought to face the Palava Hut Process.

The Palava Hut Process was launched by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2013.15 A number of palava hearings have been conducted across the country, but the pace of the implementation remains slow.16

Reparations and other measures in favour of victims

The TRC made several recommendations on behalf of the victims of the armed conflicts and of human rights violations committed in Liberia. Recognising the great harm that victims suffered, as well as the reality that many continue to live in poverty, the Commission recommended the establishment of a trust fund for victims to dispense reparations to affected persons and communities. In addition, it recommended a detailed reparations programme that would look at social and economic issues affecting victims, such as challenges with housing, mental health and psychosocial support, provision of health services and education among others. A national trust fund for victims has yet to be established to date. The Liberian Senate recently called on current President George Weah to establish such a fund.


The question of amnesty for international crimes in Liberia remains controversial. In 2003, the Transitional Liberian Government passed legislation that granted immunity for both civil and criminal proceedings against all persons within the jurisdiction of Liberia for acts or crimes committed between 1989 and 2003.17 

The Act was not repealed before the establishment of the TRC, which in its 2009 report was resolute in its recommendation that in accordance with international standards, no amnesty should be granted for the heinous crimes that were committed in Liberia. In the view of the Liberian TRC, granting amnesty would not only be unacceptable and immoral but would also promote impunity.18 The question of amnesty continues to be discussed in the House of Representatives and the Senate in Liberia.

Play Video

Universal jurisdiction trials for Liberian crimes

Emmanuelle Marchand, Deputy Director and Head of the Legal Unit at Civitas Maxima, discusses the current trends toward using universal jurisdiction to address international crimes, stressing that States are primarily responsible for their prosecution. Marchand talks about the consequences and impact of extra-territorial trials in Liberia, as well as the current prospects for the creation of a dedicated court with a mandate to investigate and prosecute international crimes in the country.

Citations & References

13: Truth and Reconciliation Mission of Liberia (2009) “Final Consolidated Report” 

14: UNDP Liberia (2021) “Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Palava Hut Hearings Take Off in Rivercess County” 

15: Executive Mansion, Liberia (2013) “President Sirleaf Officially Launches Palava Hut Program”

16: Frontpage Africa Online (Nov 2020) “INCHR Commences Palava Hut Hearing for War Victims and Perpetrators in Liberia’s Worst Affected Counties” 

17: See discussion on the history of the Amnesty Act and question of its legality in Priscilla Hayner (November 2007) “Negotiating Peace in Liberia: Preserving the possibility for justice” Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the International Center for Transitional Justice, p. 18: 

18: Truth and Reconciliation Commission (30 June 2009) “Consolidated Final Report” p. 403

Commentary & Reports

Priscilla Hayner “Negotiating Peace in Liberia: Preserving the possibility for justice” (Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the International Center for Transitional Justice: November 2007) 

This article is based on extensive interviews with many of those who took part in the 2003 Liberian peace talks that led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in Accra, Ghana on 18 August 2003. It recorded the dynamics, actors and elements that determined how and why many of the key decisions were taken that resulted in the 2003 peace agreement, with a particular focus on questions of justice, accountability and the rule of law. It also tracked developments in the four years after the accord was signed, and provided insights that may be useful in future mediation contexts.

Paul James-Allen, Aaron Weah, and Lizzie Goodfriend “Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Transitional Justice Options in Liberia” (ICTJ: May 2010)

The Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report offers valuable insights into Liberia’s turbulent history, including the gross human rights violations committed during the country’s 14-year conflict. In this report, ICTJ reviews the TRC process, examines its final report, and suggests a number of steps to be taken by the government, Liberia’s civil society, and external partners. These suggestions are designed to respond to the opportunities presented by the TRC report and to address the shortcomings of its transitional justice recommendations. ICTJ offers these proposals as a general roadmap on what actors can do in the short-term to begin the process of moving forward with further transitional justice efforts.

Kwaku Danso “Mending Broken Relations after Civil War: The ‘Palava Hut’ and the Prospects for Lasting Peace in Liberia” (KAIPTC: May 2016)

Nearly three years after the official launch of the National Palava Hut Program by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, this community-based and people-to-people approach to relational justice and reconciliation has yet to be implemented in ongoing peacebuilding processes in Liberia. This policy brief discusses the potentials and challenges of using the Palava Hut as a transitional justice measure, and proceeds to suggest a number of policy-relevant recommendations. Foremost among these recommendations is a call for closer and deeper engagements with Liberia’s tribal governors.

The recruitment and use of children in armed conflict  

The recruitment and use of children in armed conflict was prevalent during the first and second civil wars in Liberia, with almost all parties to the conflict implicated in the practice. Children as young as nine years old participated in the conflict, whether in active combat, or as porters, cooks, bodyguards, among other roles. Children were victims of gross human rights and humanitarian law violations; many were killed, beaten, orphaned, subjected to sexual violence and rape and forced to commit crimes. Children were forcefully conscripted or volunteered to join the conflict, and many were complicit in the commission of crimes. 

The TRC addressed the issue of amnesty with regard to children’s role in the armed conflicts, finding that they cannot be held responsible for the crimes they committed. Full protection ought to be granted in the case of children associated with armed groups or involved in armed conflicts.

Political will? 

Is there political will in Liberia to establish a War Crimes court and other justice and accountability mechanisms? 

Since the publication of the TRC report in 2009, many of its recommendations have been steeped in controversy and others ignored by the ruling class. Several persons named in the report for their alleged role in Liberia’s civil wars have economic and social status, with some having political clout and a huge following. It is therefore not surprising that in certain quarters, there is zero appetite for a war crimes court to be established. This has in turn fuelled a misinformation campaign against the proposed tribunal. Some of the allegations spread include the assertion that former child soldiers will be prosecuted for their acts during the war or that the establishment of such a court would plunge the country into a new civil war.19 

While there remains significant support for prosecutions among victim communities and civil society, both post-war Liberian governments have continued to kick the proverbial can down the road and dithered on the establishment of the court. This has coincided with the waning appetite to fund hybrid tribunals – a substantial economic undertaking –  by the international donor community. The country’s national courts are also unable to address the accountability gap for legal and practical reasons. After years of conflict, the Liberian justice system had been severely neglected and needed to be rebuilt; significant weaknesses in the system remain. 

During his campaign for the presidency, George Weah expressed support for the establishment of a war crimes court. In a follow-up in September 2019, President Weah sent a letter to the National Legislature to advise and provide guidance on all legislative and other necessary measures that would see the implementation of the TRC report, including the establishment of the Economic and War Crimes Court. In June 2021, the Senate submitted its recommendations, in which it asked the president to establish a Transitional Justice Commission. The commission would have the mandate to determine the reasons why the TRC recommendations have not yet been fully implemented, and the effect of the 2003 amnesty law. 

Among other recommendations, the Senate further emphasised that Palava Hut hearings should continue and that the proposed trust fund for victims should be expedited. Activists have criticised the proposal to establish the Transitional Justice Commission as yet another tactic intended to delay the establishment of a war crimes court.20 Given the enormous challenges that need to be overcome, it remains to be seen whether a tribunal mandated to investigate and prosecute war crimes will be created to address atrocities committed in both of Liberia’s civil wars.

Commentary & Reports

Prof. Olympia Bekou  “Roadmap to Accountability: Overcoming Barriers to Justice” (University of Nottingham: 2021) 

This report was delivered by Prof. Bekou in partnership with the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), the leading Liberian non-governmental organisation working on mass atrocities in Liberia. The roadmap to accountability analyses the barriers to accountability and the ways in which they can be overcome. The roadmap includes concrete identified actions which seek to encourage the Liberian Government to reprioritise questions of justice and accountability post-COVID-19, and reapply pressure for the 2019 Resolution on the War Crimes Court to be tabled in Parliament.

Chernor Jalloh and Alhagi Marong Ending Impunity: “The Case for War Crimes Trials in Liberia” (African Journal of Legal Studies: 2005)

The authors argue that Liberian courts are unable, even if willing, to render credible justice that protects the due process rights of the accused given the collapse of legal institutions and the paucity of financial, human and material resources in post-conflict Liberia. The authors then examine the possibility of using international accountability mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court, an ad hoc international criminal tribunal as well as a hybrid court for Liberia. For various legal and political reasons, the authors conclude that all of these options are not viable. As an alternative, they suggest that because the Special Court for Sierra Leone has already started the accountability process for Liberia with the indictment of Charles Taylor in 2003, and given the close links between the Liberian and Sierra Leonean conflicts, the Special Court would be a more appropriate forum for international prosecutions of those who perpetrated gross humanitarian and human rights law violations in Liberia.

International Justice 

The trial of Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone   

Former President Charles Taylor faced justice for crimes he committed in the civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone, but not for alleged atrocities he committed in Liberia. The process of getting Taylor before the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was fraught with challenges. In the wake of the unsealing of a seventeen-count indictment against him in June 2003, Taylor submitted an application to the SCSL seeking to have the indictment quashed. His application was overruled, thus paving the way for his trial. 

Following her election to the presidency in 2005, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf requested that Nigeria hand over Taylor to the SCSL to face trial. Nigerian President Obasanjo initially demurred, but following international pressure, the authorities arrested Taylor as he attempted to flee the country close to the border with Cameroon. He was flown to Liberia before he was handed over to the SCSL. Arrangements were then made with the International Criminal Court in The Hague which allowed the use of its premises for Taylor’s trial, as it was believed that trying him in West Africa would be risky and raise the spectre of renewed violence in the region.21

 On 16 March 2006, the SCSL approved an amended indictment against Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity, reducing the number of counts against him from 17 to 11. On 26 April 2012, the Trial Chamber found Charles Taylor guilty on all counts, on the modes of liability of planning of crimes and for aiding and abetting crimes committed by rebel forces in Sierra Leone. On 30 May 2012, the former Liberian president was given a sentence of 50 years in prison. The sentence and conviction were upheld on appeal,22 and Taylor is serving his sentence in the United Kingdom.23

Citations & References

21: Human Rights Watch (2012): “Even a Big Man Must Face Justice, Lessons from the Trial of Charles Taylor”

22:   The Special Court for Sierra Leone (2013) “The Prosecutor v Charles Ghankay Taylor” Appeals Chamber 

23:  The Guardian (10 October 2013) “War criminal Charles Taylor to serve 50-year sentence in British prison”

Commentary & Reports

Human Rights Watch “Even a Big Man Must Face Justice, Lessons from the Trial of Charles Taylor”  (HRW: 2012) 

The Taylor trial has particular significance for West Africans. The Taylor trial is the first time a so-called “big man” — a powerful individual who either led an armed group or wielded significant political power—has been taken into custody and forced to answer for alleged international crimes at trial. This report provides an analysis of the trial’s practice and impact. The overarching aim is to draw lessons to promote the best possible trials in the future of high-level suspects who are implicated in genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Advocates for Human Rights et al. “Liberia: Stakeholder Report for the United Nations Universal Periodic Review Regarding Impunity for Past Human Rights Violations” ( 3 October 2019)

In this stakeholder report submitted for the 36th Session of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, a coalition of civil society organisations outline the state of accountability efforts for war crimes committed in Liberia up to 2019. The stakeholders offer recommendations to the Liberian government to ensure the establishment of a war crimes court in the country, including working with the legislature on necessary legislation, due process procedures, composition of judicial benches, among other provisions. They further call for the continued support of universal jurisdiction cases against suspects and guarantees for protection of human rights defenders in Liberia. In addition, they appeal to partners to provide assistance and funding for programs designed to improve Liberia’s judiciary and criminal justice system to ensure victims’ access to justice and the right of the accused to a fair trial.

Justice in foreign courts    

Trials for International Crimes under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction

As Liberians continue to wait for justice at home nearly 20 years after the end of the conflict, the search for justice has continued further afield. Several criminal trials are being pursued in foreign courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows States to try offenders for serious crimes under international law, even in the absence of a personal or territorial link to the offence. 

The Swiss NGO, Civitas Maxima, together with its Liberian partner, the Global Justice and Research Project, have been at the forefront in seeking justice in foreign jurisdictions for crimes committed in Liberia during the civil war. They conduct investigations and collect witness statements from Liberian victims, which they then use to build cases against suspected perpetrators in foreign courts.24 As a result, criminal complaints for war crimes and crimes against humanity have been launched against suspects in several European countries, including France, Belgium and Switzerland. 

There have also been successful cases against Liberian defendants in the USA, such as the conviction in 2008 of Chuckie Taylor, son of Charles Taylor, for committing torture and related acts while he was the head of the Anti-Terrorist Unit in Liberia; he was sentenced to 75 years imprisonment in January 2009 for his crimes.25

Former ULIMO Commander Mohammed Jabbateh and former NPFL-CRC leader Thomas Wowieyu were also convicted of fraud for immigration-related offences after omitting to mention their roles in the Liberian civil war. A jury convicted Jabbateh in October 2017, and he was sentenced in April 2018 to 30 years in prison.26 Woewiyu was convicted in July 2018 for his crimes , but died in April 2020 before sentencing.27 

In March 2012, George Boley, the current senator for Grand Gedeh county in Liberia and former leader of the Liberian Peace Council, which had been active during Liberia’s civil war, was deported by the US authorities for immigration-related offences. An immigration judge found him inadmissible and deportable on grounds of recruitment and use of child soldiers, a violation of the U.S. Child Soldiers Accountability Act of 2008, and for the commission of extrajudicial killings in Liberia in the 1990s.28

In June 2021, the first conviction for war crimes against a Liberian defendant, Alieu Kosiah, was confirmed by a Swiss Court. Kosiah, who had been resident in Switzerland was charged with 25 counts of war crimes including rape, murder, looting and recruitment of child soldiers, allegedly committed in Lofa County Liberia between 1993 and 1996 while he was an ULIMO commander. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his crimes.29

Cases are pending against other accused persons, including Martina Johnson, former frontline commander of the NPFL who faces war crimes and crimes against humanity charges in Belgium for acts committed during ‘Operation Octopus’ in 1992.30 In France, proceedings are pending against former ULIMO commander Kunti K. – charged with torture, use of child soldiers, and murder committed between 1993 and 1997.31 

Proceedings against Sierra Leonean and former Revolutionary United Front (RUF) Commander Gibril Massaquoi for alleged war crimes committed during the second Liberian civil war, culminated in an acquittal. Massaquoi received immunity for his cooperation in the case against members of the former rebel group, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) before the Special Court for Sierra Leone and thereafter received asylum in Finland. He had not, however, received immunity for crimes committed in Liberia and was arrested in 2020 and charged with war crimes including murder, rape and aggravated violations of human rights. His trial began on 1 February 2021 in Finland with part of the hearing being held in Liberia.32

With judgement in the case still pending, the accused was released by the Finnish Court in February 2022. By the time the judgement was delivered by the Court on 29 April 2022, his acquittal was all but expected. The Massaquoi case broke new ground by having the court visit the locations where the crimes were alleged to have been committed and providing an opportunity for Liberians to “see justice being done”. Ultimately, with the acquittal of the accused and the possibility that he may get compensation for time spent in detention; the case has come under heavy criticism for certain missteps by the prosecution, including shoddy investigations, questionable witness testimony and historical inaccuracies.33

Citations & References

24: Civitas Maxima (2021) “Public Cases”

25: US Department of Justice (January 2009) “Roy Belfast Jr., A/K/A Chuckie Taylor, Sentenced on Torture Charges” 

26: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (20 April 2018) “Liberian warlord ‘Jungle Jabbah’ receives historic sentence in immigration fraud case” 

27: US Department of Justice (3 July 2018) “Liberian War Criminal Living in Delaware County Convicted of Immigration Fraud and Perjury”

28: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (2013) “Liberian human rights violator removed from the US, First ever removal under the Child Soldiers Accountability Act” 

29: Civitas Maxima (2021), “Alieu Kosiah Case: Verdict Date Announced”  

30: Gaelle Ponselet (2 April 2020) “Liberia war crimes: Belgian investigators drag feet on Martina Johnson”

31: France 24 (7 September 2018) “France investigates Liberian suspect for crimes against humanity”

32:  Thierry Cruvellier (23 February 2021) “Massaquoi trial: Finnish court goes to deepest Liberia” 

33:  Thierry Cruvellier (29 April 2022) “Acquittal of Massaquoi: Reality Check for Finnish Justice” 

Commentary & Reports

Civitas Maxima “Annual Report 2020” (Civitas Maxima: 2021)

The annual report analyses the efforts of the organisation to conduct cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction. It highlights a few key cases involving the Liberian civil wars.

Trial International “Universal Jurisdiction Annual Review 2020 — Terrorism and international crimes: prosecuting atrocities for what they are” (Trial International: 2020)

Since 2014, Trial International has collected comprehensive data on ongoing investigations and trials that fall under universal jurisdiction. Their 2019 research reveals a 40% increase in the number of global universal jurisdiction cases since the previous year. This included 16 convictions in 16 different prosecuting countries, as well as 146 charges of crimes against humanity, 21 charges of genocide and 141 charges of war crimes. A number of cases touching on Liberia but prosecuted elsewhere are highlighted in the report.