The Liberian civil wars, which took place from 1989 to 1996 and 1999 to 2003, mark a dark chapter in human history. For over a decade, the country was destroyed by ethnically motivated fighting. Sexual violence was rampant and all armed groups relied heavily on child soldiers. Conservative estimates put the war-related death toll in the small coastal West African nation of four million people at 150,000.
On October 10, 2017, almost 15 years after the end of the civil war, Liberians will vote in historic elections. For the first time in post-war Liberia, current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize winner heavily backed by the international community, is not running for office. This means the first transfer of power since the peace agreement, a crucial test for the oldest African republic and its young democracy.
Incidentally, another historic event for Liberia will be happening in the same month, thousands of miles away.
On October 2, the trial of Liberian Mohammed Jabbateh, nicknamed Jungle Jabbah, began in Philadelphia. Throughout Liberia’s first civil war, Jabbateh was a commander in the rebel group United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO).
Jabbateh stands accused of providing false information to U.S. immigration authorities. He allegedly failed to disclose his role as a high-ranking rebel commander during the civil war and his criminal actions while in that position. If convicted, he could face up to 30 years in prison.
From a legal perspective, it is an interesting case. Jabbateh is not, strictly speaking, charged with war crimes. Nevertheless, in order to prove that the lied about his role during the war to immigration authorities, the prosecutors will have to prove that he committed, ordered, or oversaw the commission of war crimes. The acts he allegedly committed include murder and maiming of civilians, sexual enslavement, torture, and the conscription of child soldiers.
It will be the first time that Liberian victims of the first civil war will get to tell their story in a criminal trial. The case is relevant for Liberia for two main reasons:
First, without accountability, there will be no progress in Liberia.
The country has struggled to rebuild its social fabric and institutions after the devastation brought upon it by war. Many former rebel commanders and alleged war criminals hold positions of power and influence, which hampers trust in the government—which was apparent during the recent Ebola crisis. Despite express recommendations by Liberia’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission in favor of setting up a special criminal tribunal to judge war-related atrocities, nobody has ever been held accountable for such crimes in Liberia. The Jungle Jabbah trial demonstrates that the question of accountability and access to justice for victims is one that will have to be addressed by the winner of the Liberian presidential elections. It has become impossible for Liberian politicians to sweep the question of justice under the rug because victims are beginning to claim their day in court.
As Liberia prepares for a (hopefully) peaceful and democratic handover of power, this case demonstrates a key issue: moving forward without accountability is not an option.
Second, victims cannot be silenced.
The Jungle Jabbah Trial is the first in a series of upcoming cases outside of Liberia that deal with the First Liberian Civil War. While Liberian politicians have failed to provide access to justice for victims of wartime atrocities in their home country, victims have quietly found other ways to make their voices heard. Supported by the Liberian human rights defenders of the Global Justice and Research Project and their Geneva-based sister organization Civitas Maxima, or directly in cooperation with investigative authorities, Liberian victims have pursued cases against alleged war criminals living outside of Liberia. The Jungle Jabbah case is only the first chapter in this Liberian quest for justice as other cases in Europe are expected to go to trial in the near future. Ideally, alleged Liberian war criminals should be tried on Liberian soil for crimes committed against their own people, and hopefully all these extraterritorial cases will eventually lead to fair trials for war crimes in Liberia.
We have been working with and for Liberian victims for many years. Their courage, endurance, determination, and thirst for justice is truly heroic and exemplary. Like the Liberian victims, other African people and victims all over the world must force their leaders to push for accountability. Otherwise, impunity for war crimes will certainly prevail.
Alain Werner is a lawyer and the Director of Civitas Maxima (Facebook, Twitter). He has worked for the Prosecutor’s Office of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), including on the trial of the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor. Mr. Werner has also represented victims in various other trials, including the case against former president of Chad, Hissène Habré. He currently represents Liberian plaintiffs in a war crimes case in Switzerland against Alieu Kosiah.