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African Transitional Justice Research Network Workshop
“Advocating Justice: Civil Society and Transitional Justice in Africa”
30–31 August 2010, Johannesburg, South Africa
Liberia Case Study
The republic of Liberia declared its independence in 1847, which makes it the first independent
republic in Africa. The founding of the Liberian nation can be said to have evolved from the
convergence of interests between private American groups and enslaved blacks in America who
harbored the intention to return to Africa. The private American interest was embodied in the
formation of the American Colonization Society, which sought to remove freed black slaves from
America and resettled them in their ancestral homeland.1 Among freed and enslaved blacks in
America and the Caribbean arose a tendency suggesting that only in Africa could members of
the black race truly and ably enjoy their inalienable right to freedom, justice, equality, and the
vaunted pursuit of “happiness.”
The formation of the Liberian state appeared, at least in the minds of its founders, as an attempt
to be freed from the slave conditions imposed upon blacks in the Americas and, simultaneously,
to rid American society of freed black people, whose freedom could have precipitated a violent
slave rebellion in the United States. It is important to mention that the slave rebellion of Haiti,
which started in 1791, eventually ended slavery in that Caribbean country in 1803. The
American Colonization Society, which was formed in 1816, could not have ignored such a
significant world event, which made real the possibility of a slave rebellion in the United States.
Conceivably to undermine that prospect, it was in the interest of slave owners to rid America of
freed slaves in order to ensure the continued enslavement of blacks as well as to protect the
corporate interest of the southern states of the United States, where slavery was central to
economic development during this period.
For those persons who inhabited the part of the world that was to be called Liberia, the
introduction of freed slaves from the Americas on their soil posed a new dilemma, a new terrain
for conflict and struggle. As the settler colony consolidated its statehood, indigenous Liberians
were, for all intents and purposes, rendered second-class citizen in the land of their birth. At the
declaration of Liberia’s independence, more than 90 percent of the inhabitants within the
geopolitical landscape were not granted citizenship. According to the 1847 constitution of
Liberia, only citizens who owned land deeds had the right to vote. This condition resulted in the
marginalization and effective exclusion of the vast majority of the Liberian people from the
existing body politic, as the majority of the inhabitants practiced communal ownership of land.2
Political and Social Conditions
The most proximal cause for the civil war in Liberia can be traced to the military dictatorship that
ruled the country from 1980 to 1989. However, precursor elements for the cause of the civil war
were distinctly established during the formation of the Liberian state. The history of struggles
Independent researcher. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Elwood Dunn et al., Historical Dictionary of Liberia
2 See, Amos Sawyer, Evolution of Autocracy in Liberia
between the settlers and indigenous population contained ample documentation of violence
between and among the various tendencies that sought to establish their hegemony.
The civil war of Liberia, which started in 1989, ended in 2003 after the signing of a peace
agreement among the belligerent forces. The accord was witnessed by political parties and
international actors, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the
African Union (AU), the United Nations (UN), and the United States of America.
Liberia’s 15 years of gruesome civil war resulted in the death of almost a tenth of the country’s
population (about 250,000 people) and the displacement—internal and external—of more than
half. The country was destroyed, its citizens pauperized, and the economy ruined.
When the peace accord was signed, the UN committed itself to the deployment of international
peacekeepers. Prior to this, several attempts were made to end Liberia’s civil war by regional
actors, including ECOWAS and the AU. These efforts, which did not receive sufficient
international support, proved woefully inadequate.
Aside from the signing of the peace accord and the decision of the UN to deploy peacekeeping
troops, a major pivot in Liberia’s peace efforts was the resignation of Liberia’s President Charles
Taylor amid an indictment by the Special Court for Sierra Leone and his subsequent exile to
Nigeria. These developments, in tandem, set the basis for the building of durable peace in
At the social level, the people of Liberia were in dire straits. According to several reports, there
were at least a million Liberian refugees and one out of every five Liberians had been displaced
by the war, some of them not once or twice or thrice but about five different times.
Unemployment was more than 85 percent, with two-thirds of the population living on less than
US$1 per day and half of the population living on US$0.50 per day. Accordingly, half of the
country’s 3.4 million people were living in absolute and abject poverty. The country’s
infrastructure lay in ruins, characterized by a lack of safe drinking water, electricity, and access
to healthcare, education, and any means to become productive. The country was a huge
displacement camp, with every imaginable social index in steep decline.
Development of Advocacy Agenda and Strategy
The Liberia peace accord, referred to as the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), called for the
establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It appeared that the inclusion of
the TRC in the CPA was largely an endeavor by the belligerent actors to prevent any attempt at
ensuring that they would be held accountable for the egregious violations of human rights they
perpetrated during the war years. What is more, the proposal to include the TRC was also the
handiwork of international actors who were privy to the deliberation and acted as witnesses
during its conclusion. According to some participants at the peace talks, the initial process
included the establishment of a war crimes tribunal. However, this proposal was not made as a
matter of principle. Rather, the threat of a tribunal was used as a coercive tool to impress upon
the belligerent actors that if they did not sign the CPA, they would be prosecuted. The indictment
of President Charles Taylor was not far removed from the minds of the belligerent actors. The
compromise was to have a TRC. The decision to establish the TRC probably gave the warring
factions the succor that they would not be held accountable for gross human rights violations.
They were to be proven wrong.
In October 2003, the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), as envisaged by the
CPA, was inaugurated. Within a few months, the UN Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) deployed its
initial troops, replacing the Economic Commission of West Africa Monitoring Group (ECOMOG).
ECOMOG troops were integrated into the UNMIL peacekeeping mission.
The CPA stipulated that civil society elements were to be central to the process of selecting
commissioners for the TRC. However, it did not provide any guidelines as to the nature and
character of the composition of the TRC. The NTGL proceeded to constitute the TRC without
any guiding principle. It selected a number of civil society actors to propose commissioners.
From the list of about 30 names, nine commissioners were selected.
A civil society network, the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), which is composed of
more than 20 human rights, pro-democracy and peacebuilding organizations, protested the
selection process and call for the TRC’s disbandment.
Meanwhile, UNMIL’s Human Rights Section began to formulate a draft law to establish the TRC
with no consultation with civil society or with the NTGL. This process was also exposed and
condemned by TJWG.
Description of Lobbying Activities
As a result of TJWG’s efforts, the composition of the TRC was put in abeyance. The task of
drafting a TRC bill was handed to TJWG and the already named members of the TRC.
TJWG set out to draft a TRC bill that reflected the lived conditions of the Liberian people while at
the same time meeting international law standards and best practice. Accordingly, it took the
1) The first process in the drafting of the TRC bill was broad consultation led by civil society
organizations and in collaboration with UNMIL’s Human Rights Section and those named by the NTGL as members of the TRC. The consultation took place in six of Liberia’s 15 political sub-divisions and included about 600 persons, including victims, perpetrators, local leaders and church and civic leaders.
2) The findings of the consultative process were collated and analyzed, and the results were
canvassed among various civil society organizations, the media, the NTGL, and international and multilateral agencies and organizations for input and/or reaction.
3) A two-week drafting conference was held and prominent members of the NTGL, including
Chairman Gyude Bryant and Minister of Justice Kabineh Janneh, participated. Other participants included more than 75 civil society organizations from across the country, members of the National Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA) and relevant UN agencies, including the Human Rights and Gender Sections of UNMIL, as well as UNICEF and UNDP, which provided funding for the conference.
4) After more than a week of deliberations and reactions to the findings of the consultative
process, a committee of experts was established to draft the TRC bill. The committee was composed of leading Liberian jurists, including a former chief justice of Liberia and a former minister of justice under Charles Taylor, and members of the NTGL and the NTLA. It also included leading Liberian human rights lawyers, civil society organizations, the UNMIL Human Rights and Gender Sections, and UNDP and UNICEF.
5) Once the draft TRC bill was ready, another round of meetings and hearings was undertaken.
International experts, including the International Center for Transitional Justice and a former member of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Yasmin Sooka, were
invited to comment on the bill. Other international bodies contacted for comment included Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
6) A final draft TRC bill was formulated that reflected the varying points of view of those who
participated in the process, as well as of international experts and human rights organizations.
7) The proposed draft bill was presented to the government in September 2004. The NTGL
rejected some of its language, including that related to the reconstitution of the TRC, especially in relation to the inclusion of non-nationals. After prolonged, heated, and at times acrimonious discussion, the government finally agreed to the draft bill after language acceptable to the government was inserted in place of those sections the government found unacceptable. For example, the revised bill said that the TRC would include non-nationals but that they would have no voting rights. Once agreement was reached, the draft bill was submitted by the NTGL to the NTLA for passage into law.
8) The TJWG worked with members of the NTLA to ensure passage of the law. The NTLA
convened hearings, which were open to the public and broadcast live to all those who had access to a radio. Leading Liberian human rights lawyers and other jurists, as well as former members of the judiciary, were invited to testify. Others who testified were media practitioners and civil society leaders.
Members of the NTLA also objected to some of the bill’s provisions, specifically the timeline,
which mandated the TRC to investigate human rights violations committed from 1980 to 2003,
when the war ended. A compromise was proffered that stated Liberians may choose to testify on
events that occurred prior to 1980 by petitioning the TRC to do so. If the TRC rejected the
petition, the matter could be taken to the Supreme Court, which would render a final judgment.
Many members of the NTLA actively participated during these hearings, including individuals
who belonged to the various warring factions that were party to the CPA. Following a couple of
insubstantial amendments to the draft, the bill was passed into law by the NTLA in June 2005 by
a majority of one vote. A tie had occurred and the speaker of the NTLA had to cast the decisive
Challenges, Obstacles, and Shortcomings
The infrastructural conditions in the country, including impassable roads and the poor state of
the media, hampered the consultative process on the TRC. Also, a lack of security around the
country during this period meant that the parts of the country where UNMIL peacekeepers were
not deployed did not participate in the consultative process. Print media was confined to
Monrovia only and no radio stations had a national reach.
International actors were keen on dominating the process but were thwarted at every shift and
turn by a vocal and passionate civil society choir. There were attempts to undermine the
consultative process by withholding funding or delaying the payment of funding that was agreed
upon. No doubt inadequate funding was also a major problem.
Civil society itself was not entirely prepared for the task at hand, except for a handful of
organizations, which took a leadership role and made the sacrifices necessary to ensure not
only that a good TRC Act was passed but also that a cross-section of the Liberian public was
3 For more details, see, Ezekiel Pajibo, “Civil Society and Transitional Justice in Liberia: A Practitioner’s Reflection from the Field,” International Journal of Transitional Justice
1 (2007), pp. 287-296.
enabled to participate in the process. The TRC Act was perhaps the most canvassed and
participatory bill passed by the NTLA.
The NTGL was not pleased about the manner and form in which the process unfolded, as it did
not take the lead but had to concede to the persistence and audacity of the civil society
organizations that spearheaded the process.
Effects of Institutional Development
There is perhaps no evidence that any institutional development occurred as a result of civil
society participation in the process leading to the establishment of the Liberian TRC or during
and after the TRC’s work.
In fact, some evidence suggests that certain leading civil society organizations may have
collapsed as a result of lack of funding and/or competition for funding from international
organization, which may have benefitted from their size and location.
The post-war conditions in Liberia severely limited the ability and capacity of civil society
organizations. One way to capture the state of civil society organizations in the country is to
borrow the idiom that goes: when the expert/competent/passionate is not available, the available
Liberian civil society organizations have been prevented from operating competently and
capably by the numerous international organizations in the country that claim to be involved in
reconstruction activities, including issues surrounding transitional justice, human rights, relief,
and development. This is not unlike any post-conflict society; after all, as they say in Liberia, the
“big fish eat the small fish” within the food chain. Conclusion
Liberian civil society actors actively participated in the establishment of the Liberian TRC by
leading efforts to draft the TRC bill and robustly engaging in the process that resulted in the
passage of the TRC Act in June 2005. The process, though limited, ensured the broadest
possible participation by Liberians. The TRC Act is reflective of the country’s war conditions but
it also meets international standards.
Institutional development for Liberian civil society is limited given the current conditions in the
country, specifically those related to funding and capacity issues. The question is not about a
lack of competent individuals to run successful civil society organizations but about a lack of
commitment in terms of funding from international donors, especially for those who insist that
Liberia’s reconstruction efforts must be led by Liberians, lip service from international actors
Liberia Constitution of 1847
Liberia Constitution of 1985
Comprehensive Peace Agreement of Liberia (August 2003)
The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Act (June 2005)
Historical Dictionary of Liberia (Elwood Dunn et al.)
The Evolution of Autocracy in Liberia (Amos Sawyer)
Ending the Culture of Impunity (Aaron Weah et al.) Civil Society and Transitional Justice in Liberia: A Practitioner’s Reflection from the Field (Ezekiel Pajibo for IJTJ) Traditional Justice Mechanism in Liberia (Ezekiel Pajibo for IDEA, Stockholm)
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