It is high time for Liberia to conduct its own war crimes trials

Prosecutions in Europe are important, but they are not nearly enough.

Trial of men accused of war crimes in Finland
A man suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity from 1999 during Liberia's civil war, hides his face at a custody hearing at the Pirkanmaa district court in Tampere, Finland, on March 12, 2020 [Lehtikuva/Mika Kanerva via Reuters]

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 relating to Liberia’s bloody civil wars. In June 2021, rebel commander Alieu Kosiah was convicted of similar charges in Switzerland. Another alleged fighter, Gibril Massaquoi, was tried in Finland but was eventually acquitted over insufficient evidence earlier this year.

Kamara and Kosiah’s convictions – and even Massaquoi’s prosecution – were small but much-welcome victories in the battle to deliver justice to millions of Liberians still carrying 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 relation to a brutal 12-year conflict that came to an end nearly two decades ago would not be worthy of much notice, let alone celebration. But the circumstances are not normal – these few European convictions and prosecutions are the only concrete steps towards holding Liberia’s war criminals accountable for the unimaginable pain they inflicted on civilians.

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

Over 10 years ago, in 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued recommendations that included the establishment of a special court for war crimes. However, despite many promises by governments, such a court never materialised.

Liberia is failing to prosecute its war criminals mainly 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 controlling large voting blocks, so no president seems too eager to greenlight a comprehensive prosecution effort.

Prince Johnson, a former warlord facing many credible accusations 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 to every post-war president in the country.

In 2020, Liberia’s senate proposed a Transitional Justice Commission (TJC) to be set up to deliver “restorative not retributive” justice to those affected by crimes committed during the civil war. However, even this restrained attempt went nowhere, leading many Liberians to seek justice outside the country’s borders.

Soon enough, foreign courts – especially those in Europe – came to be seen as the only forum where Liberian war criminals can be held to account.

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

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

First, Liberians have little access to trials in other countries. Most Liberians cannot travel internationally to follow a trial, and courts often do not bother to broadcast the proceedings online. This means people who can gain the most from these trials remain uninformed and cannot engage with the evidence being unearthed by the prosecution. Many of Liberia’s mainstream media organisations that are either owned or tacitly controlled by local political actors also mostly ignore these trials.

Second, nations around the world have little appetite for “universal jurisdiction” prosecutions like the ones that resulted in the convictions of Kamara and Kosiah. “Universal jurisdiction” is an international law principle that provides for a state’s jurisdiction over crimes against international law even when the crimes did not occur on that state’s territory, and neither the victim nor the perpetrator is a national of that state. Such prosecutions are not only time-consuming and costly, but can result in unwanted altercations between governments in cases where the prosecuted party enjoys state support.

This is why there have been only three such prosecutions relating to crimes committed over the course of Liberia’s conflict to date. The United States, for example, never greenlit any such trial and instead prosecuted Liberian war actors only for immigration fraud – arguing that they have concealed their involvement in the conflict in their visa applications. While these trials can also unearth crimes, they are in no way ideal for accountability.

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

In short, it is indeed worthy of celebration that some of those who committed heinous crimes against Liberians during the country’s civil wars are being put behind bars in Europe. These trials are not only giving victims hope, but also helping local justice organisations to continue pushing for more. Nevertheless, this is not nearly enough.

As the 20th anniversary of the conflict’s end fast approaches, it is high time for Liberia’s leaders to stop putting their political interests above the needs of the people, and start working towards establishing a mechanism that would lead to meaningful war crimes prosecutions at home.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.