Monday, January 14, 2008

How to prosecute the past in Liberia and Sierra Leone

IRIN recently published a short series on Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has entered its final stage of public hearings that will run until July. The two-year lifespan of the commission will help the country sort out the individuals and institutions responsible for human rights violations and war crimes that took place during nearly thirty years of instability and civil war, beginning with Samuel Doe’s power-seizing coup d’etat in 1979 and ending with the cessation of hostilities in 2003.

IRIN’s update comes in the wake of stories regarding the resumption of former Liberian president Charles Taylor’s trial is purely coincidental, but telling, for it illustrates the difference between the two methods in dealing with the past. Truth commissions concern themselves with resolution and forgiveness while tribunals pertain mostly to prosecution and punishment.

The tribunal at the Hague is focused in the actions of Charles Taylor during Sierra Leone’s civil war, and truth and reconciliation commissions are interested primarily in giving voice to victims and uncovering facts. As the journalist Richard Carver points out the search for knowledge is the most important aspect of these commissions because a human rights violation by its very nature is an attempt by someone in power to conceal that any wrongdoing had taken place. Once these dark crimes are brought to light, a certain cataloging of facts can be undertaken for the benefit of society.

Carver stops short of claiming that these facts are the same as proscribing the truth. In a country recovering from civil war like Liberia, a single version of the truth remains awkward and nearly impossible to create. For example, perhaps certain militias in Liberia felt they had to commit human rights violations to better “secure” populations or to keep themselves safe. (Think of the debate in the U.S. that claims torture – definite a human rights violation – is permissible under certain conditions.)

In countries like Liberia, the commission’s public hearings are important because many of the victims were not combatants, but civilians unwillingly drawn into the fighting. The expectations of these innocent bystanders, however, create many problems associated with different Truth and Reconciliation commissions around the world. Victims obviously want to bring their culprits to justice, which is usually outside the jurisdiction of these commissions. In Liberia, which does not have an amnesty law for former combatants, the commission could propose to prosecute certain individuals, IRIN says. But that won’t come until sometime down the road.

It’s a point of contention for some of the people IRIN spoke to.

“It is difficult for me to accept an apology from someone who brutally killed five of my family members – my mother, father and three sisters - before my very eyes in 1991. I want this person who committed the acts to be put on trial for atrocities because of the trauma he has caused in my life.

“The rebel fighter who did the killings still moves freely in Monrovia as if he has not committed any atrocity. I do not believe the TRC public hearing of my testimony will solve the pain and trauma I have been going through.”

- Abu Dorley, victim

A different form of forgiveness
In a piece written by a member of the selection committee for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, these hearings where victims are taught to speak out somehow reach beyond the limit of secular law, moving the country into a spiritual realm of forgiveness. (One other difference between the two forms of justice is that truth and reconciliations search out the victims and hold hearings on their territory; alleged criminals must go to court.)

Once the victims’ suffering has been aired and acknowledged, argues Peter Storey, a national grieving process can begin, allowing the country to move on. In a hearing atmosphere committee members can be more humane and spiritual (like Bishop Desmond Tutu, who ran South Africa’s commission), and do not have to act so emotionally detached and objective like jurists. (He tells stories of Tutu weeping at the plight of a victim or him leading the audience in hymn when a victim had problems recounting a story of abuse while on the stand.)

However, this drive for forgiveness in South Africa brought the commission criticism. Some victims felt their right for abusers to be punished was disregarded by the overriding desire of a government to “move on” and forgive. The family of Steven Biko, the slain antiapartheid activist who was tortured during questioning by police and refused medical care, filed suit questioning the constitutionality of South Africa’s TRC because it deprived them of their right to justice.

In South Africa, perpetrators were given amnesty to admit their past crimes. Storey argues that this in itself is a form of punishment, a sort of public shaming. The limited scope of truth and reconciliation commissions often balances the need for a weak government to attempt to make peace by bringing former enemies together. This is true in Liberia as well as it was for South Africa. At some point, you must draw a line under the past, as Robert Mugabe said to his former tormentors who ran Rhodesia.

So far, according to IRIN, nearly 24,000 written testimonies have been collected from both victims and perpetrators. Once the public testimony phase has been completed in July, the committee will prepare a report with recommendations to help move the country past its chaotic and turbulent history.

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