/ 24 June 2022

If the state won’t deal with civil war criminals, then civil society will

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Atrocities: A Liberian militia commander (above) loyal to the government celebrates after firing at rebel forces in 2003. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

During the first Liberian civil war in the 1990s, Alieu Kosiah served as a commander of the rebel group United Liberation Movement of Liberia.

After the war, Kosiah and other commanders like him were spared reprisal by the state, despite calls for prosecution by victims and human rights organisations.

It wasn’t until 2014, 19 years after the first civil war and his relocation to Switzerland, that authorities in that country arrested Kosiah for his alleged involvement in mass killings in parts of Liberia’s Lofa County from 1993 to 1995.

Several survivors, represented by Alain Werner, the director of the Swiss NGO Civitas Maxima, filed criminal complaints against Kosiah. They accused him of ordering civilian massacres, rapes, and other atrocities.

In prosecuting Kosiah, a Liberia-based organisation, the Global Justice and Research Project, working with Civitas Maxima, provided the prosecution with witnesses and documentation. This resulted in a 20-year jail term for Kosiah.

According to the United Nations, war crimes consist of two primary elements: a violation that took place during an armed conflict, and “intent and knowledge” of the act and conflict.

While establishing that a violation took place isn’t always hard, investigating and prosecuting it can take years, and it’s notoriously hard to prove. 

Atrocities during war time are not properly documented, thus there is little or no documentary evidence to prosecute individuals for these crimes in Liberia. Often the only record of war crimes is oral evidence, so prosecutors have to rely heavily on witness statements.

Founded in 2012 by Hassan Bility, the Global Justice and Research Project is a non-governmental organisation that advocates and facilitates justice for crimes committed during the Liberian civil wars.

Bility says the government’s refusal to prosecute war criminals inspired the project. 

“I believe that justice should not be delayed until all the accused perpetrators die. As a country that went through a devastating civil war, we need to create some deterrent mechanism, otherwise, there’s a huge chance that we will return to war at some point soon.”

Justice, at home and away

The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2005, recommended a number of reconciliatory measures. These included the prosecution for war crimes and a 30-year ban from public office for a list of individuals, including then president Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf. None of this came to pass.

As a result, known actors in the Liberian war enjoy freedom and power built on their political positions. 

Alieu Kosiah was convicted for war crimes in Liberia.

Former leaders of warring factions like Prince Johnson and George Boley occupy positions in the legislature. Both are political allies of the president. Despite efforts by the justice research project and other rights organisations, Liberia has refused to establish a war crimes court.

In Finland, information submitted by the project to Finnish authorities led to the arrest and trial of Gibril Massaquoi.

Massaquoi, who is a former commander of the Revolutionary United Front – a Sierra Leonean rebel group – was accused of committing mass atrocities in Liberia, as civil wars in both countries were intertwined. A portion of Massaquoi’s trial was held in Liberia last year, making it the first time a court prosecuting war crimes was held on Liberian soil.

While both the Massaquoi and Kosiah trials were held under universal jurisdiction, there are many countries that cannot or do not prosecute war criminals for crimes committed in another country.

With the help of the justice research project, the US has prosecuted Mohammed Jabbateh, Thomas Woewiyu, and more recently, indicted Sekou Camara for omitting their roles in the Liberian civil wars while applying to migrate to America.

Jabbateh was sentenced to 30 years in prison. This sentence is also one of the longest sentences for immigration fraud in US history. Woewiyu died before his sentencing.

Despite threats of violence, Bility remains undeterred, and says the justice research project’s work will continue.