© Photo by Visual Communications, Syracuse University via Flickr
The Liberian Civil Wars (1989-2003) were one of Africa’s bloodiest and most brutal civil conflicts in the post-independence era, claiming the lives of more than 250,000 Liberians, leaving thousands injured and displacing over half the country’s population. Almost twenty years after the end of a conflict mainly financed through the exploitation of natural resources, including timber and diamonds, not a single person has ever been tried for war crimes in the national courts. Thus, universal jurisdiction, although narrow, has become the primary route to justice.
The Liberian Modern State
The State of Liberia was established on land acquired for freeborn Blacks and former slaves by the American Colonization Society (ACS) that founded Liberia as a colony of the United States of America (US) in 1822. The purpose of the ACS was to resettle African-Americans in Africa as an alternative to emancipation in the US (and thus, remove “free blacks that posed a threat to slavery”). Although founded by freed American ex-slaves, the slaves’ descendants comprise around 5-10% of Liberia’s current population, which includes 16 indigenous ethnic groups and various foreign minorities.
In 1824, the territory was officially named Liberia, which means “land of freedom”, and in 1847, Liberia became the first African republic to proclaim its independence being Africa’s oldest modern State. Despite this, those who inhabit it have unceasingly struggled to find durable peace or have their rights recognised and protected.
Liberia in the Spotlight for Widespread Human Rights Violations
Far from being known as Africa’s oldest republic, Liberia received worldwide attention in the early 1990s for its intermittent, ruinous and brutal civil wars, which lasted from 1989 to 2003. These wars resulted in the deaths of 250,000people (12% of its population at the time) as well as the displacement of over half the country’s inhabitants, with a majority injured and maimed.
The outbreak of war finds its root causes in a Liberia submerged in ethnic divisions, predatory elites abusing power, a deeply corrupt political system, an underdevelopment that plagued the country from its independence in 1847, and huge economic disparities.
Despite widespread violations of the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law, such as, mass killings, killings of civilians, sexual violence, summary executions, internal and external displacement, looting, pillaging and banditry, forced recruitment, use of child combatants, torture, ill-treatment and mutilations suffered by the Liberian population, to date, not a single perpetrator has been prosecuted in the country.
Liberian Civil Wars
First Civil War (1989-1996)
Liberia’s first armed conflict began in 1989, when rebel leader Charles Taylor with the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) launched a rebellion to unseat then President Samuel K. Doe, who was killed in 1990. The conflict lasted until 1996 and ended with an internationally brokered peace accord that included a general amnesty to all faction fighters. The peace accords were implemented in an incomplete manner resulting in Taylor winning the 1997 elections and becoming president amidst an atmosphere of general corruption, threats and intimidation.
As president, Charles Taylor enrolled thousands of fighters from his former faction in the country’s defence sector (including both police and army services), which resulted in continued human rights abuses and, ultimately, a return to civil war only a few years later.
Second Civil War (1999-2003)
In the second armed conflict, which took place from 1999 to 2003, two rebels groups – the Guinea-backed Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Ivorian-backed Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) – launched their own strategies to unseat President Taylor.
In August 2003, as the rebels threatened to take over Monrovia, Taylor was granted political asylum in Nigeria on the condition that he would not meddle in the political affairs of West Africa, in particular, in Liberia. A few weeks later, Liberia’s warring factions signed an internationally brokered peace agreement in Accra installing an interim government that was dominated by the country’s former armed factions which was tasked with guiding Liberia towards new elections.
Liberia’s devastating civil wars demonstrated an unprecedented level of violence with crimes being committed by members of all the parties to the conflict, including more than 20 rebel factions, making it essential for a neutral international force to intervene. In September 2003, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was established as a peacekeeping mission. Its mandate was to monitor the ceasefire agreement following the resignation of President Taylor and the conclusion of the second Liberian civil war.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Failed Creation of an Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia
Liberia’s peace agreement in Accra called for the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as part of the ambitious plan to end 14 years of civil war. This Commission was established in order to “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation”. The TRC operated between 2006 and 2009, and amongst other guidance, recommended creating a war crimes court – the Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia – to try those most responsible for grave crimes committed in the territory of Liberia during the period of the two successive civil wars. Nevertheless, 20 years after the end of the conflict, the creation of a war crimes tribunal is still far from certain.
The unsatisfactory implementation of the TRC’s advised measures is often attributed to the fact that Liberia has not experienced the necessary political debarment of individuals related to the conflict: some of them still hold high government positions. A scandalous example being Senator Prince Y. Johnston who is the current Senator for Nimba County. Senator Johnston holds this position despite having captured, tortured and executed President Samuel Doe in 1990. Former President Doe had also overthrown and murdered the previous president William R. Tolbert Jr. These acts are illustrative of the endemic pattern of impunity, which results in a dead end for the yearned Tribunal.
Accountability Gaps at the Domestic and International Level
Liberian National Courts
Criminal accountability should be pursued as close as possible to where the crimes were committed. Not only for investigative and evidentiary purposes but also to ensure that the impact of such accountability is felt within the communities most affected by the crimes. Despite the fact that the Liberian judiciary bears the primary responsibility to fill the massive accountability gap for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the country’s civil wars, domestic prosecutions have not taken place due to lack of political will as well as capacity after the ruinous wars.
International Criminal Court
The International Criminal Court (ICC) commenced its operations in 2002 after entry into force of the Rome Statute. Therefore, it does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed during Liberia’s first civil war spanning from 1989 to 1996. Taking into account the temporal scope of the ICC’s jurisdiction and the timeframe of the second civil war (i.e., 1999-2003), in theory, the crimes committed during the last year could potentially be prosecuted. However, there is another obstacle which prevents from this occurring in practice, namely, the fact that Liberia only ratified the Rome Statute in 2004, thus, leaving the court without any jurisdictional power over its civil wars.
Special Court for Sierra Leone
The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL or ‘Sierra Leone Tribunal’), was a judicial body established in 2002 by the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations (UN) to prosecute persons bearing the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed since 30 November 1996 and until the end of the Sierra Leone civil war (i.e., 1991-2002). In 2012, former Liberian President Charles Taylor became the first African head of state to be convicted for his part in war crimes. Inexplicably, President Taylor was sentenced for crimes committed in the territory of Sierra Leone but he has never been tried for a single act committed in Liberia, where he borne the highest responsibility.
Universal Jurisdiction As A Remedy Against Impunity
In light of the absence of a truly universal framework for mutual legal assistance which would entail government-to-government cooperation in criminal investigations and prosecutions; the lack of temporal jurisdiction of the ICC; the inaction of Liberian judiciary; and the inexistence of the Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia, universal jurisdiction, although narrow, has become the only avenue for pursuing accountability for atrocities committed during the war.
Universal jurisdiction provides an opportunity to close the existing impunity gap, especially in situations where alleged perpetrators have evaded those States that have territorial or personal jurisdiction. The rationale behind the principle is that the gravest crimes under international law must not remain unpunished, whoever and wherever the perpetrators may be.
National courts can exercise universal jurisdiction in situations where the State has adopted legislation recognising the relevant crimes and authorising their prosecution. Hence, the definition and exercise of universal jurisdiction varies around the world. A national or international court’s authority to prosecute individuals for international crimes committed in other territories depends on both the domestic legal framework and the facts of each case.
Denying Safe Haven to Fugitive War Criminals; Case Studies
Cases involving prosecutions for civil war era crimes have all taken place outside Liberia, with matters being brought before courts in Europe and the US. In these situations, authorities have been able to initiate cases pursuant to the principle of universal jurisdiction as well as under immigration offences in relation to core international crimes. Additionally, a few of the key actors from the Liberian wars have been prosecuted by the UN-backed SCSL for acts committed in the neighbouring country of Sierra Leone.
Most Relevant Cases:
Charles Ghankay Taylor
Charles McArther Emmanuel
Jucontee Thomas Smith Woewiyu
Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL)
Charles Ghankay Taylor
The former president of Liberia was tried and convicted in 2012 by the SCSL on 11 charges arising from crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Sierra Leone from 1996 to 2002. The presiding judges held that Taylor was guilty of aiding and abetting the Revolutionary United Front(RUF) in all 11 charges as well as being guilty of planning attacks on various towns. Consequently, he was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment and is currently serving his sentence in a British prison, as provided for in a previous agreement between the United Kingdom and the SCSL.
Status: convicted and sentenced
Ms Johnson is a former front-line commander of the NPFL. She was allegedly instrumental in the planning and execution of “Operation Octopus” during the first Liberian war, in 1992, which entailed a four-month attack against Monrovia resulting in thousands of killings and hundreds of thousands being displaced. She has resided in Belgium since 2003. In 2012, lawyer Luc Walleyn, in conjunction with NGO Civitas Maxima, filed a complaint against the former rebelcommander before the Belgian Public Prosecutor’s Office on behalf of three Liberian victims under the principle of universal jurisdiction. For this reason, Belgian police arrested Martina Johnson in Ghent in 2014. Johnson was put under house arrest whilst awaiting her court date. Ten years have passed since the initial complaint and there is still no trial in sight. Neither the investigative judge assigned to the case nor the prosecutor who opened investigations have been to Liberia to investigate.
Status: conditional release
Mr Desaedeleer, a Belgian and American citizen, was alleged to have participated along with the former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, and the RUF, in enslavement as a crime against humanity and in the looting of “blood diamonds”as a war crime in Eastern Sierra Leone, between 1999 and 2001. In 2015, following the issue of an European arrest warrant by Belgian authorities, Desaedeleer was arrested in Spain and transferred to Belgium, where he was indicted on counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Nevertheless, in 2016, he died in custody in Belgium before justice was served.
Status: deceased (died in custody whilst awaiting trial)
Gibril Ealoghima Massaquoi joined the RUF during the Sierra Leonean Civil War, the RUF also fought in neighbouring Liberia from 1999 to 2003. The RUF initially coalesced as a group of Sierra Leoneans that led elements of the NPFL across the border in an attempt to replicate Charles Taylor’s earlier success in toppling the Liberian government. In 2000, the UN accused Liberian President Charles Taylor of supporting the RUF insurgency in Sierra Leone with weapons and training in exchange for diamonds. Mr Massaquoi became the spokesman for the group, which was notorious for atrocities such as hacking off the limbs of civilians, slitting the wombs of pregnant women, as well as abduction of children (forced to serve as soldiers or as prostitutes), murder and rape.
In 2008, three years after testifying in open session before the SCSL, he was relocated to Finland as part of a witness protection program, which provided immunity for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, but not Liberia. In 2020, twelve years after residing in Finland, Mr Massaquoi was arrested for allegedly having been involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Liberia between 1999 and 2003.
The Finnish court decamped to Monrovia in order to hear local testimony, this was the first prosecution regarding Liberia’s civil war to be held, partially, in the country. Nevertheless, in May 2022, the Finnish court acquitted the former rebel as the prosecution had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Massaquoi committed the crimes of rape, ritual murder, torture and recruitment of child soldiers during the war.
Kunti K is a former Liberian commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) who became a Dutch citizen by naturalisation. In 2018, he was arrested on suspicion of heinous crimes allegedly committed during the first Liberian civil war (1989-1996). The investigating chamber of the Paris Court of Appeals confirmed the referral of Kunti K to French jurisdiction. In 2019, French authorities, alongside Liberian authorities, travelled to Lofa County for a fact-finding mission. This was the first time since the end of the second civil war that Liberian authorities, together with foreign authorities, undertook crime-scene reconstructions related to war-time crimes. In November 2020, the indictment was amended to include crimes against humanity in addition to war crimes. The trial is expected to begin on October 10, 2022 in Paris.
Status: in custody awaiting trial
Mr Kouwenhoven is a Dutch businessman who was the Director of Operations of the Oriental Timber Company (OTC) and of the Royal Timber Company (RTC) in Liberia, where he managed the biggest timber operations in Liberia. He was close to former President Charles Taylor and facilitated the import of arms to him. Guus Kouwenhoven was arrested in the Netherlands in 2005, accused of having delivered arms to Liberia and of being implicated in war crimes.
After appeals by both parties, in 2008, the Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and acquitted him of all charges, again due to insufficient evidence. Dutch prosecutors appealed the judgment and in 2010, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands overturned the decision of the Court of Appeals. In doing so, the Supreme Court held that the lower judges had erred when they rejected a prosecution request to hear the testimonies of two new witnesses. In light of this, the Court ordered a new trial. In December 2016, Guus Kouwenhoven fled to South Africa.
The new trial began in 2017 before the Court of Appeals in Den Bosch, the Netherlands. In April 2017, Kouwenhoven was sentenced in absentia by the Den Bosch Court of Appeals to 19 years imprisonment for his complicity in war crimes and his involvement in arms trafficking for Charles Taylor. In December 2017, he was arrested in South Africa after the Dutch authorities issued an arrest warrant requesting his extradition. A year later, in December 2018, the Dutch Supreme Court upheld the conviction for aiding and abetting war crimes with the judgment being final. Kouwenhoven appealed his conviction to the European Court of Human Rights.
In 2019, Guus Van Kouwenhoven challenged the legality of the warrant of arrest issued by the Court in Pretoria in South Africa. Nevertheless, the Court confirmed that the warrant and the proceedings were lawful. On 22 September 2021, the South African Supreme Court found that Kouwenhoven could be extradited, overturning the initial denial issued by the Magistrate’s Court in Cape Town.
Status: convicted in absentia, pending extradition
Alieu Kosiah is a former commander of the ULIMO faction, which participated in the First Liberian Civil War (1989-1996) and fought against the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by Charles G. Taylor. After the war, Kosiah moved to Switzerland, where he obtained permanent residence. In 2011, a Swiss law which allows prosecution for serious crimes committed anywhere in accordance with the principle of universal jurisdiction was introduced and so in 2014, authorities arrested Mr. Kosiah in connection with accusations that he was involved in mass killings and other atrocities in Lofa County, Liberia from 1993 to 1995. Several Liberian victims, represented by Alain Werner, Director of the Swiss NGO Civitas Maxima, filed criminal complaints against him. In 2021, Mr. Kosiah, who faced 25 charges, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, which is the maximum, allowed under Swiss law, for rape, killings and an act of cannibalism. His over 6 years of pre-trial detention will be deducted and he was also ordered to pay over 50,000 CHF to the seven plaintiffs who testified against him.
Status: convicted and sentenced
Agnes Reeves Taylor, ex-wife of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, was arrested in London in 2017, where she was residing at the time, and charged with torture on the grounds of her suspected involvement with the NPFL during the first Liberian civil war. She was held in pre-trial detention in the UK from the time she had been arrested until her release in 2019. Ms Taylor was released due to the dismissal of the charges. According to British law, in order for a member of a non-State armed group to be prosecuted for torture, the group must have been exercising “governmental functions”. The Central Criminal Court ruled that the evidence presented by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) failed to prove that the NPFL had the requisite authority over the relevant territory at the time the crimes were committed. However, in its decision, the Court noted that Ms Taylor did hold a high rank in the NPFL; thus, Ms Taylor was not found innocent. British law permits the CPS to return to court in the event that further evidence of government-like control is gathered.
Status: case dismissed
United States of America
Charles McArther Emmanuel
Charles McArther Emmanuel, (or, Chuckie Taylor Jr), son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor was born in Boston (US). He became the commander of the infamously violent Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU), which was a paramilitary, anti-terrorism security unit that became known as the “Demon Forces” (which served Charles Taylor). Between 1999 and 2002, Emmanuel committed several acts of murder and torture including beating, burning, jabbing, mutilation and forcing people to rape each other as he watched.
In 2006, Chuckie Taylor was arrested in Florida for attempting to enter the US under a falsified passport. After being detained for some months, criminal charges were filed against him for torture and conspiracy to commit torture. Emmanuel’s trial was the first case in which a US citizen was prosecuted under a 1994 law prohibiting American citizens from participating in torture outside the US. He is currently serving a 97-year sentence in a high security federal prison in Virginia.
Status: convicted and sentenced
In 2017, Liberian citizen and American resident Mr Mohammed Jabbateh aka “Jungle Jabbah” was arrested in Pennsylvania, and charged with two counts of fraud in relation to immigration documents and two counts of perjury for having lied to authorities about his war time activities. He was a ULIMO commander and alleged war criminal responsible for commanding mass atrocities including murder, cannibalism and conscription of child soldiers. In 2018, Jabbateh was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, the maximum possible sentence for his charges; this became one of the longest sentences ever seen in the US for immigration fraud. Additionally, this was the first ever trial against a ULIMO commander and the first time that victims testified in a criminal trial about crimes committed during the first Liberian civil war.
Status: convicted and sentenced
Laye Sekou Kamara, also known as “General Dragon Master”, was arrested in late March 2022, by federal authorities in Pennsylvania, USA. He was charged with using fraudulently obtained immigration documents. While applying for a non-immigrant visa in 2011, Kamara allegedly claimed he had “never been a member of or involved with a paramilitary unit, vigilante group, rebel group, guerrilla or insurgent organization.” However, according to the Department of Homeland Security, Kamara was a leading member of the rebel group LURD, which has been accused of committing atrocities in Liberia during the second civil war. The complaint issued by US authorities demonstrates, through the use of media articles and documentaries, how Mr. Kamara seemingly had links with LURD. In April 2022, Mr. Kamara was released on bail subject to home monitoring, with the exception of court, medical and employment-related visits. Kamara is currently awaiting trial.
Status: awaiting trial, released on bail
Colonel Thomas served as commander of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SATU), an elite force established as a personal guard to then-President Samuel Doe. In 1990, SATU perpetrated an attack against unarmed civilians sheltering in a Church in Monrovia, killing 600 people. Four survivors of the massacre sued Thomas in 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He had been residing in Pennsylvania since 2000 after having gained admittance by posing as an escapee of the atrocities he was later accused of committing. In September 2021, the Pennsylvania court found Colonel Thomas responsible in absentia for the massacre; nevertheless, he is not serving the sentence as he returned to Liberia at some point in early 2020 where he has managed to evade justice.
Status: at large, convicted in absentia
Jucontee Thomas Smith Woewiyu
Mr Woewiyu served as Defence Minister and Spokesman for the NPFL, a, rebel group deemed responsible for over 60,000 violations during Liberia’s first civil war. Since 1972, he had held the status of permanent resident in the US. Upon his return to the US in May 2014, he was charged with fraud and perjury related to his failure to disclose to US immigration authorities his involvement in alleged wartime crimes. Woewiyu was charged with two counts of fraudulently attempting to obtain citizenship; four counts of fraud in immigration documents; three counts of false statements in relation to naturalization; and seven counts of perjury. After three weeks of trial, a jury found him guilty of 11 out of 16 counts. He faced up to 110 years imprisonment but ultimately died while awaiting sentencing in 2020.
Status: died in custody awaiting sentencing
Despite the overwhelming call from Liberian citizens to hold the conflict’s key perpetrators accountable when the war ended, twenty years later, Liberia is still waiting for justice. Corruption and nepotism plaguing key governmental institutions in Liberia, a quarter of a million casualties and the entire population having been directly affected by the successive conflicts, have not been seen by the elites in power as major reasons to establish accountability mechanisms.
The consequences of the failure to end impunity have gone far beyond the mere absence of justice for the victims of atrocities and the denial of closure; it has also created a continued mistrust of Liberian institutions, undermined capacity building and hindered the development of human rights standards, all of which continue to directly affect Liberia’s ability to achieve long-term stability and peace. Faced with such a situation, it is clear that despite having its limitations, universal jurisdiction remains the closest avenue for accountability and the delivery of justice for victims of mass atrocities that have nowhere else to turn.
Carlota Maldonado Montserrat is a project coordinator at Platform for Peace and Humanity and a certified lawyer in Spain where she currently works as a criminal and litigation lawyer. She holds a Dual Master’s Degree in International Law and Legal Practice. Her professional experience has developed in several international tribunals such as the International Criminal Court, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and the Kosovo Specialist Chambers. She had previously clerked at the Permanent Mission of Spain to the United Nations in New York and at the Criminal Law Division of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Her research is mostly oriented towards universal jurisdiction, the rule of law and international crimes.