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Human Rights Watch Supports a War Crimes Tribunal in Liberia

  • James Butty

Senior counsel Elise Keppler says the countless victims of Liberia's civil war deserve justice

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said it supports the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) recommendation to prosecute those who committed the most heinous crimes during the country’s brutal civil war.

In a briefing paper released Thursday, the group called on Liberia’s international partners to support efforts to ensure accountability in Liberia.

Elise Keppler, senior counsel for the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch said the countless victims of Liberia’s civil war deserve justice.

“Human Rights Watch believes it is essential that serious past crimes committed in Liberia be tried…horrific abuses were committed. The TRC has documented or brought together a discussion of those abuses. And the TRC report moreover recommends that there be a tribunal to address those crimes,” she said.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor

In its final report, the TRC said all warring factions were implicated in serious abuses against civilians.

The TRC recommends the setting up of a hybrid international tribunal to try the perpetrators of serious crimes, including economic crimes.

Keppler said the tribunal would be somewhat similar to the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.

“Their proposal provides that the tribunal will function with both internationally appointed and Liberian-appointed judges. And the tribunal would function in some ways similar to the Special Court of Sierra Leone,” Keppler said.

Five months after releasing the unedited version of its final report, the TRC this week released its consolidated final report.

TRC sources said the Liberian government had yet to make available about $500,000 the commission had requested to pay its staff and finalize its work.

Keppler said her organization strongly believes Liberia’s international partners should the setting up of a tribunal to ensure accountability.

“From Human Rights Watch’s perspective, it’s essential that key international partners, including the United Nations, the United States, the European Union step forward to support Liberia’s efforts to bring justice to past crimes and work with the Liberian government to move ahead to see prosecution,” Keppler said.

She said Human Rights Watch’s support for the setting up of a war crimes tribunal does not mean that the group endorses all the recommendations in the TRC final report.

“Human Rights Watch doesn’t take a position on the TRC report overall. We really singled out this aspect of accountability as it’s an issue we felt very strongly needs to be taken forward,” she said.

Among the commission’s many recommendations, it said that nearly 40 individuals who cooperated with the TRC should not be prosecuted.

Keppler said that aspect of the TRC recommendations is inconsistent with international law which stipulates that violators of serious crimes against humanity should benefit from an amnesty.

“When it comes to the worst abuses there can be no amnesty, and it’s absolutely essential that cooperation with the TRC not be used as a basis to exempt anyone from investigation and prosecution if appropriate,” Keppler said.

Although the TRC’s final report leaves open the possibility of the death penalty in the case of conviction of certain crimes, Keppler said the death penalty is not consistent with international law and her organization does not support the death penalty because it is cruel and inhumane punishment.

The Liberian legislature is expected to take up the TRC recommendations early next year.

Keppler said Human Rights Watch is urging the legislature to support prosecution for serious crimes during Liberia's civil war