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West African Round-Up: The pitted road to justice

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West African Round-Up: The pitted road to justice

In his monthly round-up of trends in West Africa, Desmond Davies focuses on the still unresolved issues of crimes against humanity in Liberia and The Gambia.

Liberia: Tough questions on prosecuting war crimes

In 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended the establishment of an Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia (ECCL), “an internationalised domestic criminal court”, to try those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law during the country’s two armed conflicts between 1989 and 2003.

Nine years on, no such court has been established. Under the watch of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf no attempt was made to set up the ECCL. Now that she is no longer in power, Johnson Sirleaf said recently: “There is no way that we can overlook peoples’ quest for justice. It is a legitimate quest.”   

Although she won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Liberians were disappointed that she did not abide by the TRC’s recommendations to come up with the necessary legislation to set up the ECCL. Instead, the few cases that have involved those accused of war crimes have been heard in Europe and the US. 

For example, former President Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison by the Special Court for Sierra Leone sitting in The Hague for crimes that were committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone – not in Liberia.  

George Weah under pressure

Now pressure is mounting on President George Weah’s administration to try those accused of war crimes in Liberia. For two days in Geneva recently, the government came under pressure at the 123rd session of the UN Human Rights Commission, because no one has been prosecuted for crimes committed during the civil wars that were characterised by widespread human rights abuses.

The Commission, which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its member states, examined Liberia’s commitment to these principles and asked tough questions about how things would be moved forward. But the Liberian government delegation failed to give an undertaking that a war crimes court would be established, declaring that the new administration was focusing on reconciliation.

Before the session in Geneva, 76 Liberian, African and other international non-governmental organisations made a submission to the Commission to address “the failure of the government of Liberia to undertake fair and credible persecutions [for] international crimes committed in Liberia during armed conflicts between 1989 and 2003, and to end impunity for civil war-era crimes”.  

Marches were held recently in Monrovia in support of a war crimes court. A woman who lost her husband during the conflict, Suzana Vaye, said in Monrovia: “The TRC is not enough. I want the war crimes court to be established here to hold perpetrators who inflicted pain on us accountable for what they did.”  

The submission by the activists to the Human Rights Commission noted: “Liberia has assumed obligations to prosecute serious crimes and implement the right to a remedy for victims of such crimes through ratification and accession to multiple to multiple international instruments.” The ball is now in Weah’s court.

The Gambia: Gambians go for reparations

While Liberians are dragging their feet over dealing with atrocities in their country, in The Gambia, the government of President Adama Barrow has gone a step further. It is not just looking at reconciliation, but reparations for victims. The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) will seek to provide financial recompense to victims of the government of President Jammeh.

Jammeh, who lost the Presidential election in 2016, is now living in Equatorial Guinea. Gambians have been sharply divided over the issue of him facing trial for alleged crimes under his regime. All of a sudden, as one Gambian activist put it, every Gambian is now claiming that he or she was a victim of Jammeh’s rule. 

In the midst of all this are the activities of international human rights organisations that want Jammeh to face trial by the process whereby an Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) was set up in Senegal, which tried former Chadian President Hissen Habré and found him guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture in May 2016. 

The EAC was set up under an agreement between the AU and Senegal. But it took well over 20 years for victims to see justice done.

Following what was a landmark case in Africa, international justice and human rights activists have been calling for such a legal system to deal with the contentious issue of impunity on the continent. 

However, many Gambians do not seem interested in a process that they believe will take a long time to complete. And some are tired of being paraded at international human rights conferences to tell their stories repeatedly.

For example, Imam Baba Leigh was supposed to offer the reflections of a torture victim during a recent conference in Banjul. First of all, he did not turn up for his slot and when he eventually arrived he said he was “fed up” with repeating his experience all over the world and he was no longer going to do this. He said he was being made a laughing stock in The Gambia. He wanted compensation.

Other Gambians are not too keen about the TRRC either because they feel it will take years before it comes out with its report. It has a mandate of two years with the possibility of an extension. But as it seeks funding to start its work, the scepticism among Gambians is understandable.

Jammeh issue still bubbling

The Jammeh issue is a charged one. Gambians have accused the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Fatou Bensouda, who is Gambian, of failing to act while alleged atrocities were being committed under Jammeh.

The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) reacted to this last year by telling the Ghana News Agency: “The Office followed media reports regarding allegations of violence against civilians in The Gambia last year. The fact is that concerned by these reports, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda took the initiative to assign a team at the Office to assess the situation within the legal framework of the ICC… given that The Gambia is a State Party to the International Criminal Court,” the OTP said. 

“Following this legal assessment, and as the Prosecutor has already publicly stated, the situation in The Gambia at the time did not warrant the intervention of the Court.  The ICC is a judicial institution with a specific jurisdiction over mass atrocities, namely genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

“These are serious crimes which have specific criminal elements which must be satisfied in any given case. The Prosecutor, at all times, undertakes her mandate without fear or favour and will not hesitate to take the necessary steps in accordance with her mandate wherever the Court’s jurisdictional requirements are met,” the OTP told the GNA.

However, activists are moving in a roundabout way to get Jammeh prosecuted. They have launched a campaign in Ghana to try to get the former Gambian President to face charges for the killing of 50 West African migrants – 44 of whom were Ghanaians – in 2005 by Gambian security forces. They were on a boat heading for Europe when they were intercepted.

It is a long shot for those seeking justice. A joint UN and ECOWAS report said that the Gambian government was not “directly or indirectly complicit” in the killings and forced disappearances in the country. It concluded that “rogue elements in the Gambian security services, acting on their own”, were responsible.

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Written by Desmond Davies

A former Editor of West Africa magazine in London Desmond Davies, originally from Sierra Leone, has been a journalist and commentator on African affairs for almost 40 years in the press, radio and television such as BBC World TV, Al Jazeera, Press TV and CNN. He has covered Africa extensively and has a wide range of influential contacts in the continent. Desmond holds an MA in Mass Communications from the University of Leicester in the UK. His specialities are strategic and political communications. Media and Communications Consult, Due Diligence Expert on Africa.

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