Sowing Justice

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A French court recently sentenced Kunti Kamara, a former rebel leader in Liberia, to 30 years in prison for war crimes during the West African country’s first civil war between 1989 and 1997.

Kamara, now 49, committed “acts of torture and inhuman barbarity” against civilians in the 1990s, the court found, including reportedly eating a teacher’s heart, failing to prevent his soldiers from raping two teenage girls, and a host of other horrors, wrote Agence France-Presse. His actions were part of the country’s two civil conflicts that claimed a total of 250,000 lives over 14 years.

Kamara led part of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy, or ULIMO, which opposed ex-president Charles Taylor of the National Patriotic Front. Taylor’s forces won the first civil war and he became president, but a second domestic conflict broke out three years later, ending only in 2003 when Taylor fled the country. As Human Rights Watch explained, in 2012, Taylor became the first former head of state convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by an international court.

Many Liberians say they are happy that foreign courts have punished their leaders and rebel commanders, such as Alieu Kosiah, who was found guilty of rape, murder and cannibalism by a Swiss court in 2021. But many also want their country to deliver justice for the crimes committed during the civil wars. That’s one reason Liberian President Joseph Boakai is supporting the creation of a War and Economic Crimes Tribunal in the country, to try these war criminals at home.

Liberia’s lower legislative chamber, the House of Representatives, approved the creation of the tribunal. Now, reported the Daily Observer, a Liberian newspaper, the Senate is debating the measure. Some senators feared a tribunal would inflame tensions, reopen old wounds, and undercut the amnesty law that allowed the fighting to cease and the country to move on.

“Any attempt to undo that legal instrument that is the basis for our peace … is a means to enthrone instability,” said Senator Prince Johnson, a former rebel commander who fought alongside – but later against –Taylor, according to Reuters.

Still, activists and members of civil society groups such as Dempster Brown, the head of Liberia’s Independent National Human Rights Commission, say they want more accountability for crimes committed during the conflicts: “We think that it is overdue.”

Writing in an Al Jazeera op-ed, Liberian writers Dounard Bondo and Leshan Kroma argued that the tribunal was the only way Liberia could flourish. “If Liberia is to truly leave war behind, heal its wounds, and start building itself a prosperous future, the new president has to succeed in delivering that message of ‘peace and reconciliation,’” they wrote. “The strongest such message would be the establishment of a special tribunal for war crimes that would finally bring justice back home to Liberia.”

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