Thousands dead but no prosecutions - why Liberia has not acted

Tales of atrocities dominate accounts of Liberia's years of civil war but not a single person has been tried for war crimes in the country's courts.

This is despite the estimated 250,000 dead - amounting to around 8% of the population at the time - and survivors willing to testify about the conflicts from 1989 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003.

On Tuesday, in an unprecedented move, a war crimes case is due to be heard in the capital, Monrovia. But this will be a Finnish court holding a special session, not part of the Liberian judicial process.

Gibril Massaquoi was a resident of Finland when he was arrested in 2020 and is accused of killing civilians, rape and recruiting child soldiers. He denies the charges.

The case, while welcomed by campaigners, raises the question of why the Liberian courts have not taken any action.

Arthur Bondo is one of those who wants to see people on trial in his country.

He was recruited as a child soldier - though not by Mr Massaquoi - in 1990, when he was 15.

He has a clear memory of the day when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels came to his father's farm in north-central Bong county.

"They shot the pigs we were rearing, ordered us to carry the pigs with them and forced us to join them," he says.

"I experienced a lot of bad things."

He does not go into any more detail. He is clear however that he wants a war crimes court to be established "to stop impunity".

Liberia's Civil War

  • Liberia endured two bouts of brutal fighting in 1989-1997 and 1999-2003

  • Charles Taylor led an uprising against President Samuel Doe, who himself had taken power in a coup in 1980

  • Doe was executed in 1990 by a rebel group led by Prince Johnson

  • Some 250,000 people were killed in the fighting overall

  • Thousands more were mutilated and raped

  • Taylor was elected president in 1997 after a peace deal

  • The war was reignited in 1999 when two new rebel groups emerged

  • Taylor stepped down and went into exile ahead of a peace deal in 2003

The 46-year-old bears the physical and emotional scars of the conflict and wants to make sure that others do not have to go through the same thing.

He lost an arm during that time and is now head of a disabled persons association in Bong county.

"The child soldiers who were used are living in poverty and trauma. If a war crimes court comes to Liberia and people are prosecuted no-one would use child soldiers again."

'Need for closure'

His words are echoed by campaigner Adama Dempster from the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia.

He believes that a "war crimes court would give closure to victims from the civil war, and would also give victims an opportunity for legal redress".

Victim testimony has become a key part of war crimes trials, and the Finnish court will be sitting in Monrovia to hear those witnesses.

Mr Dempster also believes that the lack of a judicial process and a "failure to address past human rights violations during the war [has led] to the undermining of present human rights".

It was supposed to be different.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won the country's first post-conflict presidential election, inaugurated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2006 to, in her words, "help the process of healing".

This was a country shattered by war and looking for a way to restore trust among the people.

The TRC was not a tribunal but it was established to identify "the root causes of the conflict, and [determine] those who are responsible for committing domestic and international crimes against the Liberian people".

Its final report in 2009 recommended, among other things, the prosecution of certain individuals, the establishment of a special court and for certain people to be barred from public office for 30 years, as well as reparations for victims.

But the recommendations were immediately mired in political controversy.

Among those who were supposed to be barred was Mrs Johnson Sirleaf herself because of a past connection with one-time rebel leader and former President Charles T