More than 5,500 miles from home, the Liberian refugee Diaspora in the US will get the opportunity to recount wartime atrocities before the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC will hold hearings in Saint Paul in Minnesota this week. It's the first time a truth commission has held hearings outside its national borders to put refugees' stories on the record.
Liberia's TRC, charged with uncovering human rights abuses that occurred during the nation's brutal civil war, has made Hamline University in Saint Paul its temporary home. The commission has already taken statements from more than 1,000 Liberians in the United States, United Kingdom and Ghana since starting its work in 2006. About 30 Liberians who live in the US are expected to testify this week.
The South-African styled TRC is officially mandated to investigate the gross human rights abuses committed after the country descended into violence in 1979. The hearings in Liberia, which started in January this year, have centred on the violence from 1990 to 2003, which is fresh in people's minds there. In Minnesota, Jerome Verdier, chairman of the nine-member TRC, says he expects to hear about the early years of conflict, when many Liberians sought refuge in the US.
Between 25,000 and 30,000 Liberians live in Minnesota, the largest Liberian community in the United States. "Liberians in the Diaspora have always had a burning desire for change back home," said Verdier. "It's a significant voice we think should not be overlooked." He added that he hopes the US community will push to make sure the truth commission's recommendations are implemented starting next year.
For two years, hundreds of volunteers from Minnesota and other states have worked to get the full story behind Liberia's bloody civil war. Spearheaded by the NGO Advocates for Human Rights, attorneys took statements from all over the country. This week some of these stories of mass rapes, massacres and other inhumane brutalities will be recounted in public before the Commission.
Truth and reconciliation
The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is stationed in Monrovia, was sanctioned as part of the 2003 peace agreement. It was designed to provide a forum that will address impunity, as well as an opportunity for both the victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to share their experiences in order to get a clear picture of the past. This historical record, it is believed, will facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation.
In order to establish a critical review of Liberia's historical past, the TRC is mandated to investigate human rights violations from January 1979 to October 2003. It is explicitly tasked to address massacres, sexual violations, murder, extra-judicial killings and economic crimes, such as the exploitation of natural or public resources to finance war.
Besides, the TRC specifically deals with the experiences of women, children and vulnerable groups, paying particular attention to gender-based violations, as well as to the issue of child soldiers, providing opportunities for them to relate their experiences.
A troubled process
Since the commission officially opened for business two years ago, it has documented the stories of more than 18,000 Liberians, including nearly 1,000 living outside the country. The process has been controversial. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor stands trial in The Hague before the Special Court for Sierra Leone. However, he is only being tried for crimes committed in Sierra Leone and will, most likely, never face justice over brutalities in Liberia.
Many Liberians preferred trials to a TRC because perpetrators would be hesitant to appear before it and fully disclose their crimes. Moreover, many members of the new government refuse to cooperate with the TRC, including present President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Another concern is that the TRC may not have the time to complete its work before its mandate expires at the end of this year. Serious financial constraints have been hampering the commission's work since its start. There where moments the commissioners did not even have transport to visit different areas to gather testimonies.
Truth versus Justice
The commission can call for prosecutions, reparations and policy changes, although it does not have the power to bring charges for wartime crimes. Liberia's judicial system is very weak so it remains to be seen whether those who bear the greatest responsibility for the long years of war will ever face justice. Moreover, the TRC can recommend amnesties for certain crimes that do not constitute violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity. The quest for justice therefore has become a quest for truth.