Liberia’s history as the first African state to proclaim independence in 1847 makes it one of the most unique countries on the continent. The abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century and the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 motivated many people of African descent in the United States, including freed slaves, free-born blacks and those of Afro-Caribbean origin, to relocate to the West African coast of what would later be known as Liberia. Due to its American ‘ancestry,’ Liberia was one of just two countries in Africa that maintained their sovereignty during the infamous ‘scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s.
Like most African societies, Liberia is an ethnically diverse country, with over 20 groups of peoples with diverse cultures, languages and traditions. This includes Americo-Liberians, who dominated the political landscape of the country for more than 130 years after its independence. With this diversity, ethnic tensions became common, mainly as a result of the political subjugation and marginalisation of indigenous communities.
In 1980, the assassination of President William Tolbert, an Americo-Liberian, in a bloody military coup led by Samuel Doe, ended the Americo-Liberian-dominated political leadership in the country. Many top government officials were also publicly executed in the coup, which resulted in serious ethnic tensions and the deaths of even more people. Doe assumed leadership with his People’s Redemption Council, and later became a civilian president following a flawed electoral process.
Over 10 years, Doe’s administration became notorious for its autocratic tendencies and intolerance to opposition. Many high-ranking soldiers, government officials, journalists and critics of Doe’s junta were summarily executed, usually on trumped-up charges of planning coups. During this time, Liberia witnessed an exponential growth in violent ethnic militias, such as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which was under the leadership of Charles Taylor. Each rebel group had strongholds in different parts of the country, seeking to control territories and their resources and wreaking havoc on civilians.
By early 1990, Liberia was already the theatre of a full-blown war characterised by massacres, ethnic cleansing and the large-scale deployment of sexual violence as a weapon of war against women and girls. One of the high points of the conflict was the brutal massacre by government forces of an estimated 600 civilians who sought refuge in a church in the capital, Monrovia. These developments drew global attention and resulted in the deployment of peacekeepers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
In September 1990, forces of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), a splinter group from the NPFL under the leadership of Prince Johnson, captured Doe during a diplomatic engagement. He was mutilated, tortured and murdered in the most gruesome manner and his corpse was exhibited in the streets of Monrovia. In the aftermath of Doe’s overthrow, many soldiers and civilians were killed in a purge, while the struggle for political control by the various militia groups intensified. While the war lasted from 1990 until a general election in 1997, Liberia was at different times governed by at least four different chairpersons of the Liberian Council of State. A large part of the country was under the control of warlord Taylor and other rebel leaders.
Following a peace deal brokered by the international community, Taylor was elected president in a United Nation-backed general election and assumed leadership of the country in August 1997. But the peace in the country was short-lived, as Taylor reportedly carried out mass killings and attempted the assassination of a political rival of a different ethnic group. There was also an international dimension to the crisis, with Taylor allegedly interfering in the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Guinea. In retaliation, forces from these countries joined in the fight against Taylor’s government. There was a resurgence in rebel groups like Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), which operated from and with the backing of Guinea.
By April 1999, Liberia was in a full-scale three-way civil war, with the involvement of regional neighbours Sierra Leone and Guinea. This war resulted in massacres of civilians and the displacement of many Liberians. Faced with an impending defeat, and following a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) facilitated by Nigerian leaders and civil society organisations in the region, Taylor resigned as president and fled to Nigeria in August 2003. In line with the terms of the CPA, a United Nations-backed National Transitional Government was formed, marking an end to hostilities. Liberia conducted a presidential election in 2005, which brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf into office. Since then, Liberia has had smooth democratic transitions, with George Weah as the current president.
It is important to highlight that during its conflict, Liberia witnessed an unprecedented rate of conscription and forceful deployment of child soldiers by all parties. An estimated 21,000 children, some as young as six, were used in the war. According to the final report of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), these children became both the perpetrators and victims of the most horrific crimes committed during the conflict. They were forced to commit atrocities against their wishes, and some were cannibalised or forced to eat body parts, like the hearts of other children, for courage.
Former child soldiers, now adults, continue to recount difficult experiences, with some living with amputated limbs, lost sight and other permanent disabilities as a result of the violence. Although the country implemented an internationally backed Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme in 2003, many former child soldiers have faced substance dependence, prostitution and crime.
At the end of the more than 14 years of two civil wars that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 250,000 people, the country was faced with the problem of devising a path to a peaceful and democratic society, including through transitional justice.
Comprehensive Peace Agreement
Signed in August 2003 in Accra, Ghana, the CPA provided for several peace and transitional justice processes, including: a shared transitional government between the parties; electoral and constitutional reforms; military and police reforms; DDR; amnesty and prisoner-release; and a truth commission.
The CPA’s signatories insisted on a blanket amnesty, leaving the question of accountability for human rights violations up in the air. The peace accord also did not obliterate the ugly experiences Liberians endured during the conflicts, which effectively turned the country into a deeply polarised post-conflict society.
Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The Liberian TRC was established in June 2005, following the enactment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act by the National Transitional Legislative Assembly. The TRC was inaugurated by Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 with nine commissioners, five men and four women. The mandate of the TRC was the promotion of national peace, security, unity and reconciliation through the investigation of gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law, including massacres, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and economic crimes, such as the exploitation of natural or public resources to perpetuate armed conflict. It investigated events that took place between January 1979 and October 2003.
Specifically, the TRC was mandated to determine whether the violations committed throughout this period were isolated incidents or part of a systematic pattern, and to determine the perpetrators and victims and the impacts of the abuses on the victims. Most important, the TRC was mandated to provide both the opportunity and an enabling environment for victims and perpetrators of violence to share their experiences with the aim of creating a clear picture of the past and thereby facilitating healing and possibly reconciliation.
With respect to the issue of child soldiers and the specific experiences of women and girls, the TRC had to design workable mechanisms to address their violations. Despite facing many challenges, like budget constraints, lack of cooperation from government officials and lack of remuneration for its members, the TRC completed its mandate within the two years allocated to it by law and an extra nine months granted it by the parliament. It conducted hearings, received applications and complaints, and carried out investigations. The TRC submitted its preliminary report to the president and parliament in June 2009 and a final report shortly after.
The final report of the TRC documents systematic violations of domestic and international human rights law, including massacres, sexual violence and other crimes against humanity by all parties. It highlights the specific impacts of the conflicts on all groups in society, including men, women, children, the elderly and internally displaced persons. The report also lists 98 individuals from all the warring parties who should face prosecution in the TRC’s recommended Extra-Ordinary Criminal Tribunal for their direct roles in the conflicts.
The report describes Taylor as one of the most notorious perpetrators of violence in the country. It also names Johnson Sirleaf and other senior members of her government as among those who indirectly facilitated the violence through material support to warring factions. The TRC report recommends public sanctions against them, including barring them from holding public office for 30 years. In addition, the report identifies certain individuals who committed serious human rights violations but does not recommend prosecution because they were forthcoming with the truth about their roles in the conflicts and showed remorse and repentance during the hearings.
The TRC report makes far-reaching recommendations, including: lustration for atrocities committed during the conflicts; referrals for further investigation and possible sanctions for economic crimes; individual, group and community reparations for victims; memorialisation; institutional reforms, especially in the judiciary and security sectors; and the establishment of an Independent National Human Rights Commission to address continuing violations. In accordance with its mandate to recommend appropriate mechanisms for reconciliation and healing, the TRC report recommends the establishment of Palava huts, a Liberian traditional justice mechanism that prioritises reconciliation and forgiveness, in all the districts of the country.
Palava huts are an indigenous dispute resolution mechanism that promotes an amicable settlement through admission of wrongdoing by the offending party and forgiveness by the offended party. Depending on the nature of the offending act, the process may include animal sacrifice, restitution and other ‘cleansing’ rituals for the community.
About four years after the recommendation by the TRC, the National Palava Huts programme was officially inaugurated by Johnson Sirleaf in October 2013 and commenced hearing of cases of human rights violations and other forms of injustices committed during the conflicts. Victims of all forms of human rights violations, including sexual abuse, deprivation of properties, displacement and killings, confronted their abusers. The process was administered by community elders and supervised by the Liberian Independent National Commission on Human Rights to enhance compliance to basic rules of a fair hearing. Hearing and determination of cases involved taking oral statements from victims, sharing of experiences by both victims and perpetrators and, where issues were contested, a witness-vetting process to determine the credibility of the expected witness account.
Hundreds of cases from many communities have been heard through the Palava Huts programme, with most cases followed by forgiveness and reconciliation between the victims, their offenders and their communities. Although the process has been praised for its cost effectiveness and practicability, its relative success was not without challenges. One of the most prominent of such challenges was the requirement for victims of sexual violence to come face to face with their abusers, which resulted in trauma for many victims, without corresponding psychosocial support. As of July 2021, hearings included pre- and post-hearing psychosocial support.
Other challenges include: the attempted and, in some cases, actual oversimplification of serious human rights violations that constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity; the complex nature of human rights violations unknown to the process; and multiple variants of the process reflecting the heterogeneity of Liberian society. Critics have questioned the value of the process in light of international legal norms and the imperative to punish serious offenses. There is also the problem of limited impact due to budget constraints and the refusal of victims to come forward due to the stigma associated with their experience with sexual violence. The process has, however, been considered a success due to its ability to help victims access closure and communities attain some level of reconciliation.
Prosecutions by International and Domestic Courts
Although each successive administration rode to power on the platform of ensuring accountability for past atrocities, nothing has so far been implemented to realise these promises, just as the special tribunal recommended by the TRC is yet to be established. Observers have blamed this on a lack of political will, especially as former warlords and perpetrators like Prince Johnson are in government, occupying significant positions and enjoying support from many followers. Many perpetrators still walk free in Liberia, while their victims continue to deal with the physical and emotional scars of their crimes.
There have been significant but few trials outside of Liberia, however, predicated primarily on universal jurisdiction laws that allow the investigation and prosecution of certain crimes irrespective of where there were committed. These trials include that of Kunti Kamara, a former Liberian rebel commander who was convicted by a French court and sentenced to life in prison in November 2022. There are also the trials of Alieu Kosiah, another warlord convicted in June 2022 in Switzerland for crimes against humanity in Liberia, and Gibril Massaquoi, who was tried but acquitted in Finland in April 2022. Compared to the scale of atrocities and the number of actors involved in the conflicts, these convictions represent a drop in the ocean.
The United States has convicted a few Liberians who played a role in the violence, but these convictions were primarily for immigration offenses, namely not disclosing their role in immigration documentation while entering the United States. While such convictions may be considered prima facie indictments, they do not qualify as accountability for their roles in the conflicts.
Taylor was convicted in April 2012 and sentenced to 50 years in prison by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, for war crimes and crimes against humanity he committed in Sierra Leone.
Discontent over the lack of local trials has led to protests and tensions in Liberia. The Liberian Senate responded by proposing in 2020 the establishment of a Transitional Justice Commission, whose mandate would be for “restorative” but not “retributive” justice in the country. It has not been established. The United Nations and other international organisations have called on Liberia to prosecute perpetrators of wartime atrocities.
Like accountability for the atrocities committed during the conflicts, reparations have largely been unsuccessful. The Liberian government has persistently insisted that individual reparations are too expensive for the country and that it prefers collective reparations that prioritise socioeconomic needs. In 2010, it commenced collaborating with civil society organisations towards the establishment of a reparations fund for that purpose. Although the Liberian Senate has at different times adopted resolutions regarding reparations, these non-binding resolutions have not amounted to much.
Civil society organisations note that while the government is addressing post-war cases of sexual violence against women and girls, there have been no concrete reparations for victims of wartime sexual violence. The gap is however being filled by civil society, through the provision of mental health and psychosocial support, medical and socioeconomic support, and other forms of palliative interventions for survivors. Victims of human rights violations continue to expect effective reparations and rehabilitative programmes from the government.
The 2021 conviction of Alieu Kosiah by a Swiss court came with an order to pay reparations to at least seven of his victims in Liberia.
Compared to most African countries, Liberia has been progressive with respect to allowing effective participation of women in decision-making processes in the country. For example, Ruth Perry was interim chairperson of the Council of State from 1996 to 1997. In 2006, Liberians elected Johnson Sirleaf as president, making her the first elected woman head of state in Africa.
Women were active in the country’s peace processes. For example, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a women-led peace movement, played a prominent role in the negotiation of the CPA in Ghana and exerting pressure on Taylor to accede to its terms. Liberia’s transitional justice processes have acknowledged the particular experiences of women and girls during the country’s conflicts and made specific recommendations relevant to these experiences. Nearly half of the TRC commissioners were women.
However, women in Liberia suffered disproportionate harm during the two civil wars and all the conflicts that took place in between. Apart from suffering the same human rights violations as others, such as forced labor, torture and murder, women and girls were subjected to gross sexual violations, including gang rapes and sexual slavery, by state forces and rebel fighters. Reports estimate that between 61 and 77 percent of women in the country, regardless of age, experienced sexual violence, sometimes as a form of ethnic cleansing against ethnic minorities. In some cases, combatants raped all the women in a community to introduce ‘superior genes’ in them. Girls between the ages of 15 and 19 were the most affected group, with many subjected to sexual violence and forced into sexual slavery, and having children born from these violations taken from them by warring parties.
Men and boys also experienced sexual violence, including rape by soldiers and rebel forces. Many were compelled to have sex with close family relatives at gunpoint. According to a report, 32.6 percent of males interviewed admitted to experiencing sexual violence during the conflicts.
The effects of the widespread sexual violence in Liberia have been prominent and long-lasting, transcending generations. They have had an impact on the physical, mental, emotional, and socioeconomic well-being of victims/survivors and their families and communities.
Due to Taylor’s interference in the conflicts in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, these three countries later became the training and logistical bases for rebel forces seeking to overthrow him. With its historical ties to Liberia, the United States has contributed to Liberia’s transitional justice processes, including security sector reform. At the regional and international levels, the United Nations and ECOWAS played significant roles in the conflicts and peace processes of Liberia, including through the deployment of peacekeeping forces.
 M.B. Akpan, “Liberia and Ethiopia, 1880-1914: The Survival of the Two African States,” in A. Adu Boahen (ed.), Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935 (Heinemann, 1985).
 Julius E. Okolo, “Liberia: The Military Coup and Its Aftermath,” The World Today 37(4) (1981).
 Anna Sylvestre-Treiner, “Liberia: Samuel Doe, Death Washed Down with a Budweiser,” Africa Report, 2021, https://www.theafricareport.com/144562/pt-5-liberia-samuel-doe-death-washed-down-with-budweiser/
 Thomas de Saint Maurice, “Armed Conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea (1980-2005),” International Committee of the Red Cross, 2001, https://casebook.icrc.org/case-study/case-study-armed-conflicts-sierra-leone-liberia-and-guinea-1980-2005
 “Former Child Soldiers Recovery: Liberia,” Action 10, https://www.action10.org/campaigns/former-child-soldiers-recovery-liberia/
 “Accra Peace Agreement,” Peace Accord Matrix, University of Notre Dame, https://peaceaccords.nd.edu/accord/accra-peace-agreement
 Section 4(a) of the TRC Act of Liberia, 2005.
 Section 4(b) of the TRC Act of Liberia, 2005.
 “Liberia’s TRC Presents Final Report,” Government of Liberia, July 1, 2009, https://reliefweb.int/report/liberia/liberias-trc-presents-final-report
 See “Volume II: Consolidated Final Report of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, 265.
 Ibid., 269.
 Kwaku Danso, “Mending Broken Relations after Civil War: The ‘Palava Hut’ and the Prospects for Lasting Peace in Liberia,” Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, 2016, https://www.kaiptc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/New%20folder/Danso-K.-2016-Mending-Broken-Relations-after-Civil-War-The-%E2%80%98Palava-Hut%E2%80%99-and-the-Prospects-for-Lasting-Peace-in-Liberia.pdf
 “Healing the Wounds of War: Liberia’s Palava Hut Hearings on Wartime Crimes Aims to Build Lasting Peace,” United Nations Development Programme, 2022, https://stories.undp.org/healing-the-wounds-of-war
 “Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Palava Hut Hearings Take Off in Rivercess County,” Front Page Africa, July 15, 2021, https://frontpageafricaonline.com/news/liberias-truth-and-reconciliation-palava-hut-hearings-take-off-in-rivercess-county/
 Dounard Bondo, “It is High Time for Liberia to Conduct Its Own War Crimes Trials,” Al Jazeera, December 16, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/12/16/europes-prosecution-of-liberian-war-criminals-is-good-news
 “France’s Trial for Atrocities Committed in Liberia: Questions and Answers,” Human Rights Watch, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/05/frances-trial-atrocities-committed-liberia
 “Reconciliation and Reparation: The Future of War Survivors of Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Liberia,” Liberian Observer, November 18, 2022, https://www.liberianobserver.com/reconciliation-and-reparation-future-war-survivors-sexual-and-gender-based-violence-liberia
 Vol. 1 of Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report of Liberia; “Rape, a Weapon in Liberian War,” LA Times, August 11, 2003, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-aug-11-fg-liberia11-story.html
 Elizabeth Brown, “Male Victims of Sexual Violence during Conflicts,” Peace Academy, United States Institute for Peace, 2014, https://borgenproject.org/male-victims-sexual-violence-conflict/