My work with CSVR concluded this week, giving us one final week to travel across the country to Durban and Johannesburg. Working at the Center for the Study of Violence has been challenging, stimulating, and rewarding. I began working in an office that frustrated me with its constant lack of internet, but finished my report with confidence and was sad to leave my co-workers.
My project focused on post-conflict conditions in Liberia—how the country transitioned legally and practically after its brutal 11 year civil war. Under the leadership of first female head of state on the continent, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia has made significant strides to rebuild, reconcile, and restart its nation. I focused on the mandates in the peace agreement, the transitional government’s orders, and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to outline and evaluate the most effective transitional justice mechanisms used in the west African state.
Ultimately, I found that the idea of justice is not a black and white issue. Many people incorrectly assume that all victims of a devastating conflict-related crime such as gang rape or forced disappearance and torture automatically want justice from their perpetrator. However, my research found that for Liberians, that is a touchy issue. One in four people were impacted by the civil war. As many as 70% of the women were sexually assaulted. With so many of its citizens involved in some way, Liberia is hard pressed to prosecute everyone. Moreover, its legal system was in shambles after the war and distrust of the police and courts continues.
Not only is it logistically difficult, for some, the best way to move forward is to forgive and forget. With the Truth Commission report put out in 2009, some of the population now prefers to put the horrors of history behind them and focus on rebuilding. Retelling stories of humiliating and haunting crimes reopens wounds for some victims. In addition to respecting the rights of victims, the fragile peace brokered in 2003 risked degrading back into war (like it did after the last 13 peace agreements during the war) if the major perpetrators were tried for war crimes. Some of these faction leaders are now serving in government despite the Truth Commission’s recommendations for prosecuting them. Such impunity for these criminals undermines justice, but also ensures a controversial peace.
Juggling these concepts and wrapping my mind around the politics of peace was a major part of what I learned at CSVR. My research and report will be submitted to the African Union commissioner as a part of an in-depth study of transitional justice mechanisms. Overall, the study will conclude what mechanisms are best, which actors (AU, UN, regional economic communities) are best suited for implementing the mechanisms, and how to fight impunity. My case study of Liberia is one of many that will be submitted for evaluating those concepts.