Africa After War: Paths to Forgiveness – Mercy vs. justice as Liberia heals itself
Liberia's new Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeks a balance between punishment and forgiveness.
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It's this American-style approach to justice that she hopes to infuse in the TRC's deliberations and Liberian society. "I'm a Liberian, and I believe in upholding our values," she says. "But certain things here have to change."Skip to next paragraph
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An easygoing and boyish-looking human rights lawyer, Jerome Verdier doesn't seem intimidated by the fact that, despite being the youngest TRC commissioner, he was voted the group's chairman. That means he'll have extraordinary influence on the future of his country. A tall, gregarious guy, he's not above teaching visitors goofy handshakes or drawing smiley faces on notes to colleagues. He's more like a favorite uncle than the gravitas grandfather Desmond Tutu, who chaired South Africa's TRC.
Yet people close to Mr. Verdier say he's unflinchingly direct, strategically savvy, tenderhearted, and ready for the task.
"He's the face of the new era we're trying to create," says Ezekiel Pajibo, head of the Center for Democratic Empowerment in Monrovia and a friend of Verdier. It's an era also symbolized by the choice of Africa's first elected woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Indeed, four of the TRC's nine commissioners are women.
Talk to Verdier about how he plans to balance justice and mercy, and it's clear he wants both – but in the right sequence. "First we need to strengthen the social fabric," he says, striking a mercy-tinged tone that may be prudent, given that many former warlords today hold positions of political and economic power. For instance, the speaker of parliament is a close ally – and ex-son-in-law – of Mr. Taylor, who's now in The Hague facing war-crimes charges. "Justice should be upheld," Verdier adds, "but at a later stage." This appears to deflate support for a domestic war-crimes court, which some in Liberia advocate.
Yet such conciliatory words worry those who are concerned the TRC will continue Liberia's tradition of "selective justice" – where the powerful get impunity. To those concerns, Verdier says, "We will try to build relationships" with powerful ex-warlords, he adds. "But if it is necessary to go after them, we will."
Hinting at his strategy, he talks about wanting Liberia's many young ex-combatants to tell their stories before the TRC. Such tales would probably implicate their commanders. These commanders might then scurry to testify – to try to persuade the TRC not to recommend them for prosecution. In turn, they may implicate even-higher commanders. Such a layer-by-layer uncovering of the truth about Liberia's past may open the door to justice, especially for top commanders – and to forgiveness for many others.
Earlier this month, the TRC began sending its staff across Liberia – and even to Liberian communities in the US – to collect individual statements about the war. Public hearings are expected to start early next year.
During those sessions, Verdier knows he'll have the Bishop Kulahs of Liberia talking in one ear – and the Massa Washingtons in the other.
The middle road he takes between them, he hopes, will be one of peace for a county and a continent that he says have been "rolling in violence for far too long."
• Founded as a haven for freed slaves – mostly from the US – Liberia became Africa's first republic in 1847 and was relatively stable until a 1980 coup.
• After a decade of economic collapse, Charles Taylor led a rebellion that ousted Liberia's first indigenous president, Samuel Doe, in 1990.
• This set the stage for a complex, brutal civil war that spilled into neighboring countries and lasted until 2003, killing more than 150,000 people and displacing more than one-third of the population.
• Mr. Taylor was arrested in March and is now awaiting trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
• The Truth and Reconciliation Commission – set up in February to investigate human rights abuses between 1979 and 2003 – began gathering evidence this month.
Source: BBC, Reuters