Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission: An Interim Assessment

By Long, William J. | International Journal of Peace Studies, Autumn-Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission: An Interim Assessment


Long, William J., International Journal of Peace Studies


Introduction

After 14 years of civil war that left 200,000 dead and a million displaced in a small country of four million people, in 2003 Liberia's warring factions concluded a peace agreement that called for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) as part of the process of restoring and rebuilding the nation. Truth and reconciliation commissions are civilian bodies set up for a limited period of time to investigate a past history of violations of human rights. Invariably, truth commissions gather evidence of violations committed by state actors and insurgent groups and issue a report recommending changes in state institutions and policies to prevent such violations from occurring in the future (Hayner, 1994).

In the case of Liberia, the Liberian government, the two other belligerent forces (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia), and civilian representatives of political parties signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on August 18, 2003. The CPA provided for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to "provide a forum that will address issues of impunity, as well as the opportunity for both victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to share their experiences in order to get a clear picture of the past to facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation." Liberia's transitional legislature codified this agreement in May 2005 (TRC Act, 2005). The deployment of the joint Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations (Peacekeeping) Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has sustained the resultant peace and security in Liberia through a two-year transitional government and nationwide elections of a new government in late 2005 to the present.

The recent history of civil conflicts and peacemaking generally, and Liberian political and military realities in particular, made the choice of a TRC in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2003 a hopeful and practical decision. Hopeful, because, although civil conflicts are both more numerous and more intractable (1) than interstate wars, there is evidence that countries that go through a painful and protracted national reconciliation process can restore lasting social order that does not devolve into further violence (Long and Brecke, 2003). These national reconciliation processes, while all distinctive in some ways, often typically include four overlapping phases: (1) public truth telling; (2) a redefinition of the identities of the belligerents and the roles and relationships of important social groups and institutions; (3) limited justice (i.e., justice short of full retribution for all harms); and (4) an explicit call to break with the past and dedicate to a new relationship and a new social and moral order (Long and Brecke, 2003). A public, officially sanctioned truth and reconciliation commission is often one of the first and most indispensable elements of a successful national reconciliation (Zalaquett, 1997). Implementation of a TRC was practical because the alternative to a truth and reconciliation approach to settlement--a war crimes tribunal that would put all the warlords on trial--was unacceptable to the warring factions engaged in the peace negotiations, and the legal mechanisms needed to address accountability through formal judicial proceedings were unavailable in Liberia after 14 years of civil war. (2)

The Roles of Truth in the Reconciliation Process

Truth telling is not synonymous with reconciliation. Rather, it opens up a public space for reconciliation by allowing a formerly taboo subject to become amenable to the action of political bodies and future policies. Truth telling is "one part of a broader process ... [to] help spark a longer-term process of national healing and reconciliation" (Hayner, 1998, 2). It plays a critical, perhaps indispensable, role in the process of national reconciliation and contributes directly and indirectly to the requirements for justice and redefinition of personal and institutional identities essential to complete the process of reconciliation. …

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