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War-battered nation launches truth commission

[Liberia] Gbezohngar, a 10-year-old child soldier in Liberia.
UNICEF estimates there are some 15,000 child soldiers, like this 10-year -old, to be disarmed (IRIN)

The Liberian government has officially launched a truth and reconciliation commission to probe human rights abuses over the past quarter-century in the war-wounded country.

The nine-member commission - created under the 2003 peace agreement ending Liberia’s civil war - will examine abuses from January 1979 to October 2003.

In inducting the commission on Monday, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf called the commission the people’s “hope.”

“We must make collective restitution to those victimized, rehabilitate the victimizers, while at the same time visiting some form of retribution upon those whose violations qualify as crimes against humanity.”

Sirleaf said, “This commission is our hope - to define the past on our behalf in terms that are seen and believed to be fair and balanced, and bring forth a unifying narrative on which our nation’s rebuilding and renewal processes can be more securely anchored.”

Liberia’s war was marked by brutal killings and mass rape, with rebels - many of them forcibly recruited children - committing atrocities against unarmed civilians. The war killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced over a million to flee.

Heading the truth and reconciliation commission will be Jerome Verdier, a renowned human rights advocate in Liberia. He told IRIN the commission will be “a reconstructive exchange between the victims and perpetrators.”

Supporting the nine-member commission will be three international technical advisors, two of whom will be appointed by the 15-nation West African regional block ECOWAS, which brokered Liberia’s peace deal, the third by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As spelt out by a June 2005 national law ratifying the truth and reconciliation commission (TRC), its mandate is to “investigate gross human rights violations and war crimes, including massacres, sexual violations, murder, extra-judicial killings and economic crimes (such as the exploitation of natural or public resources to perpetuate the armed conflict).”

The law says the commission will also provide an opportunity for victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to discuss their experiences, “in order to create a record of the past and facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation.”

The civil war began in 1989, but the commission will also look at alleged human rights abuses in years previous.

The commission might have to knock on the doors of some elected officials. A number of figures allegedly perpetrating violence during wartime have been voted into Liberia's parliament. A European Union delegation visiting the country earlier this month said people serving in the legislature and charged with crimes against humanity should not enjoy impunity.

Aside from warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, now in exile in Nigeria, former heads of warring parties and some rebel commanders are still in the country.

Commission head Verdier said no one will be able to hide behind political immunity. “No Liberian will be immune from appearing before this TRC.”

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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