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Thomas Jaye lays out the contexts of and challenges to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Accra, Ghana on 18 August 2003 and the subsequent holding of elections in 2005 have ushered in an atmosphere for durable changes in Liberia. Like other post-conflict societies, the country faces enormous but surmountable challenges that must be addressed in order to make the relapse into armed conflict difficult, if not impossible. Certainly, one of the challenges facing the country is how to reconcile the people and heal the wounds of the past. The enactment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Act, 2005, and the subsequent launching of the Commission in February 2006 constitute positive steps in the right direction. The TRC provides a window of opportunity for the pursuit of transitional justice through truth telling. Nevertheless, the TRC cannot heal nor reconcile the Liberian society on its own; other things must be done in order for Liberian people to reconcile with each other.


Like other post-conflict societies, the establishment of a TRC was based on recognition of the fact that there was a need to address impunity in the country. There was a need to deal with the deep sense of injustice generated by the war and even before. In this light, the setting up of the TRC reinforces the basic assumption that one of the unique characteristics of Liberian politics is that almost all the major political changes in the history of the Liberian state have been brought about largely because of a deep sense of injustice. Fifteen years of armed violent conflict caused the death of more than 250,000 people; led to massive and flagrant human rights abuses; destroyed the fragile environment; and led to state and societal collapse.

At the Accra peace talks there emerged two trends of thought about what to do with those who committed crimes during the war years. On the one hand, Liberian civil society groups, including delegates of some political parties, advocated for a war crimes tribunal in order to bring the perpetrators of crime to justice. On the other hand, the realities of post-conflict politics in Liberia suggested an alternative and compromised approach to pursuing transitional justice. Thus, the idea of a TRC became more attractive than a war crimes tribunal. The nature of the outcome of the war did not favour the latter.

Hence, Article XIII of the CPA called for the establishment of the TRC in order to address the issues of impunity, investigate the root causes of the conflict, Perhaps the point should be made that Liberia has a poor history of exploiting political changes for addressing past injustices. The declaration of independence on 26 July 1947, and the military coup of 12 April 1980 failed to address the grievances that caused and triggered these changes. Given the experiences of the past with specific reference to addressing injustices, the question is whether the TRC will make any difference or will it be business as usual?


After the Accra Talks, the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) was formed incorporating all stakeholders to the Liberian conflict including armed factions, political parties, and civil society groups. One of the legacies of the NTGL (dubbed in Liberia as ‘Nothing To Give Liberia’) is the TRC Act of 2005, which provides the legal framework for the work of the Commission.

According to the Act, the TRC is empowered to:
-investigate human rights violations and economic crimes with January 1979 and October 2003 as the cut off points (However, cases before 1979 can be considered if there is application from any person or groups of persons to this effect);
-provide a forum to address impunity and an opportunity to facilitate ‘genuine healing and reconciliation’;
-investigate the root causes of the armed conflict; critically review the past in order to address falsehoods and misconceptions of the country’s socio-economic and political development, and establish ‘historical truths’ thereof;
-adopt mechanisms and procedures to address the experiences of vulnerable groups such as women, children and others; and recommend measures for the rehabilitation of victims of human rights violations in order to ensure national reconciliation and healing;
-and write a report on the activities and findings of the Commission.

The objectives outlined in the mandate are crucial to the overall process of post-war reconstruction in Liberia. For post-conflict Liberia, it is important that the people understand why there was war. Indeed, the people should be aware that there is a direct link between cause and effect because it is only through such an understanding that the country can find durable solutions to its problems. In this light, it is crucial that the root causes of the conflict be examined in order to address the problems of the past.
It is also important to stress that the TRC should not be an end in itself; it should be a means to an end – a strategy. If this is the case, then the TRC can serve as a vehicle for generating debates in Liberia that could shape the future of the country. In this sense, any attempt to investigate the root causes of the conflict as well as human rights violations and economic crimes over the past three decades should ultimately feed into broader tasks of post-conflict reconstruction. It should feed into the building of viable and stable national polity that is democratic and inclusive in every respect.

The other broader point to make about the significance of the TRC mandate is that the victims of human rights abuses have the right to justice; they have the right to know what happened and to reparations. Truth telling is very important for societies like Liberia because it brings to light what really happened in the past. Nevertheless, as important as the above objectives are, what worries me is the broad and ambitious nature of the TRC mandate. To add fuel to fire, it is inconceivable as to how the Commission can implement such a mandate within its initial life span of 18 months. Although truth hearings have started both within and outside the country, it seems impossible to complete such an exercise on schedule. The Commission is facing many challenges that must be addressed in order to do a successful job.


To reiterate, the TRC is facing enormous challenges but a mention of the most critical will suffice. First, the entire process raises concerns over what constitutes truth, and whose truth. From historical experiences, you can get the ‘truth’ without reconciling people. Truth telling may not necessarily resolve tensions, distrust and mistrust among the people but produce an adverse effect. Under circumstances where both victims and perpetrators of crimes are apprehensive about the outcomes of truth telling, it may be difficult to get the truth; it may never be told but remain hidden under the carpets. This is a challenge that the TRC must address.

Secondly, although the Government of Liberia contributed 1% of its budget to the work of the TRC, the work of the Commission depends largely on donor funding. Based on experiences elsewhere, donor funding can sometimes induce donor-driven agendas; they have a tendency to push certain agendas that do not necessarily reflect national realities. In some cases, they bring in ‘experts’ who have little knowledge of the local situation and such behaviour can easily undermine national ownership. However, the dilemma for Liberia’s TRC is that without donor funding, it will be extremely difficult to implement its mandate. In recent times, the relationship between the donors and the Commission have been characterised by deep suspicion, mistrust and tension over the capacity of the latter to do its work; and the way in which resources were used by and on Commissioners.

Third, although the Commission had started some work in the area of truth telling, there is very little to show for the rest of its mandate. This verifies the assumption that the broad and ambitious mandate of the Commission cannot be achieved easily. For example, investigating the root causes of the conflict requires people with interdisciplinary academic backgrounds and experiences. My gut feeling is that the Commission should concentrate mainly on truth telling and reconciliation. The rest can be pursued if the life span of the Commission is extended. The challenge therefore is to prioritise its work or risk failure and mockery.

Fourth, as indicated earlier, reconciling the people of Liberia will not be achieved solely through the work of the TRC. Its work can certainly contribute towards national healing and reconciliation but its work should be mainstreamed. The TRC should combine with other national programmes that can improve the socio-economic, cultural, and political environment for national healing and reconciliation. For example, there is the need to improve the socio-economic conditions of the people; there is the need for inclusive and not exclusive politics; and traditional methods of healing and reconciliation must be used to achieve this objective.

Finally, reports of internal squabbles among Commissioners have tainted the image of the Commission; it has undermined its credibility in some ways. The challenge is for the Commissioners to confound their critics by addressing their internal problems in a way that will facilitate the work of the Commission.


It is important to stress that the TRC has a historic role to play in shaping the future of post-conflict Liberia. Its work can reassure victims by addressing impunity. To achieve its objectives, the TRC should serve as a vehicle for generating debates about the future of the country through its investigation of the crimes, human rights violations and root causes of the armed violent conflict.


Funmi Olonisakin, Reinventing Peacekeeping in Africa. Conceptual and Legal Issues in ECOMOG Operations (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000) p. 69

Funmi Olonisakin, Reinventing Peacekeeping in Africa. Conceptual and Legal Issues in ECOMOG Operations (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000) p. 69

Article XIII of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, 18 August 2003, Accra, Ghana

Article IV, An Act to Establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia, 2005, p. 4

* Dr. Thomas Jaye is currently serving as Senior Research Fellow at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana and writing on regional security issues. He is author of the book, ‘Issues of Sovereignty, Strategy and Security in the ECOWAS Intervention in the Liberian Civil War,’ published by Edwin Mellen Press in 2003.

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