Finland has demonstrated its support for the victims and for the fight against impunity
Liberia was the theatre of one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts – the first and second civil wars of 1989-1997 and 1999-2003, respectively. The wars not only destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Liberians, but eventually spilled into neighbouring Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire. And yet for all of the victims of horrendous atrocities, only in Sierra Leone was there at least some degree of accountability for those responsible for so much suffering – through the efforts of a UN-backed hybrid tribunal whose jurisdiction was limited to crimes in Sierra Leone. In Liberia itself, the perpetrators of horrific crimes were never held accountable, neither at the domestic level nor at the international. Years went by and those that committed the crimes seemed like they would literally “get away with murder.”
However, in the last several years something has changed. A dedicated group of civil society actors refused to give up, and their work has led to at least some of the Liberian perpetrators being investigated, and some put to trial in countries outside of Liberia, including in Switzerland, in France, in Belgium and in the United States. In this last instance, there was even two convictions for immigration fraud on the basis of the war crimes committed in Liberia.
And now the work of these civil society actors has led to an even more significant achievement. The latest trial will be brought against an alleged perpetrator now residing in Finland. Finland has initiated a criminal trial against a citizen of Sierra Leone for the crimes he allegedly committed while he was in Liberia in the latter part of the second Liberian civil war. The Finnish authorities are displaying an admirable level of support for the victims and for the fight against impunity. And like other trials in Europe, this is the latest and an excellent textbook example of the concept of “universal jurisdiction.”
But what distinguishes the Finnish case from the precedent trials is even more noteworthy than the trial itself: for the Finnish judicial officials have taken the necessary steps to make sure they can hear the evidence where the people most affected actually live – in Sierra Leone and in Liberia. For Liberia it will be the first ever criminal proceedings to take place in Liberia, within the society most directly affected by the crimes.
What else could victims have expected? Nothing. So far, Finland has provided in this procedure a lesson of what the rule of law means and how it impacts the way in which justice is done to the people, in its extended conception here, namely not only the Finnish people but including humankind.
As an African, let me state that this trial is an opportunity that I hope African States will draw lessons from and will themselves take the lead in the future. The victims need their own governments to act for justice and not wait on systems and courts outside of Africa to take on this role alone. African states need to start engaging on the side of victims. For instance, in the Hissene Habré case, the victims are still awaiting for the promised reparations without which accountability for the crimes committed in Chad is only partially done. Moreover, the experiment in the Habré case must be extended to other contexts of international crimes. The African Union has just announced the establishment of a hybrid court for South Sudan. Others must follow through. Finland is showing the way for Liberia, but Africa and Liberia itself must take responsibility to assist the victims in Liberia to have their day in court. This should start with a good cooperation for successful hearings in this trial both in Liberia and in Sierra Leone. This is an opportunity for the two States and their political elite to make the right choice for a moral alliance on the side of the victims.
I personally hope that we, Africans, will draw all lessons from this unique and constructive development in the rule of law and an effective fight against impunity.