Peace in our time? Averting Transitional Justice's Mid-life Crisis in Liberia

AuthorJun Wei Quah
PositionUniversity of Southampton
[2018] University of Southampton Student Law Review Vol.8
Peace in our time? Averting Transitional Justice’s Mid-life Crisis in
Jun Wei Quah
University of Southampton
ransitional justice’s goal, broadly construed, is to ensure accountability and
redress for victims in post-conflict societies devastated and divided at its core by
systemic human rights violations.
Yet, the noble aims of transitional justice and its attendant mechanisms are almost
always hamstrung by context-insensitivity, disenchantment with the transitional
process, and the propensity of transitional mechanisms to be manipulated for political
ends. Left unaddressed, these issues subvert the transitional process and eventually
defeat transitional justice mechanisms, relegating transitional justice to a mere
cosmetic rather than substantial, process post-conflict.
This article comparatively analyses the application of transitional justice mechanisms
in, inter alia, Liberia and South Africa, highlights where and why transitional
processes often wane, cautions against the boilerplate application of transitional
justice mechanisms, and proposes a practical framework to avoid transitional justice’s
disposition to a mid-life crisis from which it has great difficulty bouncing back from.
This article begins by exploring the causes of societal turmoil and instability in post-
conflict Liberia and highlights tensions left unaddressed by national and international
institutions post-conflict.
A comparative analysis of the application of transitional justice mechanisms in similar
post-conflict societies is then carried out to ascertain whether and how those
experiences can inform a more nuanced and efficacious approach to the transitional
This is followed by an analysis of Liberian transitional justice mechanisms and
concludes with proposing a practical framework which seeks to safeguard transitional
justice’s effectiveness and relevancy in post-conflict societies going forward. This
assessment is crucial in ensuring that transitional justice retains its role as a
substantive and crucial mechanism employed to steer nations emerging from
cataclysmic conflicts to a more optimistic future.
1.!Terra de Liberia
Founded by emancipated African-Americans (“Americo-Liberians”) in 1822, Liberia is
Africa’s first republic and a founding member of the UN.1 Despite its distinguished
1 Melville Mackenzie, ‘Liberia and the League of Nations’ (1934) 33 Journal of the Royal African Society
372, 374 377; Robin Doak, Liberia (Countries Around the W orld) (Heinemann-Raintree 2012) 22
S.S.L.R Peace in our time? Averting Transitional Justice’s Mid-life Crisis… Vol.8
history, Liberia remains plagued by sectarian violence flowing from societal
dissension.2 Section 1 explores the brief history of Liberia, its two civil wars and posits
three tensions contributing to societal instability post-conflict. Section 1 will then
examine local and international legal responses to the said tensions and identify key
challenges which remain unaddressed.
1.1.! Historic Tension
Prior to 1822, Liberia was not ‘unified’ under a central government; each ethnic group
was self-governing.3 Despite the occasional skirmishes, inter-ethnic relations were
stable.4 Yet Liberia was not an egalitarian utopia pre-1822; powerful tribes established
brutal top-down tribal hierarchies. 5 However, post-1822, the Americo-Liberian’s
divide-and-conquer tactics were game changing in the sense that they polarized ethnic
groups on an unprecedented scale6 and triggered the civil wars. The Americo-Liberians
behaved as their erstwhile American masters did and hoarded wealth and political
power while treating the native Liberians as subhuman and inferior.7 Unsurprisingly,
native Liberians became impoverished and politically excluded in this ‘new’ Liberia.
A flashpoint was finally reached in 1979,8 when native Liberian Samuel Doe seized
power from the Americo-Liberian political dynasty in a coup d’état.9 Doe’s regime was
characterised by wanton killings; 10 dissenters, regardless of ethnicity, were
incarcerated, tortured and killed.11 Doe favoured his tribe, the Krahns, who became the
most politically and economically dominant ethnic group. 12 While contemporary
scholars are quick to point out Doe’s divisive nepotism as being counterproductive to
nation building, the gentrified Krahns controvert that Doe’s reign was far from the
dystopian narrative championed by Ballah et al, with Nmoma asserting Liberian
society entered a ‘golden age’.13
Charles Taylor, of the Gola ethnicity, sparked the first civil war which toppled Doe,
cumulating with Doe’s brutal public execution. Taylor, much like Doe, favoured his
own while persecuting other tribes.14 Yet Taylor’s bloodthirsty regime was welcomed
26. See also Constitution of Liberia 1847, art 11.
2 Mary Moran, Liberia: The Violence of Democracy (University of Pennsylvania Press 2006) 101 123.
3 Heneryatta Ballah and Clemente Abrokwaa, ‘Ethnicity, Politics and Social Conflict: The Quest for Peace
in Liberia’ (2003) 10 Penn State McNair Journal 5 2, 56.
4 Ibid.
5 Earl Conteh-Morgan and Shireen Kadivar, ‘Ethnopolitical Violence in the Liberian Civil War’ (1995) 15
Journal of Conflict Studies 30, 31.
6 Michael Brown, Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press 2001)
269 271.
7 Horatio Bridge, Journal of an African Cruisier (Wiley and Putnam 1845) 107.
8 Ballah and Abrokwaa, ‘Ethnicity, Politics and Social Conflict’ (n 3) 61.
9 Abiodun Alao, The Burden of Collective Goodwill (Ashgate 1998) 10.
10 Emmanuel Dolo, Democracy Versus Dictatorship: The Quest for Freedom and Justice in Africa's
Oldest Republic Liberia (University Press of America 1996) 56.
11 Ballah and Abrokwaa, Ethnicity, Politics and Social Conflict(n 3) 62; Ibaad Naas, A Study in Internal
Conflicts: The Liberian Crisis & the West African Peace Initiative (Fourth Dimension Publishing 2001)
10 12.
12 Alao, The Burden of Collective Goodwill (n 9) 15 21.
13 Veronica Nmoma, ‘The Civil War and the Refugee Crisis in Liberia’ (1997) 17 Journal of Conflict
Studies 57, 62.
14 Emmanuel Aning, ‘Gender and Civil War: the Cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone’ (1998) 1 Civil Wars
1, 2 5.

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