Cover image courtesy of justiceinconflict.org.
–by Dakota Horn–
Using Liberia as a case study, this paper examines Truth and Reconciliation Commissions through a humanitarian lens as an alternative or additional complement to reliance on international court systems. Findings indicate that the grassroots, locally autonomous nature of TRCs parallel similarly self-determinative humanitarianism efforts in various other sectors.
The following post will take a critical look at Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) as grassroots alternatives or additions to western-facilitated justice processes within post-conflict African countries as a form of humanitarianism. The intervention of international courts, or the implementation of western style justice systems within Sub-Saharan African countries may at first glance present itself as “not your typical” brand of humanitarian aid. However, the examples from which we can draw fit the western style “helping” mold so common within the coursework. Criticisms leveled against the International Criminal Court over the past decade, including its western leanings and seeming prejudice against African countries and leaders (ten of the eleven official investigations are in African countries), provide legitimate arguments for flaws and racism. In contrast, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, while overseen by international organizations, provide a more hands-on, autonomous approach for the governments and communities in which they are working.
Firstly, the following will take a brief look at the form and function of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then, the paper will use a case study on Liberia, examining the history of its conflict and post-conflict usage of the Truth and Reconciliation model assisted by the United Nations and International Center for Transitional Justice. This information should provide the evidence necessary to support the contention that while localized, grassroots-focused efforts like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission may be imperfect, they provide the self-determination and autonomy necessary to help attain long-term success in any humanitarian effort.
What is a TRC?
Understanding how Truth and Reconciliation Commissions function can shed light on how they can be classified as examples of humanitarianism, particularly when applied within greater judicial frameworks, and used to rebuild in post conflict, post human rights violation environments. Truth commissions are official, nonjudicial bodies of a limited duration established to determine the facts, causes, and consequences of past human rights violations. By giving special attention to testimonies, they provide victims with recognition, often after prolonged periods of social stigmatization and skepticism. While this definition may be rather simple, academics find much more confusion in defining the term reconciliation in their publications. David Bloomfield in his article “On Good Terms: Clarifying Reconciliation” acknowledges this issue – citing Audrey Chapman to assist in illustrating how reconciliation has developed into a carpet term that includes a seemingly unlimited number of variables, “national reconciliation can best be understood as a multi-dimensional and long-term process”.
Reconciliation, as both a process and an outcome is essentially a building process with an outcome or goal of peace in mind. At more depth, Daniel Bar-Tal and Gemma Bennink in their feature From Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation, see reconciliation as an “end-state” which: “…consists of mutual recognition and acceptance, invested interests and goals in developing peaceful relations, mutual trust, positive attitudes, as well as sensitivity and consideration for the other party’s needs and interests.” In a humanitarian effort, the process then becomes a matter of motivating a damaged, polarized society, to – from conflict – believe in a reconciled, harmonized, “end-state”. Therefore, reconciliation as a process, while requiring the utmost attention and understanding of particular case, above all requires a high degree of relationship rebuilding from the ground up. In addressing the question of how civilians can go about cohabiting and coexisting within the same national territorial unit after the killing has stopped, Lauren Gould and Cedric Ryngaert write of a requirement of people to address the injustices that have taken place, while also moving towards a relationship that they believe to be minimally acceptable.
Gould/Ryngaert and Bloomfield find common footing in the belief of the necessity of relationship-building as a core foundation, but remembering the complexity of human behavior, particularly in the wake of already irrational violence, this is no easy task. This is why I believe Gould and Ryngaert are so careful in the choice of words when they say “a relationship that they believe to be MINIMALLY acceptable.” This word choice reflects the difficulty associated with the reconstruction of relations between perpetrators and victims, neighbors who may well be sworn enemies in collective, cultural memory. The necessity of redesigning relationships is the common necessity in bringing about reconciliation. In addition, justice, truth, healing and reparations are key components in the vast inter-communal relationship building process for reconciliation. These key components lend themselves to a number of transitional justice mechanisms with the goal of preventing the reoccurrence of violence and promoting a stable peace. Transitional justice mechanisms derived from the aforementioned key components contribute together to the over-arching relationship-building process that is essential for progress towards the goal of a reconciled society. Taking all of this into account and keeping truth and reconciliation within the context of a humanitarian effort, it is important to remember the degree to which all situations of past conflict can differentiate. Regional facilitators, NGOs, governing bodies, etc. seeking reconciliation or to assist in the process must keep in mind that there is no universal approach to achieving reconciliation between antagonistic identity groups in the wake of civil war. Overall understanding of the cultural, political, social, economic, and theological circumstances within a host nation is vital to success. This fact highlights the importance of grassroots involvement, local advising, and autonomy as fundamentals to the process.
Conflict in Liberia
In analyzing certain processes of reconciliation, the case study that I have decided to examine specifically is that of the two successive civil wars and subsequent reconciliation processes that have taken place within the Republic of Liberia. As the United States’ only real attempt at quasi-colonialization in Africa, Liberia would originally be founded as part of the “Back to Africa” movement started by American abolitionists like Marcus Garvey. Freed African American slaves would be brought to Liberia from the United States to form their own American colony. Calling themselves Americo-Liberian, the colonizers seemed to develop their own cultural tradition infused with American notions of racial supremacy and political republicanism. Gravely, the Americo-Liberians would enslave the indigenous African population under the same plantation system they had learned firsthand in the United States.
Following an ironically similar trajectory to the United States, slavery would eventually be put to an end but indigenous Liberian tribes would be politically repressed until a popular coup in 1980 would make Samuel Doe the first Liberian president of non Americo-Liberian descent. Although Doe would receive massive initial support from a large number of indigenous Liberian tribes who had been excluded from power since 1847, his paranoia of a counter-coup against him fueled the establishment of a military regime called the People’s Redemption Council, used by Doe to apply pressure to the opposition he so feared. A failed coup in 1985 led to large-scale oppression of the Gio and Mano tribes of the north where the coup was believed to be plotted. In a country where ethnic tensions had always been palpable, the mistreatment of the Gio and Mano, in combination with Doe’s preference of his own group the Krahn, further inflamed the situation.
After leaving Samuel Doe’s government because of an accusation of embezzlement, American-educated politician Charles Taylor formed the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a group of rebels, mostly ethnic Gios and Manos who despised Doe and his regime. The NPFL, along with a splinter group based on the Gio tribe would soon enter Nimba County in December of 1989. Retaliation in the form of scorched-earth tactics by the Liberian Army in the area against the whole population, including civilians, further fueled Doe’s opposition and increased dramatically the tensions between the Krahn people and the Gio and Mano tribes. Perhaps not seeing eye to eye with the way Taylor handled things, Prince Johnson, an NPFL fighter, split to form his own guerrilla force soon after crossing into Liberia. Comprised of mostly Gio tribe rebels, the new group would spitefully name itself the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia or INPFL.
By 1990 Charles Taylor’s NPFL controlled much of the country while Prince Johnson’s INPFL moved on the capitol of Monrovia. Prince Johnson captured president Samuel Doe on September 9, 1990. The videotape of the torture and execution of Samuel Doe would be seen on news reports around the world. Infighting in Monrovia and the rest of the nation would continue as both Johnson and Taylor both claimed power. In 1991, supporters of the late Samuel Doe would form the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO). Internal divisions would cause ULIMO to split into an ethnic Krahn faction and a Mandingo faction, fighting both the NPFL and IPFL. In many cases relying mainly on child soldiers, both ULIMO factions would commit massive human rights violations in capturing diamond-rich territory in areas of Liberia.
A number of failed treaties and ceasefires would follow before elections could be held in July of 1997. Assisted by widespread intimidation, Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Party took over 75% of the presidential vote, beating out 12 other candidates. Bloodshed would slow, but the environment would soon erupt again as some ULIMO forces reformed as the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy or LURD in order to conduct raids, destabilize the government and gain control of local diamond fields. The Second Liberian Civil War would follow.
With LURD in the north and a second rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia took hold of the south. By mid-2003, Charles Taylor’s government was severely weakened and controlled only a third of the country. Monrovia would be besieged by LURD and the shelling of the city would kill many civilians, destroying homes and businesses. By October, UN and US military forces would intervene to stop the rebel siege of Monrovia; Charles Taylor would be exiled to Nigeria before being arrested and taken to The Hague for trial in 2006.
Death estimates range to over 300,000 and more than a million Liberians were displaced over the course of the two wars. Accounts of child soldiers raping, murdering, and even eating people of all ages have been widespread. When looking at potential causes and consequences of the civil wars, it is important to note the colonial history of the country as the core source of ethnic strife. Among the economic disparity, predatory elites who abused power, and a corrupt political system, “the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that underlying those proximate causes, the seeds of conflict were sown by the historical decision to establish Liberia as a state divided between natives and settlers, and the use of force to sustain the settlers’ hegemony”. In this case, a point can be made that antagonistic identity boundaries were drawn in the country almost 200 years prior.
The TRC in Liberia
Civil society representatives, political leaders, and leaders of the different rebel groups met in Akosombo, Ghana in July of 2003 to discuss the end of the war and the need for an analysis of the number of factors that led to the war and how they could prevent any kind of reoccurrence. In the end Liberia was offered three different approaches to be facilitated: criminal prosecution for the violations and abuses that occurred; establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission; institutional reforms and lustration. A recognition of the need to first set vital priorities made what might be to some the obvious choice–prosecuting all criminals–invalid at this point in time in the minds of the decision makers. An economy in shambles, fragile civil authority, a weak criminal justice system, and elements of old regimes still within the government pushed the traditional forms of retributive justice out of the frame.
The participants and representatives of Liberia would settle on the choice of establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. With assistance from the UN Mission and International Center for Transitional Justice, it would take two years for all actors involved to settle the specific parameters the Act would address. The National Transitional Legislative Assembly enacted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act of Liberia on May 12, 2005. According to www.trcliberia.org, the TRC Act charged the Commission to, among other things:
(a) Investigate gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law and abuses that occurred including massacres, sexual violations, murder, extra-judicial killings and economic crimes such as the exploitation of natural or public resources to perpetuate armed conflicts;
(b) Provide a forum that will address issues of impunity as well as an opportunity for both victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to share their experiences in order to create a clear picture of the past to facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation;
(c) Investigate the antecedents of the crises which gave rise to and impacted the violent conflict in Liberia;
(d) Conduct a critical review of Liberia’s historical past, with a view to establishing and giving recognition to historical truths in order to address falsehoods and misconceptions of the past relating to the nation’s socio-economic and political development;
(e) Adopt specific mechanisms and procedures to address the experiences of women, children and vulnerable groups, paying particular attention to gender-based violations, as well as to the issue of child soldiers, and to provide opportunities for them to relate their stories;
(f) Compile a report that includes a comprehensive account of the activities of the Commission and its findings. 
Modifying the model of the South African TRC to fit the unique context of the Liberian conflict, the growing popularity of truth-telling as a means of reconciliation in other states helped spur the mechanism’s support.
Rosalind Shaw outlines the value of truth-telling and how it functions in her statement that, “According to the model on which these mechanisms are based, a full acknowledgement of the past through verbal testimony not only forms an essential basis for justice but also facilitates healing and helps rebuild the nation”. Of course for this to work, public support and active community participation is absolutely key. Within the mechanism of a TRC, public support also entails the changing of the attitudes of the people by means of forgiveness. Forgiveness harkens back to the original concept of reconciliation as a religious concept. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission also advocated unilateral or unconditional forgiveness on the part of victims. The transformation of attitudes and the mutual forgiveness amongst all involved is vital to TRC-mechanisms, especially in the case of Liberia where the TRC proposed that all individuals admitting their wrongs and speaking truthfully before it in remorse should not be prosecuted.
Part of the draw of a TRC is that it does empower and gift the local communities with a certain degree of responsibility. This helps cut down on any ignorant meddling of outside organizations or international justice and rule of law initiatives that may not be politically neutral. Patricia Lundy and Mark McGovern describe, “the tendency to exclude local communities as active participants in transitional justice measures is a primary flaw raising fundamental questions of legitimacy, local ownership and participation”. Analysis, recommendations, and mediatory facilitation handled by the ICTJ and other entities are crucial to the process but true reconciliation begins in the hearts, minds and mouths of those affected. In this sense, the TRC operates as the local arm of the greater international judicial system, offering the best of historical and cultural context through the lens of those with the highest perspective and understanding.
Outcomes and Conclusions
The commission hoped its report of investigations determining responsibility for gross human rights violations and root causes of the conflict would part “a mountainous and depraved sea built on 186 years (1822-2006) of misunderstanding, inequality, poverty, oppression and deadly conflict with the enduring principles of truth, justice and reconciliation” (www.trcofliberia.org). Along with the in-depth analysis of the historical roots and development of the conflict, the Commission would include recommendations for the establishment of a criminal court to determine criminal responsibility for both individuals and groups. Based on victim testimonies in the hearings that applied specific blame by name, “the Commission published the names of fifty persons which it recommended should be barred from holding public office for a period of thirty years, because of the roles they played during the war or the support they provided to the armed factions”. The goal behind this being the hope that prosecuting many of the perpetrators would send the signal of the dawn of a new time in Liberia in which criminals would be held accountable. However, a number of clarity issues have threatened the validity of this move. The Commission did not review the evidence against those accused in the report, provide justification for its recommendation, nor advise those persons that it would make adverse recommendations against them, allowing them the opportunity to respond to the evidence against them. In her critical examination of the TRC in Liberia, Ozzonia Ojielo writes that through these mistakes of vagueness “the Commission jeopardized the long-term consolidation of peace and security in the country. The persons adversely mentioned would certainly continue to challenge the conclusions of the Commission and deny their involvement in the war. By not putting out all the relevant evidence and the basis upon which it came to its conclusions, the Commission is allowing a competing history of the events to be promoted”.
Besides this criticism, another recommendation published in the report advocated for the establishment of “National Palava Hut Fora,” under the guidance of the Independent Human Rights Commission, to provide a public venue for victims to confront perpetrators living in their communities and further progress reconciliation based on the same kind of truth-telling conducted in the TRC hearings. This recommendation serves a number of purposes in addressing the goal of sustainable reconciliation once the TRC’s job was completed. One of the largest problems with most truth commissions is the inability for them to visit all parts of a country during their public hearings. Understanding that reconciliation takes an incredibly long time, many recognized the need for a much larger, countrywide forum based on the TRC’s truth-telling hearings in the form of National Palava Hut Fora that could continue once the TRC left the nation. This further extrapolated the bottom-up, people-driven core of truth telling commissions, allowing a much broader audience access to reconciliation within their community’s specific context and allowing the communities to move forward.
Based on the efforts and implemented recommendations made by the TRC and the Liberian people, it is safe to say that reconciliation as a form of humanitarianism has and is continuing to be facilitated in Liberia. In 2017, the country experienced its first democratic transfer of power in decades, highlighting political stability and promise. If the new government can continue to effectively develop and expand programs like National Palava Hut Fora and others that address the major root causes of the violence in the region, the probability of resurgence of violence at the cataclysmic level of before is greatly reduced. The ability of systems like the TRC to empower local populations to take ownership of judicial processes and reconciliation mirrors other successful forms of humanitarianism that work from a grassroots, local level. Though in many cases framed and overseen by western authority, Truth and Reconciliation efforts are proving to be more successful than foreign alternatives and significantly complement the greater judiciary process.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
“Root Causes of the Civil War.” Liberia: Inter-Ethnic Relations | PeacebuildingData.org, www.peacebuildingdata.org/research/liberia/results/civil-war/root-causes-civil-war.
“TRC Final Report Released.” Polybius at The Clickto Network, Fox News, web.archive.org/web/20170519055529/http://trcofliberia.org/
“Truth Seeking: Elements of Creating and Effective Truth Commission.” Www.ictj.com, International Center for Transitional Justice, 2013, ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Book-Truth-Seeking-Chapter2-2013-English.pdf.
James-Allen, Paul, et al. “Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Transitional Justice Options in Liberia.” Www.ictj.org, 2010, www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Liberia-Beyond-TRC-2010-English.pdf.
Bar-Tal, Daniel and Gemma H Bennink, 2004: “The Nature of Reconciliation as an Outcome and a Process,” From Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation. Oxford, OUP, pp. 11-38
Bloomfield, David, 2003a: “Reconciliation: An Introduction,” in: Bloomfield, Barnes and Huyse (eds.): Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook. Stockholm, IDEA
Chapman, Audrey R. 2009. ‘Approaches to Studying Reconciliation’. in Merwe, Hugo van der, Baxter, Victoria and Chapman, Audrey R. (eds.). Assessing the Impact of Transitional Justice. Challenges for Empirical Research. United States Institute of Peace: Washington, 143-172.
Gould, Lauren and Cedric Ryngaert, 2012: “The interface Between Transitional Justice and Reconciliation in the Wake of Civil War: A Case Study of Northern Uganda” Intersentia. Pp. 499 – 523
Lundy, Patricia and Mark McGovern, he Role of Community in Participatory Transitional Justice” in McEvoy, K., and L. McGregor (eds). 2008. Transitional Justice from Below: Grassroots Activism and the Struggle for Change. Oxford: Hart
Ojielo, Ozzonia 2010. Critical Lessons in Post-Conflict Security in Africa: The case of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Insitute for Justice and Reconciliation
“Legacies of Injustice in Liberia: Transitional Justice and Economic Crimes.” Justice in Conflict, 18 Feb. 2012, justiceinconflict.org/2012/02/16/legacies-of-injustice-in-liberia-transitional-justice-and-economic-crimes/
Shaw, Rosalind. 2007. ‘Memory Frictions: Localizing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone” International Journal of transitional Justice 1 183 – 207
Tutu, Desmond. 1999. No Future without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday
Wegmann, Andrew N. “Christian Community and the Development of an Americo-Liberian Identity. 1824 – 1878”. Louisiana State University.
 “Truth Seeking: Elements of Creating and Effective Truth Commission.” Www.ictj.com, International Center for Transitional Justice, 2013, ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Book-Truth-Seeking-Chapter2-2013-English.pdf.
 Chapman, Audrey R. 2009. ‘Approaches to Studying Reconciliation’. in Merwe, Hugo van der, Baxter, Victoria and Chapman, Audrey R. (eds.). Assessing the Impact of Transitional Justice. Challenges for Empirical Research. United States Institute of Peace: Washington, 143-172.
 Bar-Tal, Daniel and Gemma H Bennink, 2004: “The Nature of Reconciliation as an Outcome and a Process,” From Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation. Oxford, OUP, pp. 11-38
 Gould, Lauren and Cedric Ryngaert, 2012: “The interface Between Transitional Justice and Reconciliation in the Wake of Civil War: A Case Study of Northern Uganda” Intersentia. Pp. 499 – 523
 Bloomfield, David, 2003a: “Reconciliation: An Introduction,” in: Bloomfield, Barnes and Huyse (eds.): Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook. Stockholm, IDEA
 Gould, Ryngaert, 523
 Wegmann, Andrew N. “Christian Community and the Development of an Americo-Liberian Identity. 1824 – 1878”. Louisiana State University.
 “Root Causes of the Civil War.” Liberia: Inter-Ethnic Relations | PeacebuildingData.org, www.peacebuildingdata.org/research/liberia/results/civil-war/root-causes-civil-war.
 “TRC Final Report Released.” Polybius at The Clickto Network, Fox News, web.archive.org/web/20170519055529/http://trcofliberia.org/
 Shaw, Rosalind. 2007. ‘Memory Frictions: Localizing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone” International Journal of transitional Justice 1 183 – 207
 Chapman, Audrey R. 2009. ”Approaches to Studying Reconciliation”. In Merwe, Hugo van der, Baxter, Victoria and Champman, Audrey R. (eds.). Assessing the Impact of Transitional Justice. Challenges for Empirical Research. United States Institute of Peace: Washington, 143 – 172
 Tutu, Desmond. 1999. No Future without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday
 Lundy, Patricia and Mark McGovern, he Role of Community in Participatory Transitional Justice” in McEvoy, K., and L. McGregor (eds). 2008. Transitional Justice from Below: Grassroots Activism and the Struggle for Change. Oxford: Hart
 Ojielo, Ozzonia 2010. Critical Lessons in Post-Conflict Security in Africa: The case of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Insitute for Justice and Reconciliation
 Ojielo, 16.