Remarks at the Official Launching of the TRC-US Diaspora Statement Taking Process
Delivered by: Commissioner Massa A. Washington.
Chairman, TRC Committe on Diaspora Relations.
Saturday, February 24, 2007
The Chairman and members of the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, Ms. Robin Philips, members of the Consortium of Pro Bono Legal Firms participating in this diaspora project specific reference is made to the Faegre and Benson and the Fredrickson and Byron law firms, the Chairman and Members of the Board of Directors of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM) the President, Mrs. Martha Sando and members of OLM, Members of the TRC U.S. Advisory Council, the Honorable, Ambassador Juli Endee, Liberia's Cultural Ambassador, Traditional Queen and Communications Consultant to the TRC, Representative of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), friends of Liberia, fellow Liberians, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
On behalf of the Chairman, Commissioners and staff of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia (TRC), I extend to you sincere greetings and compliments on this historic ground breaking occasion of the formal launching of the statement taking phase of the U.S-based diaspora TRC project.
We at TRC Liberia are exceedingly grateful to all of you who have labored so tediously to make this day a reality and for the abundance support technical, financial, political, material and moral to the process. We also want to use this occasion to again extend gratitude to Her Excellency, Madame Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia, for her Government's support and commitment to the TRC, as the best option for spearheading the process of national healing, reconciliation and unity of our nation. Appreciation is also extended to His Excellency, Charles Minor, Liberian Ambassador to the United States for his support of the TRC especially the U.S based project.
The inauguration of the TRC and its eventual launch on June 22, 2006 gave to every Liberian a glimmer of hope, crucially connecting individual truth and reconciliation to collective peace by offering a space where concerns of the past meet those of the future. It is also a process that weaves understanding, acceptance, and tolerance in a socially and politically tattered nation with long standing animosity, distrust, and hatred, guaranteeing greater respect for human rights and justice, and thus consolidating democratic governance in our country.
However, nearly one year into the TRC process, the question is still asked in some quarters; Why the TRC and not a Special Court or War Crimes Tribunal and why a Diaspora program after all, no TRC has ventured this route before how do we know this initiative will work?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of several means available to societies emerging from periods of repression and civil conflict to address the tragedies and abuses of those periods and to return those societies to normalcy. Some post conflict societies around the world such as Sierra Leone have employed one or more of the various means of addressing legacies of abuse, namely; criminal justice mechanism which considers, domestic persecution, national or international tribunal (mixed or hybrid), or foreign proceedings carried out on the basis of universal jurisdiction or Non-Judicial Mechanism; including non-criminal sanctions, compensation programs for victims, and Truth Commissions
The most prominent complement to criminal justice is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Truth Commissions have proliferated since 1974. These non-judicial bodies are now almost always considered during political transitions and after periods of violent civil conflicts. TRC's have the greatest potentials, unlike other transitional justice mechanisms to generate great benefits for societies in transition including fostering accountability, helping establish specific general truths about the past, cultivating social reconciliation, recommending reparations and institutional reforms, providing a public platform for victims, helping reform or catalyze public debate about the past, and thereby incorporating past events into the nation's history. TRC's are most beneficial where systems of abuses were designed to hide the facts or where there exists multiple truths, each with a distorted perspective. TRC's have also proven critical in subsequent attempts to persecute abuses in such places as Argentine, Chad, and Guatemala, where there have been fears that establishing such bodies would somehow reduce the likely hood of persecution.
In Liberia's post-conflict situation, our domestic justice systems are dysfunctional and ineffective. Emerging from a 14 year civil conflict which left in its path massive destruction and untold human sufferings, the country lacks the infracture and resources necessary to address the overwhelming needs of varying aspect of our society including our justice system hence, the TRC will prove to be an effective viable alternative to addressing legacies of abuse. It will involve large public participation in the healing process, the media, religious and traditional communities, youth organizations, women organizations, civil society, and communities around the Country. Unlike a war crime tribunal, the Liberian TRC will recommend systemic and institutional reforms in the judiciary, military, the educational system, social services and others. It will recommend reparation and or compensation for victims and victims' communities that may include the provision of scholarships and other rehabilitative measures.
The Liberian TRC is mandated to investigate human rights abuses committed during the course of the 24-year period of conflict that plagued the country from 1979-2003. Specifically, the TRC's mandate includes "investigating gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law as well as 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." Additionally, the TRC aims to 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." The TRC will also investigate the antecedent causes of the Liberian conflict, conduct a critical review of Liberia's historical past, adopt specific mechanisms and procedures to address the experiences of women, children, and vulnerable groups, and compile a report detailing a comprehensive account of the Commission's activities, including its findings. It is to provide a forum where all Liberians irrespective of their diversity can come together and recount their experiences thus beginning the dialogue towards national healing.
Consequently, the expansion of the TRC process to include our brothers and sisters in the diaspora is only natural and cannot be overemphasized, considering the pivotal role of Liberians in the diaspora particularly the United States in the body politics of Liberia and their strategic position as a major constituency and stakeholders in the future of our nation. Liberians abroad have paid their dues; they have stuck with their homeland through thick and thin assuming various roles at different times in our national history especially in the peace process. The massive participation of Liberians abroad mainly the U.S.A., in the 2005 presidential elections despite being denied the opportunity to exercise their franchise through the ballot, greatly informed the elections results and the now gradual rise from ashes of the Liberian state. We at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recognize the importance of this diaspora community and we are determined that it is given a voice in this all important national process less we fall short of achieving our full mandate.
The last eight months (June 06 to present) in the implementation phase of the TRC have been difficult and challenging to say the least, but nonetheless successful. The TRC remains on course with the implementation of its two year-three months mandate, despite serious financial and logistical constraints. Within available means the TRC accomplished the following:
The TRC was inducted into office by Her Excellency, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on February 20, 2006. Immediately following its induction, the Commission began what is referred to as its Start-Period. One of the first things it did was to demarcate the Country into eight operational zones with each commissioner having oversight of certain County Territories, Thematic and Operation areas.
In May, the TRC conducted a Nationwide Needs Assessment to introduce itself and determine the status of local residents in all fifteen (15) Counties of Liberia before commencing actual implementation of its mandate.
The Commission also in May 2006 launched a massive and successful pre-launching Nationwide Outreach and Sensitization Campaign to educate the public about the TRC process and prepare people for the launching of the TRC in June.
The TRC was elaborately and successfully launched through out the fifteen (15) Counties of Liberia, and also in the State of Minnesota in June of 2006
It successfully secured a decent office space less than three months after its launching
The Commission has successfully recruited line as well as Secretariat staff, including, the Executive Secretary who is the chief administrator of the Commission, executed leases for local offices in the 15 Counties and forged collaboration with the elections commission in other instances for the use of NEC facilities in 5 counties thus, concluding the formation of a working body.
Over the past year, it built partnerships and attracted support from non-governmental organizations including the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa, the Open Society Initiative (OSI) in New York, the International Center for Transitional Justice ICTJ) and the Open Society Initiative in West Africa (OSIWA).
The TRC signed a major MOU with over 80 child protection agencies to work with the TRC in streamlining child rights issues in the TRC process
It established several working committees including, Gender, Legislative, Judiciary, Religious, Children, Elderly and Vulnerable Groups, Security, Diplomatic, etc.
The TRC established the Traditional Advisory Council- to assist the TRC in fostering traditional approaches to reconciliation-comprising traditional leaders from all fifteen counties and 16 tribes
The TRC also during the year under review, secured save havens for two witnesses under its witness protection scheme.
The TRC, embarked upon one of the most potent stages of its implementation periods through the Statement Taking process. In September, 192 Statement Takers, Investigators, Coordinators, Assistant Coordinators and Commissioners were recruited, trained and the pilot phase of Statement Taking commenced through out Liberia between September to October for a period of three weeks. While the process was not void of challenges as any other human process nonetheless, gains made overwhelm the challenges thus making the initial statement taking exercise very successful with nearly 2000 quality statements collected in the first two weeks of Statement Taking from around the country as a sign of popular support for the process
The TRC in June successfully expanded its activities to Liberians in the Diaspora through partnership with the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (working with a consortium of Pro Bono law firms) as implementing partners. This bold step to reach out to Liberians regardless of where they are makes the Liberian TRC the first TRC worldwide to systematically engage nationals residing outside of their home Country. Between September to October 06, media, outreach, and sensitization exercises were conducted in the United States including the holding of three (3) Zonal Workshops in areas where Liberians predominantly reside namely; the States of Minnesota, Washington D.C, and New York. Numerous town hall meetings have been held in various locations of the U.S.A., and will be ongoing as the U.S. project gains grounds.
As a result of a successful partnership with the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and the Association of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM), Statement Taking in the U.S. commenced in January of 07.
Equally so, to ensure that the Women of Liberia are an integral part of the TRC process and in conformity with its mandate regarding women, the TRC in December, engaged women through out the 15 Counties of Liberia, from Cape to Cape by the holding of four (4) Women's nationwide zonal workshops in addition to fifteen (15) town hall meetings in each County, soliciting the opinion and views of women before formulating policy to address how women's issues are handle at the TRC. The end result of these engagements is a comprehensive policy document on how the TRC will handle issues of women in the TRC process.
Have to date recorded approximately more than 5,000 statements of violations of different forms within the period October 2006 to February 2007.
Marked the commencement of the momentous task of excavating the truth about our past, reconciling our socially and politically tattered nation, and providing a blue-print for ensuring greater respect.
Due to constrains mentioned earlier, the Commission's public and in-camera hearings originally scheduled to have commenced this February have been postponed. The Commission is currently focusing energy on other aspect of its work specifically, engaging in additional outreach targeting the Statement taking and hearing processes. We are also contemplating the start of the West African Sub-Region diaspora engagements while working along with the International Contact Group on Liberia (ICGL) on a new date for the commencement of hearings.
We sincerely thank the thousands of Liberians who have allowed us into their homes both in Liberia and the U.S. to take their statements. We invite other Liberians to do likewise in order to help us write an accurate and complete record of the events of the crises and their impact on individuals, families, communities and the whole country. As we engage the communities more and more, we are left with the overwhelming impression of the necessity for people to tell their stories as a first step on this long road to recovery. Reconciliation is a sacrifice; both the victims and families must be willing to move on. Perpetrators too must be willing to unburden themselves, clear their hearts, by coming forward to tell the whole truth of what they did, to whom, where, how, and why. Only after the sacrifices are made and the truth is told can we truly move on as one people.
We congratulate the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and members of the U.S. based project for your tireless efforts and commitments in ensuring that Liberians in the U.S. voices are heard in this TRC process. We beg your indulgence to remain with us as we together set a new trend in the history of Truth Commissions worldwide. I thank you for the opportunity to address this all important gathering and God bless you all!