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Taking Notes from the Opening Of The African Bar’s 2019 Annual Conference At the Ministerial Complex

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

Monday this week marked an important event in the chronicle of this country as a result of the hosting for the first time of the Annual Conference of the African Bar Association under the auspice of the Liberian National Bar Association. The conference which usually brings together lawyers from the continent, was originally scheduled for Egypt, but was changed to Liberia because of security problem in that country.

The four-day conference is being held under the theme: Tackling Contemporary issues facing the African continent: How Lawyers Can Drive A Renaissance. It would also feature a workshop to be held under the theme:” Rules Of Engagement In Asymmetric Warfare and Security Operations: Need For Compliance With International Law.”

On the opening day, those who spoke did justice to the topic. Howbeit, today, as the conference enters its third day, I would reflect addresses of Mr. Hannibal Uwaifo, president of the African Bar Association, who among other things warned against impunity, especially as it relates to Liberia. Also, I would look at some issues raised by the keynote speaker Mr. Karim Khan QC, Worldwide Ambassador of the African Bar Association, regarding the role of lawyers and service they should render to their society.

The Bar president among other things noted” While many parts of the Continent are currently experiencing peace, others are fighting terrorism armed conflict of a severe nature. Terrorism anywhere is serious and we condemn all acts of terror especially against women, children and the vulnerable and for all those who plunged their countries into chaos due to Economic greed and hunger for Political Power, we call on Governments to bring all the actors to account for their deed. Liberia, where we all are today once more a proud Country was sometime, ago   a theatre of the absurd. We commend the Government and people of Liberia for the relative peace here today and that all organs in the democracy Liberia enjoys are all working.

He went on: “We are also glad to know that some of the actors in the brutal Civil war or armed conflict that led to the death & thousands have been brought to justice. However, others have not. The African Bar Association hereby calls on the Liberian Government to liase with the appropriate International, Continental and Regional bodies to settle up the appropriate tribunal to look into cases of all those who murdered innocent people and plundered this beautiful hand. They must all face justice in a transparent and recognized Legal and Judicial process. This is the only way to rest the past and face the future. The African Bar Association has respected members as Judges, Lawyers and experts in all fields and is available to help the Republic of Liberia in this direction.”

My first reflection is that of the African Bar president regarding the issue of impunity, for which he has called for the establishment of an appropriate tribunal (court) to look into cases of those who murdered innocent people during the country’s civil conflict. This call by the Bar president comes at a time of mounting calls by Liberians and groups for the settling up of a War and Economic Crimes Court.

Let me say that I am against impunity, but my concern about these calls is whether or not Liberians have the “GUTS “for the setting up of this War and Economic Crimes Court. This is my concern, considering our sociology that whenever such issue crops up, we end up by saying, “ let’s leave that thing; Liberia is a small country; we are all related.”

Unsurprisingly, this plethora of calls made President George Weah to make this one of his agenda issue when he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly last month.

 In that address, President Weah said,” The Liberian civil conflict came to an end when all parties and warring factions signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Accra, Ghana, in August, 2003.

“The Accord called for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to provide a forum that would address issues of impunity, as well as an opportunity for both the victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to share their experiences, in order to facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation.

“The TRC was duly established, concluded its hearings, and produced a final report in 2009.  Among other things, the report called for the establishment of an extraordinary criminal tribunal to prosecute those identified as having committed gross violations of human rights and economic crimes between 1979 and 2003.”

“It is important to note that the TRC report also recommended the use of a conflict-resolution mechanism that has been traditionally used in Liberia, called the “Palava Hut” mechanism, whereby, in various district meetings conducted by community elders, perpetrators could publicly request forgiveness from their victims, and where the aims of restorative justice could be served.

When I spoke before you last September, after my first nine (9) months in office, I indicated a preference for dialogue as a conflict-resolution mechanism, so that as a Government and People, we could together focus our efforts on poverty-reduction, growth, and economic development, rather than on retribution.

“However, since that time, there has been a rising chorus of voices from many quarters, calling for the establishment of an Economic and War Crimes Court.  These voices include not only thousands of war victims, but also some of the alleged perpetrators, who seem to wish to either clear their names or their conscience. 

“Support for the establishment of the Court has also been voiced by many international organizations, as well as some of our international partners. 

“Mr. President, we are at a loss to understand why the clamor for the establishment of the Court is now being made, almost a full decade after it was first called for, and during which time no such pressure was brought to bear on the government that grew out of the Accra Peace Accord. 

“Nevertheless, our Government is a listening Administration, and we have been paying keen attention to the voices of our people.  What I have discerned from their cries is that it is important to bring closure to the wounds from the 14 years of Liberia’s brutal civil war, and that we need to agree on a mechanism that would guarantee the sustenance of peace, stability, justice, and reconciliation, as well as enhance our prospects for economic recovery.

“Considering the importance of this matter, I have already begun consultations with our National Legislature – the representatives of our people – and we intend to have a broader engagement with the Liberia Judicial System, and with our strategic International Partners and Organizations, in order to determine pertinent issues such as legal framework, timing, venue, and funding, among others. 

“It is my hope that at the end of this consultative process, a National Consensus will evolve that will determine the pathway to resolving this issue. I therefore ask for your unflinching support, as we embark upon this important national endeavour.

My second issue of concern was a point raised by the keynote speaker   on issue of “TRIBES “and “TRIBALISM.” In his address like a classroom-like lecture, Mr. Karim Khan QC, Worldwide Ambassador of the African Bar Association, said people should “respect tribes” and “condemn tribalism.” Intuitively, my understanding of this advice is because of the consequences of “tribalism,” which usually results to collateral damage.

One book refers to tribe as “ a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers,” while it refers to  ”Tribalism,” as “ tribal consciousness and loyalty; exaltation of the tribe above other groups.”

Another book refers to tribe in a social division in a traditional society as consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader and that a tribe is a human social group. As for tribalism, it may also refer to a way of thinking or behaving in which people are loyal to their social group above all else, or, derogatorily, a type of discrimination or animosity based upon group differences. Furthermore, it said tribalism is also used to describe situations where people are overly loyal to their own group and that tribalism can lead to bigotry and racism and, when taken to extremes, even war.

Considering the definitions of the two words, I certainly agree with keynote speaker to respect tribes and condemn tribalism because of the danger of tribalism. It is good to respect a tribe, their norms and values. But when a tribe tries to trivialize things by feeling that they are above other tribes or that they feel so loyal to their social group above all else, then, it is dangerous. As such, this must not be encouraged.

I decided to dwell on this because of what tribalism, did during the civil conflict when innocent people were decimated or massacred only because some individuals during the civil conflict tribalized the conflict by targeting people they perceived as their enemies.

 During the conflict, it was a crime for a member of another tribe to be in the terrain of another tribe that perceived such tribe as enemies only because of tribalism. The security, mainly the military was fraught with men because of tribalism.

Thank God today, this has changed because of the vigorous recruitment process, which I hope would continue, as I said recently in an article about the professional role being played by the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) peacekeepers in Mali.

Again, I agree with the two speakers separately on the issue of discouraging impunity and also condemning tribalism.  Let me thank the two speakers for raising these two critical issues I have highlighted or lionized.

I Rest My Case.

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