On Oct. 5, victims of one of the deadliest massacres of the Liberian civil wars filed a complaint before the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Court). The complaint alleges that, by failing to launch even a single criminal investigation into the massacre, Liberia is violating its obligations to investigate serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
The claims were filed against Liberia on behalf of survivors of the July 1990 massacre at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, which, as previously described in a Just Security article, was also the subject of civil litigation in the United States (we act as counsel to the survivors in the ECOWAS proceeding, along with the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, and two of us represented them in the civil litigation). By focusing on Liberia’s failure to investigate or prosecute, the ECOWAS complaint forges a novel path forward for victims of human rights abuses abroad seeking accountability from their home countries.
The Liberian civil wars were two periods of extreme violence from 1989 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003. In 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that all parties to the conflict had committed atrocities. Despite these findings, the Liberian Government has provided no domestic criminal accountability for perpetrators of crimes committed during the period. What is more, many perpetrators specifically named in the TRC report maintain positions of power in the country.
A Victory in the U.S. Bolsters Regional Claims
The ECOWAS complaint is the next step in efforts spanning three decades by Liberian survivors to seek accountability for the atrocities committed during the civil wars. The action comes on the heels of an historic decision in Jane W. v. Thomas. In that case, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (EDPA) held Col. Moses Thomas responsible for the Lutheran Church Massacre. The court found that he had ordered his soldiers – members of the Special Anti-Terror Unit of the Armed Forces of Liberia – to commit the massacre, only halting the killing after announcing that “everyone is dead.”
The court found Thomas liable for war crimes, torture, and crimes against humanity, and – recognizing that Thomas “faced no punishment for leading the atrocity” – awarded the plaintiffs $84 million in damages.
This was a significant victory in the effort to bring justice for the victims and survivors of the Liberian civil wars, but it was insufficient. While the EDPA case was pending against him, Thomas fled Pennsylvania and returned to Liberia. Despite this civil judgment memorializing the voluminous evidence of his crimes, he still lives in Liberia freely and evades accountability.
The ECOWAS Court provides a regional forum that can support efforts within Liberia to bring criminal justice to the victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre. ECOWAS Member States created the Court in 1991 as the Community’s principal legal organ. The Court was initially established mainly to determine cases related to the interpretation, application, or legality of ECOWAS regulations; the Member States in 2005 adopted a Supplementary Protocol affording the Court jurisdiction “to determine cases of violation of human rights that occur in any Member state.” The ECOWAS Court has since emerged as a powerful forum for independently considering human rights claims in West Africa.
The ECOWAS Court has a broad mandate to fashion remedies: the Supplementary Protocol and ECOWAS Treaty do not specify the remedies the Court can provide. In human rights cases, the Court has ordered monetary damages, as well as directives for States to comply with their human rights obligations. For example, in Manneh v. The Gambia, the Court ordered the release of Chief Ebrimah Manneh, a journalist unlawfully detained by the National Intelligence Agency of the Gambia.
The complaint against Liberia alleges that Liberia is in continuing breach of foundational human rights treaties, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The complaint alleges that Liberia has failed to investigate the Lutheran Church Massacre and if appropriate prosecute those responsible, even though more than thirty years have passed since it occurred.
The plaintiffs in this suit are the Global Justice & Research Project (GJRP) and three siblings who lost at least 16 family members in the Lutheran Church Massacre. GJRP is a Liberia-based nongovernmental organization that has worked for decades to advance the interests of justice and accountability for the nearly 2,000 survivors and victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre.
By filing this complaint, we hope to clarify Liberia’s legal obligations regarding atrocities committed during the civil wars. We have asked the ECOWAS Court to order that Liberia fulfill its obligations in support of ongoing accountability efforts — which, advocates agree, should include the establishment of a war crimes court.