Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: The Importance of Documentation in Postwar Education and Reconciliation

Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: The Importance of Documentation in Postwar Education and Reconciliation

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) are temporarily established to investigate and document war atrocities committed against civilian populations1 They promote reconciliation between erstwhile enemies, as well as victims and perpetrators, and make recommendations to the post-conflict governments that have supported their establishment on how to avoid any recurrence of abuses. Despite the engagement of national governments and the international community in these investigative and documentation processes and practices, some studies have shown that more needs to be done if the TRC final report, which is based on the findings of the commission, is to advance its objectives.2

The Liberian TRC was established through the signing of the Liberia Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) by all parties involved in the Liberian conflict. Article 23 of the CPA defined the commission’s mandate as providing a forum where both the victims and perpetrators could recount their experiences in an effort to address the problem of those who committed acts of violence with impunity during the war and facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation. The act was passed by the National Transitional Legislative Assembly on May 12, 2005, and on February 20, 2006, it was implemented by president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The TRC, which was launched on June 22, 2006, was to investigate the root causes of the crises that led to the massive violation of human rights in Liberia.3

The TRC’s original mandate was for two years, but it was later granted an extension. It was headed by a chairman and nine commissioners, four of whom were women. In addition, three members of the International Technical Assistance Committee (ITAC) worked directly with the commissioners. Local staff were employed and paid by the Liberian government. The commission had partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, including the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa, the Open Society Initiative (OSI) in New York, the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), and the Open Society Initiative in West Africa (OSIWA), and it was supported by the international community.4

Among other objectives, the TRC was intended to enable victims and perpetrators of war atrocities to speak out and gain closure on bitter memories, provide a forum to discuss what went wrong, and promote reconciliation within Liberian society as a way of preventing future conflict. It was also intended to usher in a new democratic dispensation through its recommendations. One of the most important ambitions was to use the commission’s report (including the compilation of its findings, discussions, and recommendations) as an educational tool. Its wide dissemination and the implementation of its recommendations would, it was hoped, go a long way toward uprooting the culture of impunity that had contributed to the atrocities committed during the war.

In its final statement in the TRC report, the commission summed up its objectives:

The vast majority of us who are victims or survivors of the massive wave of atrocities induced by the conflict, expect that all the recommendations contained in this report will be implemented and reparations in the forms of compensation, policy and institutional reforms, specialized services, restitution or financial relief, will address all our social, economic, cultural, civic and political rights issues, ensure accountability, undermine impunity and foster national healing and reconciliation.5

This article argues that if these objectives are to be achieved, Liberian citizens need to be well informed about the TRC report so they may demand accountability and better governance from their government and elected officials and see that its recommendations are implemented in ways that will help consolidate sustainable postwar peace and development.

Controversies Arising from the TRC Report

Aaron Weah has postulated that while the TRC report has aroused much interest in ordinary people, it has not, unfortunately, been embraced by all Liberians, and this has given rise to controversies. Weah stated, for example, that the TRC was criticized for lack of a due process in formulating the recommendations and transparency in the naming of names.6 According to a former professor at one of Liberia’s universities, who preferred to remain anonymous,

The TRC process did not get stalled because of any problem with the President and Verdier. It stalled because of the process. First of all most of the people listed for sanctions were never referred to in the entire report. Secondly, the report was written by consultants who were ignorant of the Liberian realities. Thirdly half of the members of the TRC and their international advisor disassociated themselves from the final report and this gave rise to problems of credibility. Additionally there were issues of due process and constitutionality. People who testified were asked to recount their experiences and did not know [if] anything said would be held against them. Then the TRC was not a judicial body and its recommendations are to be considered and not accepted as law binding on government. They also lost the law suit filed against them on grounds that lustration [a form of punishment] was illegal and unconstitutional. There are plans for considering the palaver hut option7 but Liberians are in favor of national reconciliation, not a war crimes court, though some persons have been vocal about it.

Also giving rise to controversy was the treatment of the president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who attended the TRC hearings and confessed she had supported Charles Taylor in 1990. She was recommended for lustration, while the infamous General Butt Naked (Joshua Milton Blahyi), who claimed to have taken 20,000 lives, was recommended for amnesty. Some of the recommendations were hence seen by some groups as destabilizing to the precarious peace.

Despite these controversies, Weah argued, the commission managed to succeed where earlier TRCs had failed by recommending that the incumbent president of Liberia and some of the perpetrators of the conflict who are now in power step down from government office and leave politics. The failure of the government to honor the TRC recommendations, Weah said, is arousing a lot of interest in the TRC report, as the ordinary people keenly await the implementation of the commission’s recommendations.8

According to Aning and Thomas,9 “The issue is that the TRC process does generate a plethora of debate on the issues of reconciliation, truth and justice. It is therefore no surprise that since the publication of the draft report of the TRC on 30 June 2009 the West African state has been caught in a state of confusion and tension for a number of reasons.” Against this backdrop, I would argue that the TRC report should not be jettisoned, as some have urged. Rather, it should be used to open up the public debate on its relevance to postwar reconciliation, as well as on access to information in postwar Liberia. It is also important to explore fully the report’s potential to serve as a means of raising awareness within the Liberian society and a tool to promote democratic values and practices. In this regard, a lot of resources will need to be invested in the management of the TRC’s documentation of war atrocities and the dissemination of its findings and recommendations to Liberian citizens. To achieve long-term reconciliation in Liberia, creating a common understanding of the TRC process is crucial.

The Challenges Facing the Management and Dissemination of the TRC Report

The context in which the Liberian TRC took place presented many challenges. They included the absence of a legal framework to enhance access to information; high levels of illiteracy; poor institutions for managing information, such as archives and libraries; lack of skills to handle the documentation of atrocities; and lack of an archiving component in the TRC budget to manage the documentation generated. A good information infrastructure would convey the TRC documentation to a managed environment, where access would be controlled and classified documents safeguarded.

As a PhD researcher in the West, I could access the TRC documentation, which is in the public domain, on the Internet. I doubt, however, that most Liberians are as privileged. Knowledge empowers, and access to the TRC documentation would enable the masses to stand up for their rights. The TRC process has to give a return on investment, and this can only be achieved if its findings can be effectively used and the demand to implement its recommendations honored by the government. The following are some measures that can be taken to address the challenges facing the management of the documentation generated by the TRC and the dissemination of the commission’s report.

Freedom of Information and Access to Information

Freedom of information (FOI) legislation is supposed to promote good information management and enhance access to government information by the electorate. Citizens must be informed if they are to engage in the public sphere and with issues of governance and act on their rights. On April 17, 2008, the civil society (a body of community organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and so forth) in Liberia presented a draft of the Freedom of Information Act to the national legislature, urging the government to expedite its passage. Only in October 2011 was the bill enacted.10 Although implementation of the Freedom of Information Act does not necessarily mean information will be made available to the general public, taking certain measures to support it—such as seeing that government institutions maintain proper records management regimes—is one means of ensuring access to public information.

High Levels of Illiteracy Exacerbated by Lack of Education

High illiteracy rates in Liberia can be attributed to the devastation wrought by the wars on the education infrastructure there. According to Oxfam International estimates, Liberia had illiteracy levels of 90 percent among women and more than 75 percent among men at the end of the civil war (1989–2003).11 In 1999, Liberia launched the National Mass Literacy Program to raise citizens’ awareness of the benefits of mass literacy and the debilitating consequences of illiteracy for the reconstruction of the country.12

This is not enough, however. In societies where illiteracy rates are high and access to information is not a given, the government ought to undertake innovative outreach methods. To the small extent that the TRC report was disseminated, it was done by nongovernment actors, which hindered the continuation of the process. One of the TRC researchers, who wishes to remain anonymous, described what happened:

There was no actual dissemination of the TRC report due to unforeseen situation[s] and how the government of Liberia treated the report. [A] few local [groups] and NGOs with their international support carried out some dissemination but [it was] not substantive and widespread as it was expected. The bulk of the Liberian society are left [divided] without the understanding of the content of the report, [including] those who are illiterate. All the surveys conducted indicate [a] lack of knowledge on the TRC final report. There was no good documentation of the TRC material and resources done. There was not sufficient funding for the process and the rift with the government worsen[ed] the situation at the end. The materials were just bundled up in [a] container and sent to Georgia Tech in the US. Presently all the documents are in Georgia Tech’s custody. [There] should have been training of some TRC staff on documentation and archiving but that too was never accomplished. I raised the same issue with the Chairman on the training, documentation and archiving of TRC documents. He promised to get in touch with authorities at Georgia Tech but didn’t hear from him. There is still a potential project for training of staffs and then documentation and archiving of TRC documents.

To address impunity and restore respect for human rights, investments must be made in the effective dissemination and use of the TRC report and its documentation. Schools ought to include the TRC findings in the curriculum, and universities should introduce courses focused on post-conflict trauma, peacebuilding, and democratic consolidation. Democracy building in postwar contexts requires giving citizens a voice in matters that would enable development and social cohesion to be realized, and to have such a voice, they must be informed.

The Need for Information Institutions

At the time the TRC did its work, no well-functioning information institutions existed in Liberia, and, in 2009, Osborne lamented the poor maintenance and preservation of the country’s archives.13 Public archives or public records offices should be seen as instrumental to breaking away from a past of unaccountability, corruption, and lack of transparency in the management of public affairs. In the Western world, they play a major role in sustaining the most important tenets of democracy: accountability and transparency. Schwartz and Cook argued that archives wield power over the administrative, legal, and fiscal accountability of governments, corporations, and individuals, and they engage in powerful public policy debates around the right to know and freedom of information.14

Where there is a lack of information institutions and political will to make information available, information professionals are unlikely to have a conducive environment in which to practice their skills. African nations need to empower these institutions. Investments in the national archives and libraries of countries that move from conflict to peace are key to making important information available and would help transitional governments promote democracy.

The Management of Digital Content

The collection, generation, sharing, analysis, reuse, and dissemination of information require technology and an information infrastructure that can support such activities. The Liberian TRC has generated a considerable amount of digital content that can be accessed on its website,15 including over 850 videos of commission hearings, proceedings, and related events, eyewitness testimony, and ceremonies. The challenges of managing and preserving such digital information over time are well known, having been the subject of critical examination by researchers for over twenty years. This body of research has addressed issues such as technology obsolescence, standards, the integrity and authenticity of the digital records, formats, metadata, preservation of the context of digital records, and their provenance.16 Despite considerable advancements in technology, however, difficulties in the long-term preservation of digital information remain, calling for enormous resources and a proactive approach to overcoming them.

Liberia does not have the knowledge or technology to preserve digital content efficiently for posterity. The TRC process offers an opportunity to transfer knowledge and technology to countries like Liberia with poor information infrastructure, but it will require massive investments to enhance the ownership of and access to the TRC documentation. I was approached by the commission’s chairman to help draft a proposal seeking funds toward the archiving of TRC documentation, and I suspect the failure to get funding might have led to the expatriation of the documentation.

Expatriation of the TRC Documentation

The Liberian TRC collected over 22,000 written statements, several dozen personal interviews, and more than five hundred live public testimonies of witnesses, including both perpetrators of atrocities and direct victims, in fifteen counties and the Liberian Diaspora. The TRC entrusted all of this information to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and, according to Mike Best, assistant professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, the documentation is to be scanned and preserved.17 Best said this was the first time a TRC had handed over its entire documentation to be kept in a foreign country. Especially in view of the controversies regarding its recommendations to bar the president and other highly placed government officeholders from politics, the precaution the TRC took to safeguard its documentation was a sound one.

Even so, this documentation belongs to the Liberian people. It is their intellectual property, and they should be the beneficiaries of whatever accrues from it. The question is, given the information and technology divide between the Global South and North, will Liberians have the same opportunity as researchers like me living in the West to use their documentation to enhance reconciliation and democracy in their country? It is my hope that a copy was left behind for this purpose. Another question is whether Liberians were consulted regarding the transfer of documents, and if the government that sanctioned the establishment of the TRC was informed of it. This is worth investigating, since both the victims and perpetrators of the war contributed their knowledge to this documentation, and establishing the ownership of information is crucial to a country’s development and to reconciliation and democracy building.

Conclusion

Information management and postwar reconstruction is a new area of peace research that has been largely neglected in Africa but remains very important to the production of knowledge on post-conflict transition on the continent. The management of the documentation generated by TRCs is a challenge worth discussing further as these commissions continue to be implemented in Africa as mechanisms of transitional justice. It is not enough to capture the experiences of the war victims; the process must continue to address the social and economic injustices that caused the conflicts. Post-conflict countries usually lack an information infrastructure and information access laws to facilitate the management, use, dissemination, and preservation of TRC findings. Even where information access laws exist, government institutions are not able to make information available because of poor information management regimes and a culture inclined to withhold information from the public. TRC findings and documentation should be used as an educational tool in schools and universities, as investing in education is the proper way to uproot the culture of impunity and to create respect for human rights. They should also be used by policymakers, for whom the TRC report highlights areas of weakness within society that need to be addressed.

The TRC in Liberia did a commendable job by documenting the conflict there, and even though its report has given rise to some controversies, it should not be jettisoned but, rather, used as a starting point for the country’s reconciliation process. Ushering in a new democratic dispensation will require further investments in the management of the TRC documentation so it can be locally leveraged to enhance awareness of the commission’s findings. Knowledge is vital to development, and raising people’s awareness of their rights is key to addressing the social and economic injustices that in part caused the conflict in Liberia. This awareness can only be raised through access to public information, the management of which is key to accountability and transparency and requires very strong information management regimes. Reinforcing the Freedom of Information Act would make it easier for Liberians to scrutinize those in power to ensure they manage the country’s common resources well.

TRC processes provide a great opportunity to open up a public debate, as they generate a plethora of issues. In the Liberian case, the TRC findings are crucial to address the existing controversies and promote peacebuilding and reconciliation. While the controversies to which the findings gave rise may have necessitated the expatriation of the TRC documentation, it represents the collective memory of the people of Liberia, and a copy of it should have been maintained in the country for Liberian use. Even the considerable amount of documentation that can be accessed on the Internet remains out of reach to the majority of Liberians, who are without Internet connectivity. The international community’s investments in the TRC process will only be fully realized if information institutions are put in place to enhance locally the management of the documentation produced. The TRC process further offers a great opportunity to transfer knowledge and technical know-how to post-conflict countries like Liberia. The work of the temporarily established TRCs needs to be continued on a long-term basis, and this can only be achieved by longstanding institutions.

  1. This article is based on a presentation I made at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability.
  2. Amadu Sesay, “Does One Size Fit All? The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission Revisited” (Discussion Paper 36, Nordic Africa Institute, 2007).
  3. Republic of Liberia, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Final Report, vol. 2 (2009).
  4. A. M. Washington, remarks at the launching of the TRC-US Diaspora Statement Taking Process (2007), http://www.trcofliberia.org/news-/trchappenings/remarks-at-the-official-launching, last accessed December 12, 2007.
  5. Republic of Liberia, TRC Report 2009, vol. 3, title 12 (2009): iii, http://trcofliberia.org/resources/reports/final/trc-of-liberia-final-report-volume-iii.pdf.
  6. Aaron Weah, “Hopes and Uncertainties: Liberia’s Journey to End Impunity,” International Journal of Transitional Justice 6, no. 2 (2012): 331–43.
  7. The palava hut is a conflict resolution mechanism wherein trusted members of the community meet to adjudicate matters of grave concern to the community and resolve disputes among or between individuals or communities.
  8. Ibid., 334–36.
  9. K. Aning and J. Thomas, “Liberia: A Briefing Paper on the TRC Report,” Kofi Annan International Peace Building Centre, KAIPTC Occasional Paper No. 33 (2011), http://www.kaiptc.org/Publications/Occasional-Papers/Documents/Occasional-Paper-33-Jaye-and-Aning.aspx, accessed December 23, 2012.
  10. Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, “The Importance of Freedom of Information to Liberia,” Liberian Mandigo Association, May 3, 2011, http://limany.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1059:the-importance-of-freedom-of-information-to-liberia&catid=68:critical-issues.
  11. Liberian Literacy Foundation “Building Lives, One Book at a Time,” http://www.liberianliteracyfoundation.org/history.html.
  12. Ministry of Education and Partners, “The Development and State of the Art of Adult Learning and Education (ALE),” in National Report of Liberia (Monrovia: Liberian Ministry of Education, 2008).
  13. Myles Osborne, “A Note on the Liberian Archives,” History in Africa 36 (2009): 461–63,
  14. Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Archival Science 2, nos. 3–4 (2002): 1–19.
  15. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, TRC Videos, http://trcofliberia.org/videosets.
  16. D. Bearman, Electronic Evidence: Strategies for Managing Records in Contemporary Organizations (Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics, 1994); Charles M. Dollar, Authentic Electronic Records: Strategies for Long-Term Access (Chicago: Cohasset Associates, 2000); L. Duranti and R. Preston, eds., International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems (InterPARES) 2: Experiential, Interactive and Dynamic Records (Padova, Italy: Associazione Nazionale Archivistica Italiana, 2008).
  17. Mike Best, interviewed in View from the Library 2, no. 2 (Spring 2011), http://www.library.gatech.edu/newsletters/emailnews/Spring2011/Spring2011.pdf.
About the Author

Proscovia Svärd is a Ph.D candidate at the Institute of History and Culture, Faculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam.

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