Advocates Archive: Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2006-2009)
The Advocates for Human Rights and Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made history together when we established the first-ever truth commission to make a systematic effort outside of a subject country. Through the use of volunteers, the initiative systematically engaged the Liberian diaspora population in all aspects of the truth commission process.
Statement-taking sites included Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Minnesota; Atlanta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; New York City, New York; Providence, Rhode Island; Boston, Massachusetts; and the United Kingdom. The Advocates also assisted with statement-taking in the West African sub-region, specifically the Buduburam refugee settlement near Accra, Ghana. More than 20 of The Advocates' dedicated volunteers traveled to document the statements of refugees in Ghana. These volunteers also worked alongside TRC staff and Liberian refugees who had been trained as statement-takers.
The Advocates continued to work with the TRC to host the first ever public hearings of a national truth commission in the diaspora on June 2008 at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota .
As a result of this multi-year collaboration, The Advocates documented TRC statements from more than 1600 Liberians in the diaspora and recorded testimony from more than 20 witnesses at public hearings, and helped expose the injustices happening in Liberia.
Below is the original article from our 2008 Observer about the TRC.
The Advocates for Human Rights hosted public hearings for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) from June 9 - 14, 2008 at Hamline University’s Sundin Music Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota
All eight commissioners of the TRC traveled from Liberia to participate in this historic event, the first time a national truth commission has ever held hearings outside the country of conflict. The hearings were open to the public and streamed live on the Internet.
From 1979 to 2003, more than 1.5 million Liberians were forced from their homes to escape the violence and destruction of a protracted civil conflict. Many Liberians eventually made their way to the United States in their flight from war, including an estimated 30,000 who settled in Minnesota.
Since January 2007, The Advocates has been taking statements from Liberians living in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana about their experiences during the Liberian conflict. The public hearings were the first opportunity for Liberians in the U.S. to provide direct testimony to the Commissioners of the TRC.
Witnesses traveled from across the United States to participate in the hearings. They testified about the human rights abuses in Liberia that forced them to flee, their experiences in flight and in refugee camps, and the experience of resettlement in the U.S.
“Organizing this week of public hearings has been a rewarding challenge,” said Robin Phillips, executive director of The Advocates. “The Advocates was pleased and honored to help make this historic event possible and to work with the TRC of Liberia in their efforts to include the diaspora community in the truth and reconciliation process.”
After a day of private testimony, the public hearings commenced on Tuesday, June 10th. Dan Loritz of Hamline University and Robin Phillips of The Advocates formally welcomed the TRC to the United States. Representatives from prominent Liberian organizations also spoke. TRC Chairman Jerome Verdier described the essential role the diaspora would play in uncovering the root causes of the conflict.
The public testimony began with an overview of the Liberian conflict. This history was provided by expert witness Dr. Augustine Konneh from Atlanta, Georgia. Bishop Bennie Warner, former vice president of Liberia, then testified about his experience as a member of the Tolbert administration in the late 1970s and about the coup in which Tolbert was assassinated.
The following day, witnesses described the roots of the conflict in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Witnesses included the daughter of Liberia’s former President Tolbert, Wilhelmina Holder, who testified about her experience of the 1980 coup in which her father was killed. James Hunder, a security guard to President Tolbert, gave testimony about his experience working as a prison guard and being assigned to several high level political prisoners. Garswah Blacktom recounted his memories of the Rice Riots in the late 1970s, and Samuel Kalongo Luo talked about his work as a soldier in the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) under President Tolbert and his role as a close advisor to President Samuel Doe.
Thursday’s session opened with the testimony of Ambassador Hank Cohen, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989 to 1992, who described the U.S. response to the conflict from his perspective of working in Liberia and other parts of Africa during this period. Later that day, Ambassador Cohen asked to return to the stand to apologize and express his personal belief that the U.S. could have acted differently to lessen or avoid the conflict.
Later, Alfred Zeon talked about his experiences as an AFL soldier under Samuel Doe in the 1980s. Bai Gbala, a close advisor to three Liberian presidents, also testified. The TRC heard witnesses describe their experience of hardship and human rights abuses during the conflict in the 1990s as well. Pajibo Kyne testified about deprivation and abuses that he and his family experienced. Rev. Bill Harris described his experience of working with Liberians in the United States while they tried to cope with the conflict at home.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum attended the hearings on Friday and addressed those gathered for the testimony. Many of the witnesses on Friday spoke to the experiences of women in Liberia. Miatta Adotey, Jane Samukai, Doris Parker, and Marie Vah gave testimony on their personal experiences of human rights abuses and atrocities during the conflict. Dr. Patricia Jabbeh-Wesley, a professor from Penn State University, testified about both her personal experience trying to survive in Monrovia during the conflict and her flight to the United States. She also offered her perceptions of the experience of Liberian women during the conflict based on her research. Ali Sylla testified about his experience as a teenager, when his neighborhood was attacked by Charles Taylor’s forces.
Later in the week, the Liberian Ambassador to the UN, Milton Barnes, gave brief remarks at the hearings. Witnesses that day included Kerper Dwanyen and Miamen Wopea, who presented their personal testimonies to the TRC. Representatives of Liberian diaspora had the opportunity to give testimony. Doris Parker and a panel from the Liberian Women’s Initiatives–Minnesota (LIWIM) presented the experience of Liberian women in the diaspora. A panel of Liberian leaders, including Telee Brown of the Staten Island Liberian Community Association (SILCA), Sam Slewion of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, Hassan Kiawu of the Liberian Association of Metropolitan Atlanta (LAMA), and OLM president Kerper Dwanyen presented recommendations on behalf of their organizations to the TRC.
The Advocates is celebrating 40 years of defending human rights. Throughout this year, we are sharing stories and projects from our archives to shed light on the history of the organization, and the issues we work on.