ICTJ Forum: Leymah Gbowee on Peace and Justice in Liberia

10/16/2013

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Leymah Gbowee addresses participants at the conference "Peace Through Law: The Development of an Ideal" in The Hague, Netherlands, August 2013, organized by the International Criminal Court Student Network. (HANNAH DUNPHY/ICTJ)


Leymah Gbowee is a human rights defender who was one of the leading voices in the women’s peace movement that contributed to the end of Liberia’s second civil war. In 2011, she—along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman—was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their non-violent struggle for women's rights.

In August, we spoke with Ms. Gbowee in The Hague, Netherlands, where she was a keynote speaker at several events marking 100 years of the Peace Palace. As former Liberian President Charles Taylor awaited the verdict of his appeal across town at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Gbowee reflected on the 10-year anniversary of the end of Liberia’s second civil war.

In this edition of the ICTJ Forum, Ms. Gbowee describes what it was like to tackle the enormous project of transitional justice in Liberia, a process which never fully included the participation of the women’s movement that was so instrumental in bringing about the end of the war.

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'A fight for survival'

Between 1989 and 2003, Liberia was engulfed by civil war. More than 200,000 people died, state structures collapsed, and a million people were displaced from their homes.

The conflict stopped only with the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Accra, Ghana, a moment which, ten years later, Gbowee recounts through vivid and emotional memories:

“It was a fight for survival. We knew that we were the consciences of a group of men who had lost their consciences.”

The conflict had definitely launched Gbowee into a role of leadership for women in her community, and the struggle for peace in her country.

But as the world presented the anniversary of one of peace, Gbowee was not so optimistic: “Peace is not just the silencing of the guns, peace is not just the absence of war,” she said. “For me, peace is when justice is not judged by the size of a person’s pocket.”

Gbowee recalls that after the CPA was signed, many Liberian victims—especially women—felt shut out of the country’s first steps towards truth, justice and reconciliation.

“It really became a space of the powerful boys in civil society, those who could talk the language of the international NGOs; and the women’s organizations did not really know the language of those NGOs.”

Among the many obstacles for peace is the lack of public trust in courts and the legal system as a whole to fairly address their grievances. The ongoing impunity for rape and other sexual crimes committed during the war is directly tied to a general lack of trust in the courts and judicial system.

Gbowee sees the high levels of corruption and lack of due process in Liberia’s justice system as a slap in the face, particularly to victims of ongoing sexual violence.

“People tell you if you don’t have money then don’t go to court. So, come back to cases of rape: why do you think parents agree to settle out of court? It’s not because they want to be living in a stone age, but [going to court] will leave them more traumatized then when their daughters were raped.”

This month, the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s (SCSL) upheld the 50-year sentence of Liberia’s ex-President for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity committed by rebels in Sierra Leone’s civil war. When asked to reflect on the Taylor case, Gbowee admits the case is historic, but expresses reservations about the fate of his victims.

“I’m glad that Taylor got arrested. I’m glad that he’s being tried and gotten a conviction,” she says. “But […] at the end of this verdict, Taylor still has millions hidden somewhere, he’s still making calls about properties in Liberia. I would love to see some of his properties sold off and given to victims in Sierra Leone and Liberia.”