New Suit Against Liberia at ECOWAS Court of Justice Seeks Accountability for Civil War-Era Massacre

By Catherine Amirfar, Ela Matthews and Taylor Booth

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.

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