Liberia: Senate’s War Crimes Court Endorsement Gains U.S. Support

A wave of cautious optimism is washing over Liberia as its Legislature overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution to establish a War and Economic Crimes Court. This long-awaited decision, a crucial step towards addressing the deep scars left by the country’s brutal civil wars, has received strong backing from the United States.

Senator James Elroy Risch, ranking member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the move a “significant step towards healing the wounds from Liberia’s civil wars.” The two wars, which raged from 1989 to 2003, claimed an estimated 250,000 lives and displaced millions. Despite international calls for accountability, successive Liberian governments have failed to hold perpetrators responsible for the atrocities committed.

Senator Risch’s statement went beyond mere praise. He urged President Joseph Boakai to swiftly implement the resolution, emphasizing the importance of the court reflecting “the diverse perspectives of Liberian society.” This indicates that the U.S. views the court’s legitimacy and inclusivity as central to its success. Furthermore, Senator Risch highlighted the need for international support, suggesting potential U.S. collaboration alongside financial and technical assistance.

This endorsement by the Liberian Legislature and the U.S. response marks a turning point for the nation. For decades, the wounds of the civil wars have festered, hindering Liberia’s development and stability. The prospect of a War Crimes Court offers a chance for long-denied justice and a path toward reconciliation. Victims’ families may finally see accountability for the horrific acts endured. The court could also serve as a deterrent against future violence and strengthen Liberia’s democratic institutions by upholding the rule of law.

The road ahead, however, is not without challenges. The success of the court hinges on President Boakai’s commitment to swift and transparent implementation. Ensuring a fair and inclusive process that incorporates the voices of all Liberians will be crucial. The international community, led by the U.S., will likely play a significant role in providing resources and expertise to bolster the court’s effectiveness.

If Liberia can navigate these challenges and establish a credible court, it could represent a landmark achievement. The court has the potential to not only deliver justice for past wrongs but also pave the way for a more peaceful and stable future for Liberia.

Who is Senator Risch?

James Elroy Risch, a Republican from the State of Idaho, who joined the United States Senate in 2009, served as chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee from January 2019 to February 2021. Now serving his third term in the Senate, he is currently the highest-ranking Republican member of the committee and is poised to weigh in heavily on who becomes the next U.S. ambassador to Liberia.

The Committee on Foreign Relations, one of the oldest committees in the Senate, tracing its roots back to 1816, also oversees the operations and funding of foreign aid programs.

As ranking (2nd highest) member of the Foreign Relations Committee for the 117th Congress, Sen. Risch works with fellow members on foreign policy legislation, provides oversight of foreign policy agencies, considers international treaties, and confirms diplomatic nominations.

Risch is also one of two members of the Foreign Relations Committee currently serving on the Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees intelligence activities and programs of the U.S. government. The committee is made up of two members each from the Appropriations, Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Judiciary committees and seven members of the general body. Its primary duties are to ensure that intelligence activities are in line with the Constitution and U.S. law and to ensure the appropriate government departments and agencies communicate intelligence information in a complete and timely fashion to the President and Congress.

Risch and the Liberian Situation

Risch has been much more intricately involved with the Liberian situation than meets the eye.

In 2019 Jack Reid, a Democratic Senator from the State of Rhode Island, one of the two U.S. states with the highest concentration of Liberian-Americans per capita, sponsored a bill for passage through the US Senate, known as the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness (LRIF) bill. The bill had gained bipartisan support in the US House of Representatives but, with a Republican-dominated Senate at the time, Senator Reid’s bill had gained 10 co-sponsors — all Democrats. Being under a Trump administration, not a single Republican senator showed any interest in the bill.

The sponsor of the bill reached out to several influential Liberians in the US to see who could draw a Republican senator’s attention to the bill. It was then that Wilmot Collins, the Liberian-born Mayor of Helena, the capital city of the State of Montana, reached out to the leadership of fellow African immigrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) residing in the State of Idaho, which shares a border with Montana. The DRC community leaders in Idaho connected Collins with Senator Jim Risch, who had a lot to do with the resettlement of immigrants from the DRC. The rest, as we say, is history.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that year (2019) — yet without going on the record as a co-sponsor of the bill — Risch gave the nod to appropriate the bill under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. Essentially, the bill would direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to grant permanent residence (Green Card) status to qualifying nationals of Liberia.

Once signed into law, the LRIF Act would give 10,000 Liberians, who had been consistently living in the US since 2014, a pathway to US citizenship. This also meant that tens of thousands more would benefit indirectly from this legislation.

Needless to say, Christmas came a few days early that year. Enacted on Dec. 20, 2019, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included the provision of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness (LRIF) Act. It provides an opportunity for certain Liberian nationals and their spouses, unmarried children under 21 years old, and unmarried sons and daughters 21 years old or older living in the United States who meet the eligibility requirements to obtain lawful permanent resident status (receive Green Cards).

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