Update on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia

Bipin Adhikari
August 22, 2006 (Liberia)

This note provides information regarding the status of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The ECOWAS-lead TRC "working group" comprising mainly of UNMIL, UNDP and EU are concerned about the seeming failure of the TRC to fulfill some of the objectives planned for the preparatory phase. Also of concern is the fact that relationship between Commissioners and the international community has not been sufficiently close, a development that could hamper the future work of the TRC. The main issues contributing to the current situation may be summarized as follow:

Preparatory phase
In the period leading up to the TRC inauguration on 20 February 2006, Commissioners worked collaboratively with the ECOWAS-lead "TRC Working Group" comprising UNMIL, UNDP, EU and others.

According to the TRC Act, which is also reflected in the initial work plan of the Commission, a three-month preparatory period which commenced on 20 February should have included the appointment of a TRC Secretariat headed by an Executive Secretary, location of the TRC, division responsibilities, reach out to civil society and development a two year work plan and budget.

Support offered/provided to the TRC
The following support was offered or provided to the TRC:

• Prior to the inauguration, UNMIL hired a TRC consultant, Mr. Ken Attafuah who provided assistance with various operational aspects of the TRC, including drafting the three-month work plan, staffing tables, terms of reference for the TRC Secretariat and a budget. Following the inauguration of the TRC, Mr. Attafuah, the nominee of UNOHCHR, assumed his position as a member of the Commission's International Technical Advisory Committee (ITAC). His appointment was in accordance with provisions in the TRC Act, which stipulate the appointment of three ITAC members, one nominated by the UNOHCHR and the other two by ECOWAS.

• Upon the request of the TRC, UNMIL, through QIP, arranged for US$15,000 to be used to refurbish three rooms in the Ministry of Public Works occupied by the TRC. The TRC accepted the QIP assistance, but failed to execute the project for which the funds were allocated and took no steps to update UNMIL on developments. On 30 June 2006, the grant period expired. Thus, on 04/08/06, UNMIL collected the advance check from the Commission. Similarly, UNMIL offered two containers in the German Embassy to be used by the TRC as office space during the establishment period. The Commission acknowledged the offer, but neither accepted the offer nor declined it.

• In the same vein, Commissioners refused to take advantage of an extensive mapping the conflict project which UNDP, in collaboration with UNOHCHR, had prepared. The study, which reviewed more than 13,000 cases, is now being kept in a safe location in the UNDP premises.

• At a meeting in April 2006, the SRSG offered to provide assistance to secure the TRC premises. Immediately after the meeting, HRPS scheduled a meeting between the TRC security focal point, Commissioner John Stuart, and JMAC Chief, Col. Perrey, to discuss the modalities of security. On two occasions, the Commissioners failed to appear at the scheduled appointments. When JMAC attempted to follow up, Commissioners showed little interest in pursuing the meeting.

• At the same April meeting, Commissioners were offered logistical assistance especially when they are on field visits. This included access to UN medical services and UN flights, subject to availability. The Chief of HRPS discussed with relevant parties, including Civil Affairs, RRR, and HRPS field staff how to support Commissioners during field visits. It was conveyed to Commissioners that assistance would be made available provided that a list of suggested visits were submitted in advance. If other forms of support were requested, a clarification as to the nature of the contribution required should be made. No structured request for field support was submitted.

• Similarly, UNMIL has offered to provide support with awareness-raising through Public Information Unit (PIU). However, Commissioners failed to provide specific messages requested for publicity. As a result, awareness raising campaign continues to be substantively weak throughout the country.

• The TRC Commissioners and the Working Group had initially agreed that donations to the TRC would be managed through the UNDP trust fund. On 20 February 2006, the day of the inauguration, UNDP contributed US$600,000 to the trust fund. Other pledges included EU$300,000 from the European Union. UNMIL, UNICEF and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) contributed various forms of assistance in kind. The President of Liberia pledged US$300,000. The Commission has reportedly received the amount pledged by the government in full. With regards to the UNDP managed fund, the Commission has generally failed to abide by the proper procurement procedures. Thus, the funds available to the UNDP could not be accessed when and as need arises.

• All these issues have been raised by the Chief of HRPS with the TRC Chairman on a few occasions. Although the Chairman seemed to agree that those previously taken decisions should be implemented, there was either no follow up or the subsequent actions contradicted the outcome of these discussions. The ECOWAS and UNDP colleagues had similar experiences.

Emerging problems
Since the inauguration of the TRC and in particular the launching on 22 June 2006, Commissioners seem to have developed a tendency to limit contact with the Working Group to responding only to specific requests. This gulf in communication has made it difficult to effectively address emerging problems such as outlined below.

• Delays in establishing a Secretariat: Until the present, the TRC Secretariat has not been established, and the key position of Executive Secretary remains unfilled. Instead, the cash available to the Commission seems to be spent on hiring personal secretaries, drivers and assistants. At a meeting in June 2006, Ambassador Ceesay reminded Commissioners that their actions should be transparent, and open to scrutiny by the public and donors alike. Interviews to recruit staff for the secretariat are currently underway but the process is not transparent and the IC is not involved the way it had been originally envisaged.

• Status of ITAC members: Prior to the inauguration, it was agreed that the TRC would draw a MoU with the Government of Liberia regarding the status of ITAC members in the country. This did not take place. When UNMIL inquired about the status of the MoU, Commissioners responded that the President had refused to grant ITAC members a diplomatic status similar to that enjoyed by UNMIL employees. In the recent conversations with the Chief of HRPS, the ITAC member, Prof. Henrietta Jay Abena Mensa-Bonsu, and the TRC Chairman promised to pursue the matter.

• The Chairman did not follow through with the matter as he promised. Instead, according to the internal TRC sources, he and two Commissioners began to openly question the legal status of ITAC as spelt out in the TRC Act. The relations between the Chairman and Mr. Ken Attafuah, first ITAC member to join the Commission, gradually deteriorated. Mr. Attafuah was systematically excluded from attending meetings or participating in any activity organized by the Commission. On 14 August 2006, he was served with a dismissal notice signed by the Chairman indicating that he will receive half of his salary for June and full salary for July 2006 and hinting that the lack of international funds is behind this decision.

• This decision sparkled an internal reaction within the TRC. One of the Commissioners wrote a well argued letter to the Chairman, questioning the legality of such a decision and the process excluding from it other commissioners (a copy of the letter is attached for your ease of reference).

• The Role of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in the ITAC Controversy. While ICTJ's contribution to the establishment of the TRC had been most welcome by all, its recent activities undertaken in almost total separation from (sometime contradiction to) other international actors seem not to be helpful to the process. For example, ICTJ held three day training for the Commissioners which was largely a duplication of the UNDP-sponsored ten day TRC study tour of South Africa hosted by the Foundation for Human Rights. According to informal sources, during the training the Commissioners were encouraged to eliminate the position of the Executive Secretary and seek more innovative measures in setting up Secretariat; they were also made aware of the "confusing and redundant "role of the ITAC members. Consistently with this line, on the TRC launching day, ICTJ issued a press release stating that the Commission is only composed of nine national Commissioners. No mention was made of ITAC. The TRC's most recent report dated 14 August 2006, informed by the input of the ICTJ reflects, the latter's vision. In the report, ITAC is downgraded into a distant advisory arm of the Commission.

• Relationship with UNDP: The budgetary arrangement through the trust fund necessitates ongoing interaction between the TRC and UNDP. However, since the inauguration the relationship between the UNDP and Commissioners has become increasingly strained. It is our understanding that on the one hand, Commissioners blame the UNDP for restricting access to funds. The UNDP has expressed concern that Commissioners have failed to clarify their requirements in advance, and that they have had neither respect for nor understanding of UNDP rules governing the process. For example, misunderstandings related to a study trip to South Africa led to a formal complaint when TRC Chairman Cllr. Verdier, accompanied by Priscilla Hayner of the ICTJ, visited the UNDP headquarters in NY. This led to a chain of written allegations and responses between the TRC and UNDP. Thus, it is not surprising that the TRC document of 14 August appears to be revising relationship with the UNDP, pondering whether to replace the latter with UNOP.

• Procurement: In a meeting of the Working Group in June 2006, a small procurement committee was created, including ECOWAS, UNDP, UNMIL and Commissioners, to facilitate procurement and purchase-related requirements. The procurement committee was to monitor over-all budgetary allocations to avoid overlaps, unnecessary spending and to speed up access to allocated money managed by the UNDP. The date of the first procurement committee meeting was to be set immediately after the opening of the TRC. When the designated committee members attempted to schedule the meeting, they found out that Commissioners were attending a three-day training session with the ICTJ at Cece Beach. Since then, to our knowledge, the procurement committee has not met.

Conclusion and further action
Based on the discussion with Ambassador Ceesay the following action will be undertaken in an attempt to bring the TRC back to track:

• All TRC members, jointly with UNMIL and UNDP were invited to the meeting at ECOWAS on Friday, 25 August. The meeting will address the following issues: statutory obligations of the TRC with regard to ITAC and other aspects of implementation of the TRC Act; budgetary arrangements, to revive the procurement procedures; update on establishing of the TRC Secretariat.

• If there is no positive response from the TRC, Ambassador Ceesay intends to bring his concerns to the attention of the President. He would ask for an audience and requested UNMIL and UNDP members of the TRC working group to accompany him, if it is the case.

I believe that the insight fights within the TRC, its inaction, frequent breaches of the Act and basic principles of conduct can not continue unabated. If the Commissioners attend an ECOWAS chaired meeting (some advocate against it) we will face a lot of internal problems calling for immediate intervention. It is not likely that the problems will be solved at the meeting. It is even more unlikely – considering the recent experiences – that any agreement emerging from the meeting will be implemented. The authority and leadership, and even credibility of the Chairman seem to be seriously undermined. The question may be soon posed if, under this leadership, the TRC can move on in the rights direction.

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