A sign advertises Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Courtesy of Radio Netherlands.

As the citizens of Liberia prepare to elect a new president in October 2011, the National Elections Commission has ruled that Prince Yormie Johnson may participate as a candidate in the race. A current Senior Senator from Nimba County, Johnson is more infamously known as a former warlord and leader of the since-disbanded Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). As a breakaway faction of Charles Taylor’s own rebel group, the INPFL established a significant presence in the early stages of Liberia’s civil war by capturing, torturing, and killing then-President Samuel K. Doe in September 1990. Charles Taylor filled Doe’s vacant post at the apex of Liberia’s crumbling government, and the nation soon thereafter plunged further into prolonged conflict.

In the following years, Liberia was wracked by intensified fighting between several rebel groups and Taylor’s own government forces, with each carrying out systematic human rights violations against civilians. Taylor fled the country in 2003 following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and Liberia emerged from civil war into a crippling humanitarian crisis. Over 250,000 citizens had been killed over nearly fourteen years of violence, and over one-third of the population displaced. The United Nations soon thereafter established a peacekeeping presence in Liberia, and the post-conflict disarmament, reintegration, and reconciliation process began to take shape.

One crucial element of the rebuilding process was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the legitimacy of which is severely undermined by the National Election Commission’s decision. The TRC was launched in 2006 to facilitate the delicate process of Liberia’s rebirth and renewal and to shed an accurate, unbiased light on the root causes of the conflict, the breadth of human rights and international law violations, the experiences of women and children, and the exploitation of natural resources in furtherance of wartime objectives. Despite deficiencies in its process, ranging from limited resources and scarce evidence to poor coordination and internal discord, the TRC’s findings do reflect a commitment to the principles of the mandate — justice, accountability, and reconciliation — and a sincere desire to lay an influential foundation for lasting peace and stability.

In its Final Report, issued in late 2009, the TRC concluded that Prince Johnson was the conflict’s most notorious perpetrator of violence and disarray and recommended that he face criminal prosecution for gross violations of both domestic and international law. The Report also urged that, at minimum, Johnson and other alleged perpetrators be restricted from holding public office for a period of thirty years. The recent decision to permit Johnson to seek the presidency both diminishes the Report’s finding of his notoriety and explicitly spurns a recommendation that the nation restructure its constitutional prerequisites for candidacy to exclude those responsible for wartime atrocities.

The determination to admit Johnson is based purely on constitutional grounds, as Liberia’s Constitution affords all citizens the right to seek office, provided minimal demographic standards are met. Yet implicit in the TRC’s recommendation is a call to democratically amend the Constitution, established in 1983 prior to the outbreak of civil war, to embed in its fabric a general standard for eligibility based on conflict- and human rights-based principles. As any constitutional amendments must be ratified by referendum, such an effort would create an opportunity for the citizens of Liberia to raise a potent, unified voice against impunity. Recent campaigns to lessen some of the eligibility restrictions indicate that only with the integrated efforts of the Elections Commission could proposed amendments gather momentum. Yet the Election Commission’s decision here indicates that it will either ignore or consciously resist the TRC’s recommendation.

What will come of Prince Johnson’s participation in the presidential race will not be known until elections in October 2011. While he continues to draw support from within his native Nimba County, international human rights observers contend it is grounded not in respect, but in fear that he will again become a violent and destabilizing force if not elected. The bitter memories of civil war and indiscriminate violence linger in the collective consciousness of Liberians, and as a core perpetrator, Prince Johnson remains a public face of this suffering. In disregarding the TRC’s call for public sanctions, the Elections Commission has threatened the efficacy of an accountability measure potentially capable of restoring the confidence of Liberia’s weary population in its public institutions. It has sent a telling message of free license to perpetrators and obstructed the aspirations of others for a future that does not resemble the past.