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Armed Forces of Liberia's Military Justice System Focuses on Human Rights and Discipline
"Building a Force For Good"--the unofficial motto of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), as dubbed by Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf--describes the change of direction being taken by this newly re-formed military, as it rebuilds
BALACLAVA, Mauritius - Liberian 1st Lieutenant Alexander Selmah gives a briefing on Liberia's Military Justice Center at U.S. Africa Command's African Military Legal Conference, May 1-5, 2011.  The conference brought together 50 lawyers and legal experts from 20 African nations, along with representatives from the United States and Europe to discuss maritime crime in Africa. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Danielle Skinner)
2 photos: U.S. AFRICOM Photo
Photo 1 of 2: BALACLAVA, Mauritius - Liberian 1st Lieutenant Alexander Selmah gives a briefing on Liberia's Military Justice Center at U.S. Africa Command's African Military Legal Conference, May 1-5, 2011. The conference brought together 50 lawyers and legal experts from 20 African nations, along with representatives from the United States and Europe to discuss maritime crime in Africa. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Danielle Skinner) Download full-resolution version
BALACLAVA, Mauritius - Liberian Coast Guard Seaman Samuel Zarbay makes a comment about interagency processes for maritime law in a small breakout session of U.S. Africa Command's African Military Legal Conference, May 3, 2011. The conference brought together 50 lawyers and legal experts from 20 African nations, along with representatives from the United States and Europe to discuss maritime crime in Africa. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Danielle Skinner)
2 photos: U.S. AFRICOM Photo
Photo 2 of 2: BALACLAVA, Mauritius - Liberian Coast Guard Seaman Samuel Zarbay makes a comment about interagency processes for maritime law in a small breakout session of U.S. Africa Command's African Military Legal Conference, May 3, 2011. The conference brought together 50 lawyers and legal experts from 20 African nations, along with representatives from the United States and Europe to discuss maritime crime in Africa. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Danielle Skinner) Download full-resolution version
BALACLAVA, Mauritius - Liberian 1st Lieutenant Alexander Selmah gives a briefing on Liberia's Military Justice Center at U.S. Africa Command's African Military Legal Conference, May 1-5, 2011.  The conference brought together 50 lawyers and legal experts from 20 African nations, along with representatives from the United States and Europe to discuss maritime crime in Africa. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Danielle Skinner)
BALACLAVA, Mauritius - Liberian Coast Guard Seaman Samuel Zarbay makes a comment about interagency processes for maritime law in a small breakout session of U.S. Africa Command's African Military Legal Conference, May 3, 2011. The conference brought together 50 lawyers and legal experts from 20 African nations, along with representatives from the United States and Europe to discuss maritime crime in Africa. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Danielle Skinner)
"Building a Force For Good"--the unofficial motto of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), as dubbed by Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf--describes the change of direction being taken by this newly re-formed military, as it rebuilds its forces with an emphasis on human rights and professionalization. Ensuring this progress continues and that its members act according to the "rule of law" is the job of the AFL's Military Legal Center (MLC) personnel.

Two AFL members were on hand at U.S. Africa Command's African Military Legal Conference, May 1-5, 2011, to describe the achievements they have made as they continue to develop the military justice system within the AFL.

Liberian 1st Lieutenant Alexander Selmah and Seaman Samuel Zarbay said that they've seen tremendous progress since the first legal officers and clerks were trained in the AFL just a year ago in the spring of 2010.

The rebuilding of the AFL began in 2006 via the U.S. State Department's Security Sector Reform Program. The program was developed to assist the AFL with creating a new military after the former military was demobilized and 100,000 combatants (including the old AFL and rebel forces) disarmed following Liberia's 14 years of civil war. In 2008, the Liberian legislature passed the New National Defense Act which implemented a new military justice system in the AFL.

"The importance of the military justice system is to avoid a flashback of what happened years ago in our country. Respect for rule of law was something that some leaders did not really deem necessary. If we want to have a good military, then the issue of rule of law is one thing that we have to uphold," said Selmah, the Legal Officer for the AFL’s 1st Battalion.

Adhering to the guidelines of a military justice system requires acceptance by a willing force. Selmah and Zarbay said that initially commanders were reluctant to be accountable to a higher authority. In the former Liberian military, some leaders took the law into their own hands, which led to corruption, unfair punishment, and violence. All of that has now changed as AFL commanders are more readily accepting advice from legal professionals and taking the proper steps to enforce disciplinary measures through written and verbal warnings, and for more serious offenses, through the use of the military disciplinary board or the Liberian Ministry of Justice.

"The achievement is that we were able to set up a legal system and tell the commander, this is what you are to do, and the enlisted, this is what you are to do. And now we see the interpretation of the law very clearly," said Zarbay. "Now we see ourselves going with an ideology of legality, not just doing anything we feel like. This is a human rights army. We owe this to AFRICOM."

While much progress has been made, Selmah and Zarbay noted that they have a lot more work to do in order to have a fully functioning military justice system. Because the AFL's military justice system was created years after the development of the AFL, the legal personnel find themselves struggling to catch up, in terms of adequate personnel, training requirements, and facilities.

As of May 2011, the AFL has five legal teams at three different military installations with a total of 13 trained personnel. Their goals are to increase the number of legal personnel and further the education of their current staff so that they can one day serve as military lawyers.

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mynda G. Ohman, who is partnering with the AFL legal team as part of a U.S. Departments of State and Defense program called Operation Onward Liberty, explained more about the AFL's limitations due to a lack of lawyers. Without lawyers, she said, the AFL is unable to conduct courts-marital under the Liberian Uniform Code of Military Justice to try members of the armed services who are accused of offenses against military law.

In place of courts-martial, the AFL could use summary courts, however, these types of courts are for enlisted members only. In order to maintain an equal system of justice for both enlisted and officers, the AFL created disciplinary boards which are nonjudicial hearings geared towards handling minor criminal offenses. The more serious charges, such as rape, murder, sexual assault, and sedition, must be referred to the Ministry of Justice for criminal proceedings. Ohman said that the disciplinary boards serve as a bridge until the AFL has the military lawyers to try courts-martial. Because the procedures in the AFL disciplinary boards borrow rules from courts-martial, these disciplinary boards also allow the AFL to learn more about court-martial procedures and rules.

Assisting the AFL with its rebuilding efforts are two primary partners--the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the U.S. Departments of State and Defense as part of their Onward Liberty initiative. More than a dozen ECOWAS officers from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Benin have been loaned out to the Liberian government to serve in the AFL. Even the chief of staff for the AFL's commanding officer is a two-star Nigerian general. According to Ohman, this is only temporary until the AFL has the required personnel and capacity to function on their own. In a February 2011 speech, Liberia’s president outlined the goal of having an operationally capable AFL by 2014.

"We've already seen the transition from some of the ECOWAS officers being the joint staff to now becoming advisors to the Liberian joint staff. So already since they have been provided to Liberia we've seen the Liberian officers being put forward in those positions of responsibility, where now the ECOWAS officers are in the background, continuing to provide advice," said Ohman.

Through the Onward Liberty program, approximately 50 personnel from the U.S. military are providing support to the Liberian government in all functional areas including infantry, medical, legal, disaster response, etc. Ohman is one of two U.S. military partners who are providing support to the AFL's legal teams.

Other partners to the AFL's military legal center include the U.S. AFRICOM Office of Legal Counsel, American Bar Association, International Red Cross, U.S. Agency for International Development, University of Liberia Law School, Liberian Ministry of Justice, Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, Michigan Air and Army National Guard, and the U.N. Mission in Liberia.

Ohman said she has been impressed with the accomplishments of the AFL Military Legal Center and expects to see much progress over the next few years.

"The progress that has been made since the summer of 2010 has been tremendous in terms of having the soldiers and commanders and senior enlisted advisors alike understand and begin to implement the law," said Ohman. "Already you have begun to see the changes in attitude and the receptiveness to that military justice system. I think as time goes on we will continue to see tremendous progress on implementing the military justice system."

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