By Teddy David
On June 18, 2021, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court convicted Liberian warlord Alieu Kosiah, 46, of crimes against humanity committed during the country’s first civil war, fought from 1989 to 1996. The decision has raised issues of a lack of accountability in Liberia itself and the use of universal jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes outside of the jurisdiction in which they were committed.
The Crimes of Kosiah
Swiss authorities arrested Kosiah, then a Swiss resident, in 2014 after seven Liberian victims filed criminal complaints against him, later becoming plaintiffs in the prosecution. Swiss prosecutors then conducted an arduous, five-year investigation that culminated in a March 2019 indictment. Originally slated to begin in April 2020 but delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the trial proceeded in two stages, the first in December 2020 and the second from February to March 2021.
The 25 charges concerned crimes committed between 1993 and 1995 in the northwestern Lofa County of Liberia, where Kosiah was then a leader of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO). Witnesses graphically testified to summary executions, brutal torture, the displacement of civilians, and forced marches. In the most gruesome charge, witnesses told of an accomplice of Kosiah, called Ugly Boy, who, along with Kosiah and others, cut out and ate the heart of a schoolteacher.
The court found Kosiah guilty on 21 out of 25 charges, including the summary execution of more than a dozen civilians and unarmed soldiers, numerous other murders, rape, pillage, and cannibalism. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the most allowed under Swiss law for cases prosecuted under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, and his long pretrial detention of over six years will be deducted from his sentence. Kosiah will also be expelled from Switzerland for 15 years after his eventual release.
Civil Law and Universal Jurisdiction in Switzerland
The arrest and trial was largely made possible by the direct initiative of several of Kosiah’s Liberian victims, aided by nongovernmental human rights groups. Civil law systems, like that of Switzerland, allow victims to be private plaintiffs in criminal prosecutions, having counsel and attempting to overrule prosecutors when they do not act to effectively protect the victims. Systems of common law – employed in the United States, United Kingdom, and British Commonwealth – do not allow for the same flexibility and thus are less conducive to cases like the one against Kosiah.
The main doctrine that allowed this trial to proceed, though, is that of universal jurisdiction. This principle of international law allows any nation’s courts to prosecute a range of crimes against humanity. These offenses are held to be so egregious that the accused are not just criminals within the jurisdiction in which the crimes were committed, but rather are hostis humani generis – enemies of all humankind. Most countries, including the United States, acknowledge some forms of universal jurisdiction, but the principle is applied especially expansively in many European legal systems.
However, in recent years, Switzerland has not been known as a leader in war crimes prosecutions, despite its notoriety as the birthplace of the Geneva Conventions. Since the nation’s 2011 adoption of a universal jurisdiction statute, human rights organizations have criticized Swiss authorities for providing minimal resources to the extremely resource-intensive investigations of war crimes. In such cases, witnesses almost all live overseas, and the alleged crimes were often committed years, even decades before – as in the case of Kosiah – making fact-finding efforts much more demanding and costly than a typical, domestic investigation.
According to Philip Grant, director of the Swiss-based human rights group TRIAL International, Switzerland lags far behind other European countries known for employing universal jurisdiction. “Without the nongovernment, civil society organizations, these cases would be nowhere,” Grant told the New York Times.
During the trial stage, human rights groups also criticized the Swiss court for the strictly limited transparency of the trial, especially since it was one of the only prosecutions of Liberian war criminals in the twenty-five years since the widespread atrocities were committed. The proceedings were not streamed via video, and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch reported that it was denied access to the second phase of the trial.
Despite criticism of Swiss authorities, the conviction has still been hailed by human rights leaders as a landmark in accountability for the decades-old atrocities of Liberia’s two civil wars. Alain Werner, director of the Geneva-based legal group Civitas Maxima, described the verdict to the New York Times as “a beautiful victory for [the witnesses’] courage, their resilience, and their quest for justice.”
Related war crimes cases are also underway in Finland – against rebel leader Gibril Massaquoi – and in France – against Kunti Kumara, another former leader of ULIMO. This piecemeal, international approach, however, has only intensified the pressure on Liberia itself to hold its own citizens accountable for their offenses. After decades of inaction in Liberia, President George Weah has made only vague statements of his willingness to systematically pursue war crimes prosecutions within his country. Moving forward, if Liberia itself remains inactive, pressure may mount to initiate more thorough prosecutions in the International Criminal Court or to establish ad hoc war crimes tribunals to bring justice for decades-old crimes.
 Teddy is currently a rising senior at Vassar College majoring in history and minoring in French and Francophone Studies.