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Africa After War: Paths to Forgiveness – Mercy vs. justice as Liberia heals itself

Liberia's new Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeks a balance between punishment and forgiveness.

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On a remote, palm-lined beach along West Africa's coast, inside a breeze-filled bungalow, an earnest cabal of nine men and women is plotting to overthrow the old order in their war-weary homeland.

With laptops blazing, and a bed sheet strung up for viewing PowerPoint presentations, they debate such issues as how to help victims of war testify in public – and whether to subpoena warlords-turned-members of parliament.

Meet the members of Liberia's new Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Theirs is the latest of the 30-plus truth commissions held around the world since 1974, including South Africa's, which famously charted a healing path for its postapartheid nation.

The group includes a bishop who unconditionally forgave the men who killed his father, a former journalist who gave up the good life in America to help her homeland, and a young, untested chairman who'll be the ultimate arbiter as the TRC tackles a looming dilemma: Should wrongdoers – in this case warlords and fighters who carried out horrific wartime atrocities – be punished or forgiven or something in between? In short, what's the best path to healing: justice or mercy?

In a fragile nation emerging from 14 years of civil war, the TRC members know that too much rough-edged "justice" risks igniting backlashes and fresh violence. Yet too much well-meaning "mercy" may leave grievances unaddressed, setting the stage for future conflict.

Clearly, much is at stake, not least because Liberia is so connected with its war-prone West African neighborhood. Another Liberian war could reignite regional instability. Nor are there obvious institutions – besides the TRC – to help build a durable peace. As Priscilla Hayner of the New-York-based International Center for Transitional Justice says of the TRC: "This is sort of it."

At this early stage in the TRC's existence, there isn't yet unanimity of vision among its members. The Monitor profiles three key commissioners and explores their varying views of the best justice-mercy recipe for healing their nation.

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