Hamline News

Justice and Healing

justice article

Hamline professors remember Ahmed Sirleaf as a quiet, thoughtful undergraduate student who had a lot of promise.“Ahmed was a very mature, reflective, and purposeful student,” said Professor Ken Fox, Sirleaf’s advisor for a conflict studies minor. “It was clear early on that as he was studying conflict that he already had an application in mind—a purpose—for this knowledge.”

He did. Sirleaf had come to the United States from Liberia as a young man, escaping the violence of his war-torn home. “I was in grade school in Monrovia when things exploded in 1979. Young progressives of African descent were advocating for an inclusive government,” Sirleaf said. “From there, there were coups and unrest, but in 1989 things got much worse. That was the real beginning of civil war in Liberia.”

More than 250,000 people were killed in Liberia during the war, which lasted until 2003. Sirleaf lost many family members and friends to lawless attacks by rebels and government soldiers. As he fled Liberia, his hope was that he could find a way to use his life to help rebuild his country and to help people heal. He knew education was his first step.

He came to Hamline first, graduating from the College of Liberal Arts in 2005 with a degree in legal studies and a minor in conflict studies. He went on to attend the University for Peace in Costa Rica, the only university with curriculum developed in cooperation with the United Nations. There he earned a master’s in international law and the settlement of disputes.

His master’s thesis was on transitional justice, an examination of mainstream transitional justice mechanisms. In it he explored truth and reconciliation hearings, such as those that took place in South Africa after Apartheid, and compared them to alternate dispute models often used in the Western world. His thesis was published, and it caught the attention of the leaders of Liberia.

The new Liberian government was already in the process of establishing a truth and reconciliation commission, a body that would investigate the root causes of the conflict, establish an accurate historical record of what happened, and make recommendations for change, justice, and accountability by interviewing hundreds of thousands of people who witnessed or suffered human rights violations in the past three decades of violence in Liberia. The commission had not, however, considered interviewing the more than 80,000 Liberians who had fled to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ghana. Sirleaf and other Liberians living in the United States convinced them they should.

“I told them ‘You can’t succeed if you don’t include those in America,’” Sirleaf said. “That’s because Liberians living in America are still very connected. They are very influential and educated. They send money home. They tell their family which way to vote in political elections. They have much interest in making sure Liberia has a good future.”

Sirleaf was persuasive. In June 2006, the truth and reconciliation commission began working with The Advocates for Human Rights, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit organization, to make sure the diaspora population was represented in the process. Sirleaf joined The Advocates, first as a volunteer consultant, and eventually as an employee. Hundreds of volunteers and organizations gave their time and resources to interview thousands of people. Thirty-five interviewees were selected to give their testimony to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission when the commission came to the United States. The only question left to answer was where to hold the U.S. hearings.

Sirleaf had the answer for that, too: Hamline. He called his former professor, Ken Fox, who agreed Hamline was the perfect fit. “Truth and reconciliation commissions represent the possibility to confront terrible atrocities with the kind of humanity and compassion we all wish for. The process requires a degree of human courage that sets an example for society. Those values are core values of Hamline University—confronting real issues with a strong set of values and compassion for a better future,” Fox said. “And we live those values. We don’t just teach about them. We are willing to engage in the real work that is essential to make those values come to life.”

That echoed Sirleaf’s sentiments.

“I told The Advocates that the event’s venue should have purpose and symbolism with what the commission’s mandate was all about. Peace through understanding. Reconciliation. Search for truth, justice, accountability, and healing. Bringing people together. Hamline was the right place to make that happen,” Sirleaf said. “Hamline University is now a household name in Liberia.” Sirleaf downplays his own role in the local hearings. He insists that there are hundreds of volunteers and organizations that played a strong role in making the event a reality. Fox agrees that it took many people to make everything come together, but he is pleased that Sirleaf is being recognized for his efforts.

“What Ahmed has been doing is extraordinary,” Fox said. “And we have many more Hamline graduates who are out there accomplishing things just as extraordinary. The work they do in the world is sometimes kind of invisible; they are not out there tooting their own horns. But alumni like Ahmed bring real, constructive, social transformation to our communities. That’s what it’s all about. That’s Hamline.”

By: JacQui Getty