The IRC and NEPI Team Up to Turn Former Fighters into Human Rights Advocates
Five years later, Johnson began working with the National Veteran’s Assistance Program, which led him to a trauma healing program run by the Lutheran World Service. Eventually, LWS hired Johnson to train other Liberians like himself. By 2000, he had established a network of former fighters that led to the creation of the National Ex-Combatants Peace-Building Initiative (NEPI).You’ve Got to Believe
NEPI believes that former fighters can become productive members of society. Not everyone in the communities where NEPI hoped to work agreed. Johnson found that his first task was reducing the stigma against former fighters.
“Other local organizations questioned the credibility of our organization,” Johnson recalls. “What authority did we have in the subject matter? Who was our resource base in terms of training? But we were not deterred by their questions or their actions.”
NEPI not only persevered but eventually formed a partnership with the International Rescue Committee to develop an eight-week course in human rights intended to help rehabilitate former fighters. The partnership helps former fighters transition from conflict and aggression to accepting a society defined by laws.Replacing Stigma with Social Progress
"We were excited by the chance to partner with NEPI,” says Chris Demers, IRC protection officer, “and to offer opportunities and education to a disenfranchised segment of the population that, though living under a heavy stigma, is an undeniable part of social progress in Liberia."
The partnership reduces violent activity common in communities of former fighters and helps NEPI meet its goal of an arms-free Liberia. It also helps the IRC spread the message of human rights to communities it normally would not reach, and to fulfill its goal of empowering local nongovernmental offices.Training Days
The initial eight-week training program began in January 2007 at 12 group sites in and around the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Roughly 20 people participated at each site. Facilitators introduced role play, lectured, conducted exercises on reflection and transformational thinking, and offered literature to those able to read, but they kept the proceedings informal and casual.
“Having interacted with a lot of former fighters, I think the lack of educational and work opportunities are the biggest problems for a significant number of them,” says Demers. “Trainings have allowed participants to start spotting human-rights violations in their communities, and NEPI is hoping to harness the trainees as a new set of human-rights advocates.”
For its part, the IRC, through its economic opportunities program, hopes to provide a micro-grant to each group, working from the notion that a poor, desperate population is far more likely to transform itself if given economic opportunities that offer hope for a different life. The groups would be charged with developing business and livelihood ideas that the IRC will monitor.
“The trainings have helped the trainees realize the importance of human rights and how it applies to their lives and the communities around them,” Demers says. ”It allows them to reflect on what they have been through in the past and keeps them more focused on a positive future. We have 240 former fighters currently developing an appreciation for human rights.”
The IRC plans to continue its partnership with NEPI and hold future trainings for former fighters throughout Liberia.