Freedom House (Autor)
Following months of threats, the United Nations in May 2001 imposed additional sanctions on Liberia because of the government's alleged arms-for-diamonds trade with the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighboring Sierra Leone. The sanctions include an international travel ban on senior Liberian officials and their families, extension of an arms embargo, and a moratorium on diamond exports. The government of President Charles Taylor faced ongoing military pressure in Liberia's northwest from dissidents based in Guinea. Persecution of ethnic minorities in that region persisted. Although Taylor released some political prisoners and announced an amnesty for his political opponents in July 2001, few believed they would be safe if they returned to Liberia. Two lawyers were detained for three months during the year on contempt charges for publicly calling the detention of the president of the country's bar association unconstitutional.
Liberia was settled in 1821 by freed slaves from the United States and became an independent republic in 1847. Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves, dominated the country until 1980 when army Sergeant Samuel Doe led a bloody coup and murdered President William Tolbert. Doe's regime concentrated power among members of his Kranh ethnic group and suppressed others. Forces led by Charles Taylor, a former government minister, and backed by Gio and Mano ethnic groups that had been subject to severe repression, launched a guerrilla war from neighboring Cote d'Ivoire against the Doe regime on Christmas Eve 1989. In 1990, Nigeria, under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led an armed intervention force, preventing Taylor from seizing the capital but failing to protect Doe from being captured and tortured to death by a splinter rebel group. The war claimed more than 150,000 lives and forced approximately half of Liberia's population to flee their homes before a fourteenth peace accord proved successful in 1996.
Corruption is a major obstacle to economic growth. Diamond smuggling allegedly has provided income for Taylor, although he denies this. Liberia's infrastructure has deteriorated substantially in the past decade. The government also reportedly has used timber sales to help finance the RUF. An embargo on timber exports was not included in the United Nations sanctions because China threatened to veto the measure based on that provision.
Charles Taylor and his party assumed power after the 1997 elections which were generally free and fair. The votes for the presidency and a national assembly on the basis of proportional representation were held under provisions of the 1986 constitution. The polls constituted Liberia's most genuine electoral exercise in decades but were conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation. Taylor's victory reflected more of a vote for peace than for a particular personality, as many people believed that the only way to stop the war was to make him president. The European Union in November 2001 said considerable changes on the political, legal, and economic fronts were needed to guarantee free and fair elections in 2003. A key opposition leader and former presidential candidate, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, returned to Liberia during the year for a meeting with Taylor that never materialized.
Liberia's judiciary is subject to executive influence, corruption, and intimidation by security forces. Lawyers went on strike for a month to protest the October detention of two associates of the Liberian National Bar Association. They were released in December. The house of representatives had ordered them detained for contempt after they said the detention of the president of the bar association was unconstitutional. Human rights groups say security forces often ignore summonses to appear in court to explain disappearances. Security forces operate with impunity.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International said in December 2001 that civilians had become the main targets in the conflict in the northwest. It said the Armed Forces of Liberia, Anti-Terrorist Unit, national police, armed opposition groups based in Guinea, and RUF members fighting alongside Liberian security forces were responsible. Abuses included torture of captives while in incommunicado detention, rape of women and girls, forced military recruitment of men and boys, and killings.
Numerous civil society groups, including human rights organizations, operate in the country, but their employees are subject to repeated harassment by security forces. Human rights workers have been allowed access to prisons, where conditions are harsh and torture is used to extract confessions.
Liberia's independent media have survived despite years of war, assaults, and harassment at the cost of extensive self-censorship. Charles Taylor owns KISS-FM, the only countrywide FM radio station. State television and one private station broadcast only irregularly. Some members of the print media have received death threats and are under persistent surveillance. The government in 2001 banned private shortwave radio stations, including the Catholic radio station, Veritas, which had programming on human rights issues and had hoped to resume broadcasting after a two-year hiatus that was cause by technical problems.
The government in May said foreign journalists wishing to report in Liberia needed to give at least 72 hours' notice in writing to be allowed into the country. Authorities closed two daily newspapers, The News and Guardian, in November over alleged tax arrears and briefly detained Wilson Tarpeh, chairman of the board of directors of The News. The government in April dropped its case against four journalists who were charged with espionage in February after The Newsreported that the government had spent $50,000 to repair helicopters while civil servants had gone for months without pay. They were released after writing a letter of apology.
Academic freedom is not guaranteed. Security forces stormed the University of Liberia in March and beat several students. Students had been protesting the detention of four journalists. Societal ethnic discrimination is rife, and the government discriminates against indigenous ethnic groups that opposed Taylor during the civil war, especially the Mandingo and Krahn ethnic groups. Religious freedom is respected in practice, but Muslims have been targeted because many Mandingos follow Islam. Treatment of women varies by ethnic group, religion, and social status. Many women continue to suffer from physical abuse and traditional societal discrimination, despite constitutionally guaranteed equality.
The right to strike, organize, and bargain collectively is permitted by law, but there is little union activity because of the lack of economic activity. Two umbrella unions cover some 60,000 workers, but most of them are unemployed. There is forced labor in rural areas, and child labor is widespread.