Freedom in the World 2000 - 2001

Ratings Change: 

Liberia’s political rights rating changed from 4 to 5, and its civil liberties from 5 to 6, because of increasingly restricted freedom of the political opposition due to attacks on human rights activists, and repression of the media.


The government of President Charles Taylor found itself increasingly isolated from the international community following reports of continued human rights abuses and allegations of arms smuggling to neighboring Sierra Leone. A United Nations report in December accused Taylor of providing weapons and training to Revolutionary United Front fighters in exchange for diamonds, with the help of international arms dealers. Taylor denied the charges. The persistent allegations of arms smuggling prompted the United States in October to impose visa restrictions on Liberian officials. Taylor has called for an international arms embargo imposed on Liberia in 1992 to be lifted, while accusing Guinea of harboring dissidents who are reportedly attacking Liberia’s northern counties. Liberia’s diplomatic relations with Guinea had deteriorated significantly by the end of the year.

Liberia was settled by freed American slaves in 1821 and became an independent republic in 1847. Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves, dominated the country until 1980, when Sgt. Samuel Doe led a violent coup that led to the killing of President William Tolbert. Doe’s regime concentrated power among members of his Krahn ethnic group and suppressed others.

Forces led by Taylor, a former government minister, and backed by Gio and Mano ethnic groups, which had been subject to severe repression, launched a guerrilla war from neighboring Côte d’Ivoire against the Doe regime on Christmas Eve 1989. In 1990, Nigeria, under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States, led an armed intervention force that prevented Taylor from seizing the capital but failed to protect Doe from being captured and tortured to death by a splinter rebel group. Taylor and his National Patriotic Party (NPP) won elections in 1997; their victory was generally considered a vote for peace. The last remaining peacekeepers left Liberia in October 1999.

Liberia’s economy has yet to recover from the war, and it could suffer further if international sanctions are imposed against the Taylor government. Per capita incomes are only a fraction of their prewar level.

Security forces continued to commit abuses with impunity, including arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Human rights defenders, journalists, and political activists are increasingly under threat in Liberia. The U.S.-based Carter Center, which has been promoting political and human rights in Liberia for several years, closed its Monrovia office in November, saying the atmosphere was longer conducive for carrying out its work.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Party (NPP) assumed power after 1997 elections that constituted Liberia’s most genuine electoral exercise in decades. The votes for the presidency and national assembly on the basis of proportional representation were held under provisions of the 1986 constitution, but were conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation. Taylor's landslide victory reflected more a vote for peace than for a particular personality, as many people believed he would go back to war if he lost. Taylor’s NPP won three-quarters of the seats in the legislature. The president appoints the governors of the country’s 13 counties.

Liberia’s judiciary is only nominally independent and is vulnerable to corruption, influence by government officials, a lack of resources, and intimidation by security forces. Human rights groups say security forces often ignore summonses to appear in court to explain disappearances. Clan chieftains in some rural areas administer criminal justice through the traditional practice of trial-by-ordeal, or torture. There are lengthy pretrial detentions, often in life-threatening conditions. Human rights groups have complained about the treatment of prisoners, although the International Committee of the Red Cross has been able to visit a number of prisons.

Liberia has a poor human rights record. Security forces, which are divided into a number of different units, commit abuses with impunity, including arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances. They often act independently of government authority, particularly in rural areas. Numerous civil society groups, including human rights organizations such as the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE), operate in the country. Their employees are subject to repeated harassment by security forces. In November, about 100 men armed with knives and other weapons attacked the CEDE offices and beat former President Amos Sawyer and CEDE Executive Director Conmany Wesseh, a vocal rights activist and proponent of arms control. Wesseh was also attacked in 1999, and he sent his family to live abroad.

Liberia’s independent media have survived despite years of war, assaults, and harassment at the cost of extensive self-censorship. Some members of the print media have received death threats and are under persistent surveillance, but independent newspapers continue to publish articles critical of the government at their own risk. The government dominates the broadcast media, and most independent stations offer religious programming. Authorities, in March 2000, closed the privately owned Star Radio and Radio Veritas, which is run by the Roman Catholic Church. Star Radio, which was run by the Swiss Hirondelle Foundation, had not reopened by the end of the year, while Radio Veritas had resumed broadcasting news. The Liberian government in August came under harsh international criticism for its treatment of four international journalists from Britain’s Channel Four television who were in Liberia filming a documentary. They were detained and charged with espionage after authorities searched their hotel rooms and discovered a prepared script, which the journalists had said was used to raise funds to report their story. They were released after a week, following the intervention of Western diplomats.   

The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. However, many Liberians will not openly criticize the government, fearing harassment by security forces, or detention.

Religious freedom is respected in practice, but Muslims have been targeted because many Mandingos follow Islam. Mandingos, from the northern regions of the country, are blamed for backing Taylor’s opponents. Ethnic tension has declined since the war ended, but it occasionally flares into conflict in land disputes or clashes linked to insecurity along the border regions.

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. Women married under traditional law are considered the property of their husbands and are denied rights of inheritance and child custody if their husbands die. Several women’s groups are working to treat abused women and raise awareness of their human rights. The Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia persuaded the Justice Ministry in August 2000 to allow its attorneys to prosecute rape cases. Liberian law allows only the state to prosecute criminal cases.

Union activity and the right to strike are permitted by law. Unions proliferated during the war, although their power was extremely limited. Their activity has also been curtailed by lack of economic movement. Unions are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity and government interference was common before and during the war.

2001 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)