WORLD REPORT 2001 - Liberia

Human Rights Developments

Given the background of a brutal seven-year civil war, Liberia's transition process was slow and shaky. Three years after a U.N.-supervised election brought former faction leader Charles Taylor to power, the situation remained insecure despite progress toward demilitarization, the reabsorption of many ex-combatants into society, and a decrease in the number of military checkpoints. In 1999, the government publicly destroyed a huge cache of arms and ammunition collected during the disarmament period. Additionally, thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons returned to their home areas, despite the severe economic hardship they encountered. State institutions, which had all but ceased to function, were being restarted, albeit with major problems. For some in Liberia, these signs, however small, indicated tangible progress in the right direction.

The consolidation of power in the presidency and the lack of respect for the rule of law threatened to undermine prospects for sustainable peace. Taylor government officials regularly operated with little or no accountability or transparency, further exacerbating the divisions and resentments fueled by the war. State institutions that could provide an independent check on the Taylor administration, such as the judiciary, the legislature, the human rights commission, and the commission on reconciliation remained weakened and cowed by the executive.

The volatility of the situation was underscored by five serious outbreaks of fighting since the 1997 elections. Barely a year after the war ended, there were two outbreaks of violence in Monrovia in 1998 in which state security forces battled with faction leader Roosevelt Johnson's officially disbanded United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO-J) and his predominantly ethnic Krahn supporters. In April and August 1999, Liberian rebels operating from neighboring Guinea carried out attacks in Lofa County, northern Liberia. Although not confirmed, the rebel attacks were thought to be led by former fighters from the ULIMO-K faction who were largely ethnic Mandingos. The fighting resulted in civilian deaths and displacement, forcing thousands of Liberians and Sierra Leonean refugees to flee.

In July 2000, another invasion was launched by a group calling itself Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) from the Guinea border into Liberia, resulting in fighting and displacement yet again in Lofa County. These periodic eruptions of violence contributed to the continuing destabilization of the subregion, and within Liberia assumed an ethnic dimension as the government indiscriminately blamed members of the Krahn and Mandingo communities for the attacks.

One of the major human rights problems in 2000 was the complete impunity with which the security and police forces operated. Following his inauguration, President Taylor rejected the peace accord provision that provided for a transparent restructuring of the security forces by the West African peacekeeping force. Instead, former Taylor faction fighters were placed in the security and police forces without serious efforts to provide training or to meet pledges to incorporate members from the other factions. Former Taylor fighters have also been permitted by the government to create security firms for hire by private sector companies.

There were regular reports of harassment, extortion, mistreatment, killings, "disappearances," and torture by members of the police and armed forces who acted with complete impunity. Since taking office, President Taylor created two extralegal elite security forces known as the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) and the Special Security Services (SSS). These security units had no legal basis for their existence, were not under the command of the Ministry of Defense, and were only accountable to President Taylor. Headed by, and heavily stacked with, former Taylor-faction fighters, these security forces were regularly responsible for abuses against the population. Other new security forces includedan armed border patrol force under the Ministry of Justice's Bureau of Immigration specifically to man the borders and the creation of an elite force within the National Police Force, the Special Operations Division (SOD).

Ethnic Krahn and Mandingo people, historically seen to be allied with the repression of the former Doe government and with anti-Taylor factions during the war, were particularly susceptible to harassment at the hands of the state security apparatus. Following the violence in Monrovia in 1998, Krahn were targeted for extrajudicial executions, harassment, and politically motivated criminal charges. In the aftermath of the Lofa County incursions in 1999, security forces killed, tortured, and mistreated civilians, particularly members of the Mandingo ethnic group. During the incursions and counter-attacks in Lofa County, hundreds were killed and thousands of citizens as well as Sierra Leonean refugees were forced to flee the area. Although some of the alleged abuses by the security forces were investigated by the government, in all cases security personnel were treated leniently or exonerated. Since the 1999 and 2000 rebel incursions in Lofa County, Mandingo residents remain afraid to return to their homes.

Independent voices were increasingly silenced by the government in a bid to stem publicity and criticism of human rights violations by the government. Journalists and human rights activists came under increasing attack by President Taylor and other high-ranking government officials, including through threats, physical assaults, and politicallymotivated criminal charges. In March, Suah Dede, head of the Liberian Press Union was briefly detained without charge after giving a radio interview condemning the closure of two radio stations. In April, Isaac Redd, radio broadcaster on the state radio station, was detained and held without charge for several days by the police. He was later accused of speaking against the president and charged with "criminal malfeasance." In August, a foreign news film team-David Barrie, Tim Lambon, Gugulakhe Radebe, and Sorious Samura-who were in Liberia to film a documentary, were arrested, charged with espionage, and detained for a week. The film team had been given official permission to film in Liberia, but were arrested and accused of filming in restricted areas and seeking to damage the country's image by falsely linking President Charles Taylor to diamond smuggling. They were released following international pressure.

Aware that a large proportion of the population relied on the radio for their news, the government silenced independent radio broadcasting. The government-owned radio station provided the only news broadcasts heard by most Liberians. Two independent radio stations came under attack in March 2000: Star Radio and Radio Veritas, the radio station of the Catholic Church. Star Radio was forcibly closed by government security, according to the police director, for "hosting of political talk shows, news, interviews and programs that have damaging political effects that tend to undermine the peace, security and stability of Liberia." Some fifteen police raided the offices, assaulted two journalists, and ransacked and sealed the offices without giving a reason. Star Radio had already been requested a few months earlier by the Ministry of Information to provide two copies of their daily broadcasts before they were aired and were accused of putting negative reports on the internet. Radio Veritas was closed down for several days by the government on the grounds that it was making "political" broadcasts rather than religious ones. At the time of publication, Star Radio remained closed.

The internal conflicts within Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea continued to spill over the borders, further destabilizing the region. In 2000, the Liberian government was accused of fueling the war in neighboring Sierra Leone by helping the Sierra Leonean rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a charge it strenuously denied. President Taylor, in turn, accused Sierra Leone and Guinea of providing a safe haven to Liberian rebels intent on destabilizing his government. In September 2000, tensions rose between Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, each accusing the other of supporting rebel activity. A crisis in the region was prompted when Guinean President Lansana Conte publicly accused refugees of rebel activity against his government, resulting in round-ups, detentions, and violence against Sierra Leoneans and Liberians in Guinea.

Voluntary repatriation of Liberian refugees from neighboring countries continued. While many thousands of Liberian refugees were able to return to Liberia without fear of political persecution, some members of the Mandingo and Krahn communities continued to have valid fears. In 2000, there were still some 100,000 Liberian refugees in Guinea and over 85,000 in Ivory Coast. Of those, some 15,000 Krahn in Ivory Coast were deemed by UNHCR to have a well-founded fear of persecution and were being assisted to remain and integrate with local communities in Ivory Coast. The situation for Liberian refugees in Guinea remained difficult: July 2000 insurgent attack from the Guinea border into Liberia prevented refugee return and Liberian refugees in Guinea were subjected to violence in September 2000. UNHCR was planning to end its repatriation assistance to Liberian refugees by the end of 2000. After that, assistance would be provided only inside Liberia for rehabilitation of infrastructure in areas that people were likely to return to. UNHCR planned to close its Liberia operation by March 2001.

Defending Human Rights

President Taylor and other high-ranking government officials continued to attack human rights groups for publicizing abuses and blamed the human rights community for the withholding of international aid. Human rights lawyers who represented perceived government critics also came under attack. Human rights activists continued to flee the country fearing government reprisal for their work. In December 1999, James D. Torh, the executive director of a children's rights organization, Fore-Runners of Children's Universal Development, was detained and charged with sedition for a speech he made. According to the indictment, Torh was charged for allegedly telling students, among other things, that "[President Charles] Taylor is running this government from his pocket and that those who voted for this government must repent that it is failing" and "we are prepared to tell whoever that is in power that it is time of the Liberian people to stand up and tell you to step down." Torh was released on bail after five days and fled the country.

Despite these attacks, the nongovernmental human rights community continued to expand its activities. In contrast, the National Human Rights Commission created by the government in 1997 was virtually inactive. Only three of the five mandated members were appointed by the senate, and the commission's chair remained outside the country for much of the year.

The Role of the International Community

Diplomatic missions, although still few, began to reopen in Liberia. In 2000, there were a dozen or so missions or embassies in Monrovia, including those of Burkina Faso, Egypt, the European Union (E.U.), Ivory Coast, Libya, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and the United States (U.S). Most international donors were wary about giving direct assistance to the Taylor government, conditioning this on improvements in microeconomic reporting, fiscal discipline, and respect for human rights. Most foreign aid was given through international relief organizations or local civil society groups.

The international community remained concerned by evidence of Liberian support for Sierra Leonean rebels by a flow of diamonds-for-arms through Liberia. It focused on pressuring the Taylor government to withdraw its support to the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which was subject to a U.N. embargo on trafficking in arms and diamonds, its primary source of wealth. The link between the Taylor government and the RUF dated back to the Liberian civil war when Taylor headed the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The NPFL and RUF provided military and other support to each other through the years in a relationship that continued after the election that brought Taylor into office. Charges were subsequently made that the Taylor government was facilitating arms transfers to the RUF in return for Sierra Leonean diamonds. Over the last two years, official annual diamond exports by Sierra Leone dropped to half, to U.S.$30 million. In the same period, diamond exports by Liberia-a country that possesses relatively few diamond fields-rose to U.S.$300 million.

In late July, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering delivered a blunt warning to President Taylor that Liberia would be subjected to sanctions if it did not halt support to the RUF. Several days later, at U.N. Security Council hearings on Sierra Leone diamonds on July 31, the U.S. again threatened sanctions against Liberia and Burkina Faso for illegal diamond and arms trafficking which it said was fueling the war in Sierra Leone. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Richard Holbrooke, stated that the U.S. had evidence showing that President Taylor and senior RUF leaders had personally taken large commissions for facilitating illegal diamond and arms transfers. In October, the U.S. acted on its threats by imposing a visa ban on President Charles Taylor and senior members his government. U.S. President Bill Clinton noted: "[t]he absence of any positive response from the [Taylor] government leaves little choice but to impose these restrictions," and added that the policy would not be reviewed until Liberia ended its support for the RUF.

The E.U. also took a strong stance regarding the Taylor government. In July, following U.K. allegations that President Taylor was selling weapons to the RUF in return for diamonds, the E.U. suspended approximately U.S. $50 million in aid to Liberia as a signal to the Taylor government to cut its support to the rebels in Sierra Leone. The only government that generously gave direct aid to the Liberian government in 2000 was the government of Taiwan, in return for Liberia's diplomatic support at the U.N.

United Nations

The U.N. Department of Political Affairs retained a small U.N. Peace-Building Support Office (UNOL) following the withdrawal of the U.N. observer mission in July 1997, to serve as a focal point and coordinate post-conflict U.N. peace-building activities in Liberia as well as to provide advisory services to the government in defining post-conflict priorities, to raise international funds for Liberia, and to coordinate and liaise between the government and the international community. This unit remained under the leadership of Representative of the Secretary-General Felix Downs-Thomas and maintained a low profile. It was not prominent in raising human rights issues. A U.N. Security Council arms embargo against Liberia since 1992 remained in place, but there was little evidence of its effective enforcement.