Letter to President John Kufuor
July 19, 2003

President John Kufuor
Accra, Ghana

Dear President Kufuor:

We are writing to you as chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to welcome your efforts to end the conflict in Liberia and to create conditions that would finally allow Liberian civilians to live in peace and security and with respect for their human rights. ECOWAS is poised to send 1,000-1,500 peacekeeping troops to Liberia; we urge you to ensure that this force acts in full accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law, and with a clear mandate to protect civilians and to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The history of ECOWAS peacekeeping operations in the subregion has been mixed. Important successes have been offset by serious human rights abuses and a lack of accountability. ECOWAS must commit itself to ensuring its troops are adequately trained and able to meet their obligations under human rights and humanitarian law and to investigate and prosecute any officers or soldiers implicated in abuses. At its April 1999 summit in Abuja, ECOWAS pledged to conduct an investigation into ECOMOG abuses in Sierra Leone, especially those associated with the January 1999 rebel offensive. At this writing, no investigation has taken place. It is therefore critical that the ECOWAS leadership and governments contributing troops publicly commit themselves to respecting international law.

Human Rights Watch has documented human rights abuses by all sides to the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, including abuses by ECOWAS forces, known as ECOMOG. In Liberia, ECOMOG helped restore security, which resulted in an improvement in the human rights situation. However ECOMOG became complicit in serious abuses through its alliance with abusive warring factions, and ECOMOG troops were responsible for extensive looting, harassment and arbitrary detention of civilians. ECOMOG forces also violated international humanitarian law by conducting indiscriminate air strikes against civilians and civilian objects, including violations of medical neutrality. To our knowledge, none of these abuses was ever investigated, and no ECOMOG troops were held accountable.

The record of ECOMOG troops in Sierra Leone constituted an improvement over its conduct in Liberia. Nevertheless, ECOMOG troops in Sierra Leone were responsible for serious abuses, including summary executions of suspected rebels or collaborators, use of child soldiers, and indiscriminate bombings against civilians. Officers to the level of captain were present and sometimes participated in these executions. ECOMOG troops violated medical neutrality during a January 11, 1999 operation in which they stormed a hospital, proceeded to drag wounded rebels from their beds, and executed them on hospital grounds. ECOMOG troops were found to have sexually exploited women and solicited child prostitutes.

In light of this history, we would like to make the following recommendations to ECOWAS as it prepares for a new peacekeeping operation in Liberia:

  • Ensure that the ECOWAS force has a robust mandate to protect civilians, and that they facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid;
  • Ensure that ECOWAS forces fully abide by international humanitarian law, particularly with respect to the protection of civilians and civilian objects;
  • Provide all soldiers and officers to be deployed by ECOWAS with appropriate training in international human rights and humanitarian law before they are sent to Liberia;
  • Include a unit of advisors with particular expertise in international humanitarian law to deploy with ECOWAS forces in an advisory capacity;
  • Cooperate with the U.N. Peace-Building Support Office in Liberia (UNOL), whose mandate should be revised and strengthened to include human rights monitoring and investigation, public reporting, and the raising of individual cases of abuse with the Liberian authorities, the leadership of the rebel groups, or the relevant authorities for any foreign troops deployed in the country;
  • Establish a disciplinary unit to oversee the imposition of military discipline within the various ECOWAS contingents to address violations of international humanitarian law and other serious abuses by ECOWAS troops;
  • Demobilize and disarm all child soldiers, and hand them over to the appropriate child protection agency.

Thank you for your attention to these important matters. Please let us know if we can be of any further assistance.

Sincerely,

Janet Fleischman
Washington Director for Africa

Cc: President Joaquim Chissano, Chair of the African Union
President Alpha Oumar Konare, Chair of the Commission of the African Union
Mohammad Ibn Chambas, Executive Secretary of ECOWAS
President Olusegun Obasanjo, Federal Republic of Nigeria
Under Secretary-General Jacques Paul Klein, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Coordinator of United Nations Operations in Liberia
Ambassador Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, Special Representative for West Africa
Walter H. Kansteiner III, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
Dr. Jendayi Frazier, Senior Director for Africa, National Security Council