Background Briefing

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On October 11, 2005, more than one million Liberians will head to the polls to take part in presidential and parliamentary elections. These pivotal elections are envisaged to consolidate Liberia’s transition from a near-failed state that routinely violated the human rights of its citizens and was a source of regional instability to a democratic state governed by the rule of law. But Liberia’s transition to democracy and respect for human rights must be judged by more than its progress on Election Day.  Liberia’s long history of armed conflict and human rights abuses reflect profound and deep-rooted weaknesses in the country’s institutions, particularly the justice system, the police and the national army—institutions that have an enormous impact on the protection of basic rights.

All participants in the election process—the political parties, the candidates and the voters—should ensure that human rights issues occupy a central place in the campaign. Once elections are over and Liberia’s new government is sworn in, urgent steps must be taken to address the deep and longstanding issues that gave rise to and triggered Liberia’s political crisis and years of ensuing armed conflict: a culture of impunity, endemic corruption, mismanagement, a weak judicial system and lack of respect for the rule of law, ethnic discrimination, crushing poverty, and the inequitable distribution of natural resource wealth.

The new government with the help of its international supporters must work tirelessly to establish professional and accountable judicial institutions aimed at establishing the rule of law and security forces that protect instead of prey on Liberian citizens. They must take proactive steps to provide accountability for war crimes committed against thousands of Liberians during years of armed conflict. They must also take much-needed steps to improve both the management of the economy and Liberia’s natural resources. Those who fail to gain a seat in the elections and those in the political opposition must do their part to ensure that this agenda is relentlessly pursued. Without sufficient progress in addressing these critical problems, even the freest and fairest elections will fail to deliver on the promise of a better future for Liberians.

After enduring more than two decades of social and political instability including fourteen years of brutal armed conflict, Liberia stands at an unprecedented social, political and economic crossroads.1 From at least 1980 to 2003, Liberian citizens were subjected to continual violations of civil and political rights by successive governments, as well as widespread and systematic war crimes committed by all warring factions during the country’s two devastating armed conflicts. These war crimes included summary execution and numerous large-scale massacres, widespread and systematic rape and other forms of sexual violence, mutilation and torture, and the widespread forced conscription and use of child combatants. The violence blighted the lives of tens of thousands of civilians, displaced almost half the population, and virtually destroyed the country’s infrastructure.

At present, there are solid grounds for optimism: more than 101,000 combatants from three warring factions have been disarmed and demobilized; tens of thousands of them are in school or are receiving skills training.2 Tens of thousands of civilians forced to flee their homes during the armed conflict are beginning to return to their towns and villages to rebuild their lives. After years of being silenced, persecuted and targeted, Liberian journalists and members of civil society now operate without fear of reprisal. In recognition of the role that decades of rampant corruption played in contributing to political instability and armed conflict, the current transitional government of Liberia has conducted investigations into corrupt officials, removing several from their posts. In an effort to promote transparent government decision-making, the international community has proposed a three-year economic governance plan which would limit the government’s power to grant contracts, control key sources of revenue, and place international supervisors in the Central Bank and key ministries.  Lastly, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission tasked to investigate gross human rights violations that occurred between 1979 and October 14, 2003 has been established and is empowered to recommend prosecutions for the worst offenders.


Human Rights Watch recognizes that sequencing the pursuit of peace and justice must be carefully done. However, delaying justice can undermine efforts to eliminate the culture of impunity and embolden perpetrators—some of whom may end up in political office and other positions of power and influence—and render the pursuit of long-term peace and stability ultimately more difficult.  

Key international actors working to promote stability in Liberia—the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United States—must help the new government stay the course towards transparency and good governance and continue to highlight the risks of not doing so. They must prioritize rebuilding Liberia’s collapsed judicial system. Governments of the region and the international community must pay strict attention to the economic situation of the over l00,000 recently demobilized fighters as well as to development of the communities to which they return. To this end, shortfalls in funding to train and reintegrate tens of thousands of fighters who took part in Liberia’s 1999-2003 armed conflict and to assist civilians whose lives were torn apart by conflict must be redressed. Concerned governments and foreign donors must also take a stand on the essential role accountability for past abuses plays in building a society based on respect for the rule of law.  They must develop a concrete strategy to bring to justice those individuals who bear the greatest responsibility for human rights crimes committed during Liberia’s wars.

The findings of this paper are based on field research in Liberia in February and May 2005, during which interviews were conducted with members of Liberian civil society, United Nations officials, diplomats, journalists, and local and international aid workers. 

[1] See Human Rights Watch, Liberia: Flight From Terror (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1990);  “Liberia: A Human Rights Disaster,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 2, no. 33 (A), October 26, 1990; Human Rights Watch, Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994); “Back To The Brink: War Crimes by Liberian Government and Rebels,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 14, no. 4(A), May 2002.

[2] United Nations, “Sixth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Liberia,” S/2005/177, March 17, 2005, p. 5.

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