Background Briefing

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Building the Rule of Law

If Liberians are to enjoy a future based on the rule of law and respect for human rights, it is essential the new government create a professional and independent judiciary and an effective, law-abiding, and accountable police and military.

Decades of corruption and mismanagement and nearly fourteen years of civil war led to the near collapse of the judicial system. The Liberian police and army have for decades been used as a repressive arm of successive governments and their ruling parties and been the source of considerable instability, corruption, and human rights violations. Their institutionalized corruption has led to considerable mistrust, fear, and disrespect. Soldiers and police have over the years enjoyed near complete immunity from prosecution for all sorts of violations, including extortion at military and police checkpoints, the looting of villages, rape of women in police custody, and the execution of alleged rebels and collaborators.

The Security Council mandated UNMIL to assist in the restructuring and training of the police, army and judiciary. This was accompanied by an ambitious judicial reform strategy. However, at this writing, problems in the vetting and removal of human rights abusers from the police force, delays in demobilizing the former army, and the lack of donor support to rebuild the decimated judicial infrastructure has undermined progress in establishing the rule of law.  

Liberian National Police

Since at least 1980, Liberian police officers were reputed to be not only corrupt but also prone to commit criminal acts against Liberian citizens. During both wars, members of the Liberian police, especially those within special elite police units, were frequently involved in the targeting and repression of civilians accused of supporting armed insurgencies.

Recognizing the imperative for the police in post-war Liberia to respect and promote the rule of law, the Accra peace accords called for the police force to be restructured according to democratic values and respect for human rights.73 A key component of the process involved a vetting procedure to screen out applicants alleged to have committed serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law or crimes against humanity.

According to the civilian police component of the U.N. Mission (CIVPOL) that took the lead in the training and vetting exercise, a two-step process was adopted to determine whether applicants were accused of human rights abuses. In the first stage, termed the “war crimes check,” the names of applicants to the new police force, called the Liberian National Police (LNP), were sent to organizations with information on human rights abuses—such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), the UNMIL Human Rights section, and UNMIL Civil Affairs—so that personnel in these organizations could check if the applicants were known to have been accused of human rights abuses.

The second stage was a process known as “public involvement,” and entailed the publishing of names of applicants in three local newspapers and the posting of the same on leaflets in communities around the country. Local people were then encouraged to contact CIVPOL with any relevant information about the prospective applicants.74 Upon receipt of information from either stage, the CIVPOL section was to conduct an investigation to determine the veracity of a claim and make a decision as to the applicant’s inclusion or exclusion in the training process.

In practice, however, there appears to have been several problems which dogged the vetting process. First, since the Liberian police force was never demobilized, there appeared to be a high level of continuity between members of the former police and the newly formed LNP. The most robust interpretation of UNMIL’s mandate would have required the complete demobilization of the existing police, the establishment of the interim police force, and then the rebuilding of a new police service from the ground up.

Second, UNMIL and the Liberian transitional government appear to have not established clear human rights criteria for the elimination of potential human rights abusers among police recruits. According to Daniel Fabia, a former CIVPOL Vetting Team Leader, the standard for elimination of a candidate on human rights grounds was “if the person is found to have charges or accusations of war crimes or human rights abuses.”  However, in practice there was no clear definition of which specific war crimes or human rights abuses would warrant disqualification. As a result, UNMIL Human Rights staff members responsible for collecting data on potential recruits told Human Rights Watch that after repeated attempts for clarification, they developed their own ad-hoc criteria to collect information.75

Third, UNMIL failed to allocate adequate human resources to conduct thorough and systematic background checks on applicants for the LNP. Once an accusation or allegation was received, CIVPOL was to conduct an investigation to determine its veracity. 76  However, only one member of the UNMIL human rights team was responsible for collecting information on human rights abuses, and even this person’s efforts were part-time, given other responsibilities in the section.77 In addition, CIVPOL allocated only a few investigators to conduct investigations to determine the veracity of allegations of human rights abuses. As a result, only a handful of UNMIL staff members were tasked to gather data and investigate allegations of human rights abuses for thousands of LNP applicants.

Fourth, the “public involvement” process was not appropriately tailored to the Liberian context. Given that only fifteen percent of the Liberian population is functionally literate, it was largely ineffective to rely on newspapers to encourage public feedback.78 Moreover, none of the newspapers in Liberia are distributed widely. The approximately twenty newspapers each print only 700 to 1000 copies and they are rarely distributed outside Monrovia.  Far more Liberians rely on radio for information.79 Although CIVPOL claims that it distributed leaflets with candidate names nationally, it does not appear that it targeted areas where people with the most information on human rights abuses would have resided, such as internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.80 One sign of the limited effectiveness of the public involvement process is that by late September 2005, CIVPOL had only received eight credible complaints from the public.81

Finally, the process of gathering information about human rights abusers could have been further improved had local human rights groups, several of which had done extensive documentation of war crimes, been formally incorporated into the vetting process. In practice, staff from the UNMIL human rights section merely consulted with local groups on an informal and ad-hoc basis.  82

These problems resulted in a police vetting process that was disorganized, inefficient, and most likely ineffective in ensuring that the new Liberian National Police would truly represent a break with the past. One indication of such an outcome is that it appears that very few applicants have actually been removed because of their involvement in human rights abuses. According to CIVPOL officials, of the 1903 new applicants and 2060 current LNP officers under review, none of the new applicants and only twenty-eight of the current officers were disqualified for human rights abuses. 83 However, according to a member of the UNMIL human rights section, of 3654 names submitted to it by CIVPOL by mid-February, it sent back negative information—including allegations of human rights abuses—on 1277 names.84

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the failure to exclude past human rights abusers from the LNP will undermine current efforts to establish the rule of law. To address the outstanding problems with the current process, the newly elected government should, in conjunction with UNMIL, provide for another review to ensure that past abusers are denied entry into, or removed from, the new force.  The final list of recruits and their photographs should be given to all those who took part in the vetting process for a final and detailed review according to strict and uniform criteria. This process should be appropriately staffed by UNMIL. The list and photographs should also be adequately distributed to the public whose input should be encouraged. If, at a later date, information about the involvement of a police recruit in past human rights abuses is uncovered—for example during any stage in TRC investigations—she or he should be subject to immediate suspension and administrative removal proceedings in accordance with Liberian law.

The Liberian Army

The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) has a long history of serving partisan and tribal interests, and has been accused of having been involved in numerous heinous crimes against civilians. The newly elected government must ensure that Liberia’s future army is free of human rights abusers and that all new recruits receive appropriate training in international human rights and humanitarian law.


From 1980, when Sergeant Samuel K. Doe violently overthrew the government of William Tolbert, the AFL has been dominated by members of the Doe’s Krahn ethnic group.  For almost a decade Doe used his army to commit serious abuses against Liberians of rival ethnic groups, particularly the Mano and Gio tribes of Nimba county, which he accused of supporting multiple coup attempts against him.85 From 1989, when Charles Taylor launched his own military bid to overthrow President Doe, his NPFL and the plethora of warring factions which emerged to counter it consisted predominantly of bands of armed fighters with no formal military training. Throughout both wars, all factions were responsible for terrorizing the local populations in order to pillage and to discourage support for rival factions.

A previous attempt to restructure the army in 1997 failed and had disastrous consequences for Liberia’s population. Following his inauguration in 1997, Taylor rejected the peace accord provision that provided for an open and transparent restructuring of the security forces by West African peacekeeping forces from ECOWAS. Instead, former NPFL fighters were placed in the security and police forces without serious effort to provide training or to meet pledges to incorporate members from the other armed factions. After taking office, Taylor also created several elite security units, which quickly became notorious for committing serious abuses against civilians.  Former armed NPFL fighters were also permitted by the government to create security firms for hire by private sector companies. 

The 2003 Accra peace accords called for the restructuring of the AFL.  While U.N. Security Council Resolution 1509 mandated UNMIL to assist the transitional government with the process, the U.S. government has taken the lead in recruiting and training a new Liberian army of some 2000 soldiers. In light of the concerns of both criminal conduct by the AFL and the previous ethnic domination of it, U.S. and Liberian officials have stressed the importance of the new army being both free of political bias and balanced according to region, gender, and most importantly ethnicity.86


In early 2005, the U.S. contracted the project to a privately owned security company, DynCorp, a U.S.-based government contractor which provides numerous and varied services to U.S. and foreign governments around the world. The U.S. will pay $100 million to DynCorp over three years to assist with recruitment, training, and equipment.87 The transitional government aims for one battalion of the new army to be operational in time for the installation of the next democratically elected government in January 2006.88

In contrast to the police restructuring, the existing army will be fully demobilized before recruitment, vetting, and training of the new army begins. According to former U.S. Ambassador John Blaney, such a decision was taken to ensure that the new army represents a break with the past.89 Human Rights Watch welcomes the decision to completely demobilize the Liberian army but insists that the process to rebuild the army include a thorough, properly resourced vetting process to screen out former human rights abusers.

The restructuring exercise is currently running months behind schedule. The delay appears to be the result of insufficient resources to pay the benefits for some 13,600 AFL soldiers, who, for unknown reasons, were not included in the general disarmament exercise which lasted from December 2003 through October 2004.90  It is imperative that the Liberian government and international community pledge sufficient funds to cover the demobilization costs of the former AFL soldiers and subsequent vetting process.

Only after the demobilization of the AFL is completed—possibly by November 2005—will the recruitment and vetting of new soldiers begin. According to a U.S. State Department official heading up the Security Reform Team in Monrovia, DynCorp will select solders that “are carefully recruited, vetted and trained to be subordinate to the rule of law.”91 However, at this writing, the vetting policy was yet to be finalized.92 

As DynCorp begins to screen recruits for the new army, the newly elected Liberian government must ensure that DynCorp and others involved in vetting prospective recruits pay attention to and correct some of the problems that have plagued the vetting process for the Liberian National Police.   

Lastly, the Liberian and United States governments must thoroughly investigate and hold accountable any DynCorp employee on a U.S. government contract accused of violations concerning the trafficking of women or violence against trafficked women. While Human Rights Watch has received no allegations involving DynCorp contractors in Liberia, their past behavior in another post conflict situation—Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999 and 2000—gives cause for concern. There, several DynCorp employees on a U.S. military contract faced well-documented allegations of buying women, transporting trafficked women, and violence against trafficked women.93 According to Human Rights Watch's research, none of the contractors accused of trafficking-related crimes faced prosecution in either Bosnia or the United States.94 


To facilitate accountability for past abuses, combat impunity, and establish the rule of law, it is also imperative that the dysfunctional state of the Liberian judicial system be confronted head-on and without delay. Instead of confronting impunity, however, the present state of the judiciary is actually contributing to it.

According to a December 2003 assessment of the Liberian judicial system by the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC),95 “there is an almost unanimous distrust of Liberia’s courts and a corresponding collapse of the rule of law.” The report identified several critical problems with Liberia’s judiciary, including systemic corruption; destroyed and looted infrastructure; lack of qualified personnel; unpaid salaries for judges, prosecutors, and court staff; little effective separation of powers; limited access to legal advice and defense counsel; and a limited understanding of the principles of transparency and accountability.96

The Security Council mandated UNMIL to assist the transitional government in consolidating government institutions, including judicial institutions.  Based on the findings and recommendations of the ILAC assessment, UNMIL developed an ambitious five-phase judicial reform strategy. Some of the proposed projects included re-establishing two criminal courts in Monrovia; the rehabilitation of the Supreme Court; support to the Ministry of Justice; expanding the number of functioning magistrate and circuit courts; the training of judges and prosecutors; and the formulation of appropriate pay scales for judges, prosecutors and court administration staff.97

Despite UNMIL’s agenda, the reform of the justice sector has progressed at an alarmingly slow pace. The Justice Ministry claims to have insufficient funds to refurbish scores of courthouses destroyed or looted during years of armed conflict. UNMIL’s judicial reform budget does not include funds for infrastructure development projects such as the refurbishment and equipping of courtrooms.  Donor governments, who normally provide funds for these kinds of projects, are reluctant to dispense money until after the October 2005 elections and subsequent accountability mechanisms are firmly in place. 98 As a result, despite several assessments detailing the miserable state of the judiciary, no serious efforts have been made to reverse the situation.

At present the judiciary in Liberia remains severely dysfunctional. As of this writing, only half of 145 magistrate positions are staffed, and of these none holds a law degree. Only five of Liberia’s fifteen circuit courts are currently staffed and operational. Of grave concern is the fact that only 3% of all inmates in Liberia’s prisons and holding cells are convicted felons. The 97% remaining are being held in pre-trial detention, often for extended periods of time.99

Even when judicial authorities have been assigned to a courtroom, the absence of prosecutors and public defenders severely undermines the quality of justice dispensed.  Judges and other staff often fail to fulfill their duties with respect for due process, sometimes by simply neglecting to show up for weeks or months at a time. There are also frequent reports of judicial authorities releasing suspects charged with criminal offenses after having received a bribe, or soliciting money from them to stop the case being committed to a higher court or, in the case of a judge, being sent to prison.100  Prisons and detention centers continue to operate far below international standards with overcrowded cells and lack of food and water for detainees.101

Although the two criminal courts in Monrovia have technically been re-established and judges and prosecutors are now being paid, according to a recent USAID assessment, “the low salaries and morale have done little to improve the operation of the courts.”102 The USAID assessment team observed that the courthouses have no light or amplification equipment and that there is no central record system. An average criminal trial would take 42 days to complete, which is the duration of the full term of the court. The USAID team concluded that given that Monrovia is a city of about one million people with a significant crime problem, “this is a barometer of a dysfunctional court system.” 103

The system of local courts, presided over by traditional leaders or their officials and applying customary law, should also be overhauled and properly regulated. The local courts are the only form of legal system accessible to a wide sector of the population. Customary law applied by the local courts is often discriminatory, particularly against women, and the local courts frequently abuse their powers by illegally detaining persons and charging excessively high fines for minor offences, as well as adjudicating criminal cases which should by law be tried in the higher courts.

At present, law court buildings in the provinces need to be rebuilt and refurbished, as do police stations and detention facilities. The insufficient numbers of judges, magistrates, prosecutors, and courtrooms, which have led to huge backlogs, need to be addressed, as does the extended and unlawful detention of hundreds of criminal suspects, many without due process guarantees as stipulated in the constitution. The new government should as a matter of priority fill current vacancies for judges, magistrates, prosecutors, and public defenders with qualified personnel, who are appropriately remunerated. The government should also take steps to ensure that the judiciary is independent, impartial, and free from political manipulation and corruption.

The international community should increase funding and provide technical support to human rights groups providing legal aid or defender services to the indigent so as to assist those wanting to seek legal redress through the judicial system or facing criminal charges. Further, the international community should provide technical and financial support to review existing laws, many of which are outdated and do not comply with international standards, particularly those that do not provide sufficient protections to women and children.

[73] Accra Peace Accords, article VIII.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with Daniel Fabia, Vetting Team Leader, Monrovia, February 22, 2005. According to Fabia, the newspapers used were The News, The Inquirer, and the Tribune.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with UNMIL staff, February and May 2005.

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with Daniel Fabia, Vetting Team Leader, Monrovia, February 22, 2005.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Human Rights Watch interviews with international aid workers, Monrovia, February and May 2005.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview with Liz Hoff, Head, Press Union of Liberia, Monrovia, February 26, 2005.

[80] Human Rights Watch interviews with Aine Bhreathnach, Protection Advisor, Oxfam, Monrovia, February 19, 2005, and Peter Deck, UNHCR Protection Officer, Monrovia, February 21, 2005. 

[81] Human Rights Watch email exchange with CIVPOL officials, Monrovia, September 27, 2005.

[82] Human Rights Watch interviews with representatives of Liberian human rights organizations, Monrovia, February and May 2005.

[83] Human Rights Watch email exchange with CIVPOL officials, Monrovia, September 27, 2005.

[84] Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, February 2005.

[85] Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1989 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1988).

[86] Human Rights Watch interviews with US military officials in Monrovia, March 2004 and February 2005.

[87] Human Rights Watch interview with Major Ryan McMullen, US Military Attache, Monrovia, February 23, 2005.

[88] IRIN, “Liberia: Government Ready to Form New Army,” Monrovia, May 19, 2005.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with Ambassador John Blaney, Monrovia, May 27, 2005.

[90] As a result, the international community was left scrambling for the US $16.2 million needed to cover the pending demobilization and retirement benefits. Although $5.5 million has been pledged to cover the costs of demobilizing the 9000 soldiers recruited since 1989, no funds have been secured to cover the costs of severance benefits for the 4500 AFL soldiers recruited before 1989. According to both U.S. and Liberian defense officials, the original plan to train 4000 troops was reduced in June 2005 given budgetary concerns largely brought on by the need to pay outstanding payments to the former AFL soldiers.

[91] IRIN, “US hires private company to train 4000-man army,” Monrovia, February 15, 2005.

[92] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with U.S. Department of State official, August 30, 2005.

[93] "Hopes Betrayed: Trafficking of Women and Girls to Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina for Forced Prostitution," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 14, no. 9(D), November 2002.

[94] Ibid.

[95] ILAC is a Sweden-based non-governmental organization which provides technical legal assistance in post-conflict situations.

[96] See International Legal Assistance Consortium, “Assessment of the Liberian Judicial System,” December 2003.

[97] UNMIL, “Progress Report: UNMIL Rule of Law Components,” November 2004.

[98] Interviews with Chris Gabelle, Institutional Development and Governance Advisor, Office of the European Commission in Liberia, Monrovia, February 19, 2005, and Sharon Pauling, USAID program officer, Monrovia, February 23, 2005.

[99] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with UNMIL Human Rights Section, September 2, 2005. Also see United Nations, “Sixth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Liberia,” S/2005/177, March 17, 2005, p. 7.

[100]Human Rights Watch interviews with local and international human rights investigators, February, May, August, and September 2005.

[101] In a telephone interview with Human Rights Watch in February 2005, a social worker who visited Monrovia Central Prison in early 2005 described to Human Rights Watch how she saw up to twelve prisoners living in small cells sized approximately eight by nine feet. The prisoners said it was not uncommon to go without washing water for four days. Of those she visited, only two of 324 had been convicted of a crime, while the others had been held in pre-trial detention for periods ranging from four to eleven months.  For international standards on the treatment of prisoners, see Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted Aug. 30, 1955, by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, U.N. Doc. A/CONF/611, annex I, E.S.C. res. 663C, 24 U.N. ESCOR Supp. (No. 1) at 11, U.N. Doc. E/3048 (1957), amended E.S.C. res. 2076, 62 U.N. ESCOR Supp. (No. 1) at 35, U.N. Doc. E/5988 (1977).

[102] Paul Fitzgerald, Robert Herman, Gilbert Khadiagala, Madeline Williams, “Democracy and Governance Assessment of Liberia: Transition From a Failed State?,”draft report submitted to USAID, October 2004, p. 52.

[103] Ibid.

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