Human Rights News

Liberia

Briefing to the 60th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights

January 2004  
 
Objective  
 
The Commission on Human Rights should adopt a resolution on the situation in Liberia, condemning ongoing violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all factions; urging transitional authorities in Liberia to desist from granting a general amnesty and to ensure justice and accountability for abuses committed during Liberia’s internal conflict. The Commission should also urge the Nigerian government to hand over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone former president Charles Taylor, indicted for war crimes in association with his support of Sierra Leonean rebels; and urge the U.N. Security Council to ensure that the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) deploys rapidly country-wide to fulfill its mandate to protect civilians.  
 
Background  
 
In the second half of 2003, a peace agreement between the Liberian government and two rebel insurgencies, the departure into exile of former President Charles Taylor and the deployment of the first tranche of a mandated 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force (UNMIL) brought an uneasy end to the renewed civil war dating from 2000. The peace agreement signed on August 18, 2003 in Accra, Ghana provided for the disarmament of an estimated 40,000 fighters and the formation of a broad-based transitional government which will guide Liberia to fresh elections in 2005.

From 1989 to 1997 Liberia was engulfed in a devastating civil war, which ended following a peace agreement and the subsequent election of former warlord Charles Taylor as president. In 2000, civil war broke out again when rebels from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and later the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) sought to unseat then President Taylor. Both conflicts were characterized by egregious violations against civilians by all sides including summary execution, forced recruitment, widespread use of child combatants, rape and sexual violence, internal and external displacement, looting and banditry. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced by the fighting, and by 2003 it was estimated that as much as fifty percent of the population lived in the capital, Monrovia.  
 
While the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in late 2003 in and around Monrovia brought about marked improvements in the human rights situation there, attacks against civilians by former government troops, LURD and MODEL continued in the hinterland. Accountability for past abuses remains unclear: although the peace agreement provides for a truth and reconciliation commission, it also says that a recommendation for a general amnesty will be considered by the transitional government at a future date. The Nigerian government, which offered Charles Taylor a safe haven in August 2003 when rebels threatened to take Monrovia itself, has failed to hand him over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which has indicted him for war crimes connected with his support for rebels in Sierra Leone.  
 
Ongoing insecurity and related abuses.The rural areas of Liberia continue to be plagued by insecurity, and protection of the civilian population remains an urgent priority. By December 2003, only 5,000 peacekeepers from UNMIL had been deployed, with promised contributions of troops from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Ukraine yet to arrive. In this vacuum, all three factions (government forces, LURD, and MODEL) continued both to fight among themselves and to harass and attack the civilian population. As of mid-November there were armed skirmishes between members of the three warring factions in Nimba, Grand Bassa, and Bong counties. Abuses by all three groups against civilians mainly consisted of forced labor (portering food and looted goods), rape and sexual violence, and looting of civilian property, especially food items.  
 
Abuses by government forces. During rebel attacks on Monrovia in June-August 2003, government forces committed widespread rape and sexual violence, particularly around the Bushrod Island area. Government forces also heavily recruited new fighters, many of them children, during LURD’s offensives earlier in the year. Following Taylor’s departure and the UNMIL deployment in Monrovia, some government forces, particularly young and recently recruited fighters, retreated into camps for the internally displaced around Monrovia. Others moved north towards their former strongholds in Nimba County. As of December 2003 abuses committed by government militias, mostly looting and forced labor, were mainly taking place in Nimba and Bong counties.  
 
Abuses by LURD forces. LURD forces held most of the southwest and northwest of the country at the end of 2003. Areas under LURD control are dominated by large numbers of young, undisciplined fighters, including many children. Indiscriminate LURD shelling of government areas in the capital Monrovia in June-August 2003 resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Other abuses by LURD before, during and since that period include forced labor, looting, rape and extrajudicial killings. LURD abuses are concentrated within the former Taylor stronghold of Nimba county, and in Bong county, where they have continued to skirmish with former government troops.  
 
Abuses by MODEL forces. At the end of 2003, MODEL held most of south-eastern Liberia and continued to operate freely across the border with Côte d’Ivoire from the Ivorian town Toulepleu and other locations. During and after the fight for the Grand Bassa area in July-August 2003, MODEL troops subjected civilians to forced labor, particularly portering of goods and food, and engaged in widespread looting of civilian property, sometimes accompanied by rape and other forms of sexual violence. Skirmishes between MODEL and government militias in River Cess county continued to displace hundreds of civilians and generate accounts of rape and forced labor in November 2003.  
 
Child Soldiers. Government militias and rebel fighters forcefully recruited and used children as combatants throughout both the first and second civil wars. In advancing on the capital in early 2003, LURD forces rounded up civilians from internally displaced camps, pressing hundreds of children into service. Around the same time, government militias and paramilitaries operating in and around the capital also conducted roundups of children at schools, displaced camps, and from the streets, creating units that were composed primarily of child soldiers. Given scant training and instruction, children were used on the front lines and committed serious atrocities against the civilian population including, killings, mutilation, rape and sexual violence, and looting. Girls were used as fighters by all three warring factions. Many girls were also abducted and sexually assaulted. Collectively known as “wives” these girls and young women were also charged with cooking and cleaning, carrying supplies and spying on opposition forces.  
 
Recommendations  
 
The Commission on Human Rights should:
  • Condemn ongoing violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed by the former Liberian government militias and paramilitary groups, LURD and MODEL rebels. Urge members of the human rights section of UNMIL to investigate all allegations of these abuses and make public their findings.  
     
  • Strongly urge the Liberian National Transitional Government of Liberia to desist from agreeing to a general amnesty to all persons involved in the conflict from l999-2003, bearing in mind the United Nations’ rejection of the use of amnesty laws for serious violations of human rights and the strong efforts by U.N. bodies against impunity.  
     
  • Strongly urge the Liberian authorities, with the help of the United Nations, to establish without delay a genuine justice and accountability process for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Liberia’s internal conflict. This should include the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided for in the August 2003 Peace Agreement.  
     
  • Call on the Nigerian government to hand over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone former president Charles Taylor, indicted in 2003 for war crimes and crimes against humanity in association with his support of Sierra Leonean rebels.  
     
  • Call on the human rights section of UNMIL to thoroughly investigate and document serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed during Liberia’s long internal conflict and make public the findings.  
     
  • Urge the U.N. Security Council to ensure that UNMIL deploys rapidly country-wide so as to fulfill its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence and to help facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance.  
     
  • Call on the Liberian authorities to extend an invitation to the Special Rapporteur on violence against women to examine the widespread and systematic nature of sexual violence against girls and women by all sides during the conflict and make recommendations for redress.