President Bush's current trip to Africa provides an important moment to assess the challenges and opportunities for U.S. policy in Liberia and in the West African sub-region. Developments in the past year in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire highlight the serious potential for a constant regional cycle of conflict and destabilization as armed groups produce new cycles of human rights abuses, internally displaced persons and refugees, and child soldiers. Protection of civilians and accountability for abuses are two key issues in the region, both of which must be addressed through political and financial efforts.
While the Special Court for Sierra Leone represents an important attempt to end the cycle of violence and impunity by holding accountable those who bear the greatest responsibility for gross abuses of human rights, more efforts are needed to investigate and document the ways in which human rights abuses continue to fuel conflicts throughout the region, and to hold perpetrators accountable. In particular, the indictment of President Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone should be built upon to ensure accountability for all those responsible for war crimes and other serious violations of human rights in Liberia.
The United States has a critical role to play in consistently condemning all perpetrators of human rights abuses, whether they are state or non-state actors; limiting their ability to carry out abuses by cutting off supplies of weapons and financing; and supporting effective mechanisms to increase the accountability of regional and local authorities to their populations.
The Human Rights Situation in Liberia
Over the past few months, Liberia has returned to full-scale armed conflict. The main rebel group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), operates from bases in Lofa county in Liberia and from Guinea, where it has that government's support. A second rebel group called the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), which has recently split from the LURD and is reportedly receiving support from the Ivorian government, has also made territorial gains and captured Greenville in late April. Many of the members of these rebel groups were part of other warring factions in Liberia's first brutal war. With the support of neighboring governments, they have now re-grouped and re-armed, and have initiated a new phase of war in Liberia.
Both the government of Liberia and Liberian rebel forces are responsible for violations of international humanitarian law amounting to war crimes and other serious human rights abuses. Tens of thousands of Liberians have been forcibly displaced and hundreds if not thousands of civilians have been killed, either deliberately or in crossfire. Recent human rights abuses committed by both sides include the forced recruitment of children in displaced and refugee camps, forced labor, assault, and sexual violence against civilians, as well as attacks on humanitarian workers. The inflow of arms in breach of the U.N. embargo (see below) contributes to such abuses. The Liberian government has continued its intolerance of dissent, and civil society actors - especially human rights activists and independent journalists -- face harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment.
Fighting between the Liberian government and rebel groups spread to all three neighboring borders in 2003. As of March 2003, incidents at Bo Waterside, on the Sierra Leonean border, Ganta on the Guinean border, and Toe town and Zwedru, near the Ivorian border, reflected the increasing regional involvement in the Liberian war, with attacks taking place both along and across borders. Due to the fighting and the lack of security guarantees for aid workers, parts of the country have been inaccessible to humanitarian agencies since the resurgence of fighting in March 2003. Many civilians are in territory under the control of Liberian rebel groups, the LURD and MODEL.
The peace talks being held in Ghana produced a ceasefire agreement on June 17, 2003. The ceasefire has been broken by several serious bouts of fighting between the Liberian government and rebel forces in and around Monrovia. The recent conflict has displaced thousands of civilians and exacerbated the already dire humanitarian situation in the country. In late June, troops from the LURD entered and then retreated to the outskirts of Monrovia, prompting mass displacement and reports of numerous deaths of civilians in and around the town. According to credible sources in Monrovia, several hundred civilians have died in the capital in the past few weeks from the fighting, from reprisal killings, and from the increasing toll taken by disease.
The U.S. is currently considering sending troops to Liberia, and a team of military experts arrived in Monrovia on Monday to assess the humanitarian and security situation. Human Rights Watch believes that the deployment of a peacekeeping force with U.N. authorization to protect civilians would make an important contribution to stabilizing the situation in Liberia and that the U.S. has an important role to play in such a force, given its historical links to the country. We consider it of utmost importance that any military action be undertaken with full respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. The force should have a robust mandate to ensure the maintenance of law and order, to protect civilians, and help ensure that humanitarian assistance can reach civilian populations in need.
The indictment of Charles Taylor
Elected president of Liberia in 1997 after a seven-year war ousted former president Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor gained international notoriety for the brutal abuses of civilians perpetrated by his forces in Liberia, and for his use of child soldiers organized in "Small Boy Units." Taylor's support for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone contributed to the deaths, rape and mutilations of thousands of civilians, and led to United Nations sanctions on his regime. Taylor's forces have also been implicated in conflicts in neighboring Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire.
On June 4, the Special Court for Sierra Leone "unsealed" its indictment against Charles Taylor as one of those "bearing the greatest responsibility" for war crimes (including murder and taking hostages); crimes against humanity (rape, murder, extermination, sexual slavery); and other serious violations of international humanitarian law (use of child soldiers) committed in Sierra Leone. The indictment charges that Taylor actively supported the RUF in Sierra Leone's ten-year civil war, providing training and helping finance the RUF, in preparation for RUF armed action in Sierra Leone and during the subsequent armed conflict in Sierra Leone. It also alleges that Taylor acted in concert with members of the RUF/Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) rebel alliance who are accused of horrific crimes.
The Special Court was established by agreement between the United Nations and Sierra Leone and is designed to function for three years. The Special Court has power to prosecute those "who bear the greatest responsibility" for serious violations of international humanitarian law and certain violations of Sierra Leone law committed in Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996. The Special Court's Statute and implementing legislation specifically provide that official capacity is no defense to arrest or prosecution, i.e., there is no immunity for a head of state. The statutes for the Rwanda and Yugoslav Tribunals and the International Criminal Court similarly bar immunity based on official position, reflecting the increasing trend by international courts to bring officials to justice for war crimes, crimes against humanity and violations of international humanitarian law, even while they are still in office.
The future of President Charles Taylor is uncertain. After initially stating that he would step down in favor of a transitional government, he has recently wavered on that point, and now says that he will not leave until U.S. peacekeeping troops have arrived. His past record of broken agreements and commitments give little grounds for hope that he will fulfill the most recent accords, or that providing him immunity would bring stability.
President Bush has explicitly called for Taylor to step down. Meanwhile, President John Kufuor of Ghana has urged that Taylor be given immunity from prosecution in exchange for leaving office, and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria has offered him a "safe haven" in Nigeria.
Suggestions of withdrawing the indictment or providing immunity from prosecution to Charles Taylor should be rejected in light of the lessons learned in the region. In 1999, the Lomé peace accord in Sierra Leone purportedly granted an amnesty for crimes committed by all combatants during the civil war on the basis that this was necessary to achieve peace. But once granted amnesty, the rebels resumed military operations, plunging Sierra Leone into two more years of war. The Special Court for Sierra Leone, which has a mandate to bring those who bear the greatest responsibilities for atrocities to justice, is one of the key mechanisms that are now contributing to the restoration of peace in that country.
The United States should support Charles Taylor's indictment and state clearly that no safe haven should be provided to Taylor, and that every government should implement the international arrest warrant of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and hand him over to the Court for prosecution. If U.S. troops are sent to Liberia, they should not make any deals that involve a withdrawal of the indictment of President Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone or any explicit or implicit understanding that a government will not implement the Court's warrant. At the same time, the U.S. should support plans for strengthening the ceasefire, stabilizing the country, and commit U.S. resources to rebuild post-war Liberia.
Efforts to resolve the Liberian crisis cannot succeed without addressing Liberia's neighbors, who have both suffered from and contributed to the cycle of conflict. Guinea is both the principal regional recipient of large numbers of refugees and a key supporter of the Liberian rebel group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). While Guinea is clearly in a fragile position-holding elections later this year, with an unstable economy, and with over 100,000 Sierra Leonean, Ivorian and Liberian refugees remaining on its territory -the government has an obligation to respect international human rights and humanitarian norms, and to respect the U.N. arms embargo on Liberia.
The U.S. has an important role to play vis-à-vis Guinea's support for the LURD, because of a recent U.S. army training program for the Guinean military. A battalion of 800 soldiers was trained over a six month period, from May 2002. The training, which had a budget of U.S.$3 million, included a mid-term review, but there were no plans to set up mechanisms to monitor the conduct of the troops or their respect for human rights after their deployment.
The U.S. has called on "all parties in the region to cease supporting any group that seeks political change through violence and to respect their neighbor's borders." But although the U.S. has expressed concern about the human rights situation in Guinea and states that it has also privately raised issues of refugee protection with the Guinean government, Human Rights Watch is not aware that the U.S. has made any public statements expressing concern about Guinea's role in supporting the LURD or in colluding with human rights abuses against Liberian refugees.
Guinea should be warned by the United States to cease its support to LURD or face the possibility of sanctions. In addition, it is essential that refugees are able to seek refuge in Guinea and that refugee camps retain a truly humanitarian character.
The past eight months of armed conflict in Côte d'Ivoire and, in particular, the patterns of human rights abuses in the western part of the country, are a renewed reminder of the need to address the underlying causes of an ever-shifting regional crisis. The eight-month-old war in the Côte d'Ivoire has revealed deep divisions in Ivorian society and produced numerous serious abuses against civilians, some of which amount to war crimes. Western Côte d'Ivoire has been the site of a virtual proxy war by Liberian forces, demonstrating the easy spillover potential of the Liberian conflict. The recent ceasefire in the west, and the formation of the government of reconciliation, are steps in the right direction, but the Ivorian peace process remains extremely fragile. There is an urgent need to reinforce these positive steps with further concrete action, both within Côte d'Ivoire and in neighboring Liberia. Impunity-both past and present, Ivorian and regional-remains a key concern that must be addressed if a stable Côte d'Ivoire is to emerge from the past months of conflict.
Circulation of arms
The inflow and circulation of arms, particularly small arms and light weapons, in the region has clearly contributed to the increased conflict and abuses against civilians by governments and armed groups. It also has facilitated the formation of new armed groups and the use of ill disciplined fighters and unaccountable mercenaries.
The recent report of the U.N. Panel of Experts on Liberia documented continuing violations of the arms embargo on Liberia and noted that the support of regional governments such as Guinea to Liberian insurgent groups constitutes a violation of the sanctions regime. The Liberian government recently acknowledged importing huge quantities of small arms and light weapons, and the list of imported weapons it provided the Panel closely match those documented to have been illegally delivered from Serbia and Montenegro in six shipments in 2002; the Liberian government did not admit to earlier illicit arms purchases, which have also been documented. The Panel also described numerous suspected actual or attempted arms shipments to Liberia in recent months, including a possible ongoing scheme to export weapons to Liberia on the basis of a Democratic Republic of Congo end-user certificate.
In addition, abusive insurgents throughout West Africa have been able to obtain arms and other military support with apparent ease. The Panel describes Guinea as a supply route for arms to the LURD, as noted, and points out that it has some evidence Côte d'Ivoire is supporting an armed Liberian militia and MODEL. The use of unaccountable mercenaries and untrained civilian militias, including in Côte d'Ivoire, is also troubling, particularly as many of those recruited, including ex-RUF, are known to have an atrocious human rights record. Human Rights Watch urges the United States to consistently condemn all regional governments that violate the sanctions regime on Liberia and/or support abusive forces. The U.S. should also monitor arms flows using its own technology and presence in the region, and report on its observations to the U.N. Panel.
Human Rights Watch urges the United States to:
- Call on all parties in Liberia to respect international human rights and humanitarian law, particularly regarding treatment of civilians and other non-combatants, and recruitment of child soldiers, and to hold those members of their forces responsible for abuses accountable.
- Call on all parties in the Liberian conflict to respect humanitarian aid workers and guarantee their security and access to civilian populations in need of assistance and protection.
- Actively explore and support mechanisms to ensure accountability for abuses committed by all parties to the conflict.
- Support the establishment of a peacekeeping force in Liberia and ensure that any military action be undertaken with full respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. The force should have U.N. authorization to ensure the maintenance of law and order, to protect civilians, and help ensure that humanitarian assistance can reach civilian populations in need.
- In the event that U.S. troops are sent to Liberia, ensure that the U.S. does not make any deals that involve a withdrawal of the indictment of President Charles Taylor or any explicit or implicit understanding that a government will not implement the Special Court for Sierra Leone's arrest warrant.
- Call on all states to support the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and to hand over any additional individuals indicted by the Special Court of Sierra Leone who flee into their territories, to assist in their apprehension, and to otherwise cooperate with the Special Court.
- Condemn regional governments for their support to abusive insurgent groups and violations of existing sanctions on Liberia, and consider imposing secondary sanctions on regional governments found to be involved in the Liberian war.