Human Rights Developments
On July 19, 1997, Liberia's seven-year civil war was finally ended through an election that swept former faction leader Charles Taylor and his party, the National Patriotic Party (NPP), into power with 75 percent of the vote. Thousands of Liberians were killed during the war. Almost half the population remained displaced, and the country's infrastructure was virtually destroyed. Despite the presence of regional peacekeepers since 1990, joined by a United Nations (U.N.) military observer mission in October 1993, fighting resumed numerous times in the course of the war, and the number of factions proliferated over the years. All the factions were responsible for terrorizing the local populations in order to loot and to discourage support for rival factions. The widespread atrocities against civilians included extrajudicial executions; torture, including rape; forced labor; and extortion. The factions consisted predominantly of bands of armed fighters, many as young as ten years of age, with no formal military training.
Ultimately, over a dozen peace accords and almost twenty cease-fire agreements were signed during the countless negotiations for peace. The repeated breakdown of the peace process could be attributed to a number of factors including: the creation and support of anti-Taylor factions by the former government army and the regional peacekeeping force; the internal factionalization of existing armed groups on ethnic lines; economic incentives for these groups to continue the war; the regional peacekeepers' lack of adequate leadership, training, and financing; and the failure of the U.N. military observer mission to address the problems in the regional peacekeeping force, the Economic Community of West African States Cease fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG).
The timetable for disarmament, demobilization, and elections that brought the conflict to an end was agreed to by the factions in August 1996, under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), following an April 1996 killing and looting spree by the factions in Monrovia. According to the peace accord, ECOMOG was to deploy to create a series of safe havens throughout the country beginning on November 7, 1996; disarmament and demobilization of combatants, and repatriation of refugees was to proceed from November 22 through January 21, 1997; and elections were scheduled for May 30, 1997.
Although this timetable was delayed somewhat and not all the objectives were achieved-particularly the return of refugees and the demobilization of combatants-disarmament began on November 22, 1996, and was concluded after a seven-day extension on February 7, 1997. Some 21,315 combatants, including 4,360 children and 250 women, were disarmed out of an estimated total of 33,000. The fighters demobilized ranged from six-year olds to people in their seventies.
The U.N. estimated that some 15,000 to 20,000 children had directly participated in violent acts, were forced to kill or maim, were exposed to fighting, and were themselves brutally victimized. Some fought with factions as a means of survival. The physical and psychological status of these children varied from place to place, but they all shared trauma, uncertainty about their future, insecurity, and above all, a desire to go back to school or to learn some trade. Unfortunately, the demobilization programs for former fighters did not adequately address the needs of child soldiers.
Although not all weapons were turned in and the command structures within the factions remained intact for the most part, the collection of some 10,000 weapons and 1.24 pieces of ammunition resulted in a notable demilitarization of the society. During the last weeks of the voluntary disarmament period, there was a dramatic increase in the numbersof weapons collected, although the factions continued to hoard weapons. Discoveries of hidden weapons continued well after the end of voluntary disarmament, and some 3,750 weapons and 152,500 pieces of ammunition were uncovered shortly before the election through cordon and search operations by ECOMOG.
Due to the short timetable for the implementation of the peace process, little more than confiscation of weapons occurred before the election. Combatants were not systematically given psychological counseling, training or other vocational opportunities, or even transported and integrated into their home communities. The lack of time also led to insufficient resources and planning for long-term demobilization programs. The growing number of armed robberies in the Monrovia area may signal that some of these former fighters were turning to criminal activity.
Following disarmament, preparations for the election proceeded with international oversight, and despite some delays, the election was successfully held on July 19, 1997. The election was certified by the U.N. and ECOWAS, and judged credible by hundreds of international and national observers. Although there were some reports of over-zealous West African peacekeepers "helping" voters choose, the casting of the ballots appeared to be generally free of fraud, as did the count.
However, the larger context in which the election was held placed limitations on how free and fair the election could be. The timetable leading up to the election was extremely tight, and a number of the prerequisites agreed to in the peace accord, such as the return of the refugees and the demobilization of soldiers, were not completed prior to the election. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Liberian refugees outside the country were not eligible to vote in the election. Due to the lack of demographic information, the rainy season, and the logistical difficulties of functioning in a war-torn place, the polling stations did not always correspond to population density. The lack of identification papers, a common problem after seven years of chaos, allowed for some minors under the age of eighteen to register. The short time available for civic education was inadequate in light of the high illiteracy rate.
Campaigning resources for the candidates were markedly disparate. Charles Taylor, having controlled and looted the bulk of the country's revenues from logging, diamond and iron ore mines for most of the war, was able to use these vast resources to campaign more effectively-using a helicopter to reach distant areas, monopolizing the broadcast media with looted equipment, transporting voters (including refugees from neighboring countries) to polling sites, and handing out money, rice and tee shirts to voters. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who came in second with 9.6 percent of the vote, had cashed in her pension from her previous U.N. job to raise campaign funds.
Most importantly, the implicit threat that Charles Taylor would resume the fighting if he lost was high on the minds of Liberian voters. Many categorized their vote as "a vote for peace." Others expressed a genuine support for Taylor saying that "he said he would destroy this country and he did. Now he is saying that he will rebuild it and he will."
Of the thirteen parties that contended the election, three were headed by former warring faction leaders. Charles Taylor and his party, the National Patriotic Party (NPP), won 75.3 percent of the vote, followed by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her Unity Party (UP) with 9.6 percent of the vote, and the All Liberian Coalition Party (ALCOP) led by former faction leader Al-Haji Kromah that won 4.0 percent. The other ten candidates and their parties shared the remaining 11.1 percent.
Due to the system of proportional representation used in this election, legislative seats were won by parties on the basis of the percentage of the presidential vote (with a minimum threshold to qualify for a legislative seat). As a result, Charles Taylor's party, the NPP, won 75 percent of the seats in the bicameral legislature.
On August 2, 1997, Charles Taylor was sworn into office. In his victory and inauguration speeches, President Taylor declared his intention to head a government that respected human rights, stating his commitment to an independent judiciary, human rights, respect for the rule of law, and the equal protection of the law, and announcing the creation of a Commission on Human Rights and a Commission on Reconciliation. More significantly, the first set of government appointees did not draw from those in Taylor's faction who were most notorious for committing egregious human rights violations. These announcements served to dispel somewhat the fears harbored by some in Liberia's human rights community-based on the Taylor faction's past record of egregious abuses and conscription of child soldiers.
Close to one million Liberians, mostly rural women and children, remained displaced within and outside the country in 1997. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, a mid-year count indicated approximately 500,000 refugees, mostly from Lofa and Nimba counties in northern Liberia, in neighboring African countries: 210,000 in Ivory Coast; 210,000 in Guinea; 13,600 in Sierra Leone; 17,000 in Ghana; and 6,000 in Nigeria. Accurate figures for the internally displaced were not available, but estimates put the numbers of internally displaced in the Monrovia area at between 250,000 to 500,000. Provision of assistance and protection remained a problem, particularly for Liberian refugees in Guinea.
The Right to Monitor
A number of human rights groups functioned relatively freely in Monrovia in 1997, including the Catholic Church's Peace and Justice Commission, the Center for Law and Human Rights Education, the Liberian Human Rights Chapter, the Association of Human Rights Promoters, Liberia Watch for Human Rights, National Human Rights Monitor (NAHRIM), Movement for the Defense of Human Rights (MODHAR), Human Rights Monitor, Liberia Civil and Human Rights Association (LCHRA), Liberia Democracy Watch, Civil Rights Association of Liberian Lawyers (CALL), Fore-runners of Children's Universal Development (FOCUS), Center for Democratic Empowerment, and the Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia (AFELL).
The election of Taylor led to apprehension on the part of some in the human rights community that their activities would be restricted; this had not materialized in the first months of the new government. In the September draft bill for the creation of the governmental Commission for Human Rights, the bill listed a select list of nongovernmental groups from which its commissioners would be drawn from: The National Human Rights Center of Liberia (a coalition group), the National Bar Association, the Liberian Council of Churches, the National Moslem Council and the Press Union of Liberia. While these groups were desirable choices, the exclusion of other nongovernmental organizations which had been outspoken on abuses committed during the civil war by the Taylor faction was questionable.
The Role of the International Community
In 1993, the U.N. Security Council created the U.N. Observer Mission (UNOMIL) to help supervise and monitor the peace accords in conjunction with ECOMOG. UNOMIL's mandate was to report on cease-fire violations and violations of humanitarian law. In late 1995, UNOMIL was also entrusted with the mandate to "investigate and report to the Secretary-General on violations of human rights..."
Although UNOMIL's initial human rights efforts were minimal throughout, the human rights component of the mission eventually grew from one person to three. The effectiveness of the three human rights officers in Liberia was limited by a lack of resources, the insecurity in the country, the marginalization of the human rights unit within UNOMIL, and the willingness of the international community to dispense with human rights concerns in the search for political solutions. The investigative findings of the human rights team were often not acted upon either by UNOMIL or by the U.N. Secretariat.
Moreover, UNOMIL never actively took on the task of providing international scrutiny of the misconduct of ECOMOG troops-a role that only UNOMIL could have played given the circumstances. Reports of human rights violations by ECOMOG troops were ignored by the U.N. even when brought to the attention of UNOMIL and the U.N. Secretariat by its own human rights unit.
Following the election, UNOMIL was deemed to have fulfilled its mandate and most of the staff departed. Nine UNOMIL military observers remained until the end of September to assist in sorting and classifying the 10,000 weapons and 1.24 million pieces of ammunition that were taken during the demobilization process.
The U.N. sought agreement with President Taylor for a small U.N. political office to be created, following the withdrawal of UNOMIL, to serve as a focal point for post-conflict peace-building activities of the United Nations in Liberia and have overall authority for coordination of the U.N. system in the country. The proposed role for this U.N. office, which was still under negotiation in late October, was to provide advisory assistance to the government in defining post-conflict priorities, the mobilization of international funds for Liberia, and to coordinate and liaise between the government and the international community.
Since the beginning of the fighting in Liberia, the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG has consistently played a role-as a ground breaking example of regional initiatives at times and a troublesome contributor to the violence and lawlessness at others. The poor conduct of ECOMOG during the April 1996 fighting contributed to the decision to assign a new Nigerian field commander, Maj. Gen. Victor Malu, and to rotate out many of the troops. The introduction of qualified leadership as well as regular payment of salaries to the ECOMOG troops improved the levels of professionalism and public confidence in the West African peacekeeping force in 1997. From the end of 1996 until the election, ECOMOG played a critical role in ending the civil war by supervising the disarmament and electoral processes.
Following the election, ECOMOG's mandate was extended until January 1998 to allow ECOMOG to "help consolidate and strengthen security in the country, and to assist with the restructuring and training of the Armed Forcesof Liberia, as well as the police and security services." Due to ECOMOG's history in Liberia, this was an area of major concern. Although Maj. Gen. Malu's appointment as the force commander led to a much higher level of professionalism, reports of abuse by ECOMOG troops continued in 1997. ECOMOG's actions in cordon and search operations during the demobilization process raised concerns over the serious human rights violations that were reported. ECOMOG engaged in arrests and detention without due process and beatings and torture of those in their custody; in at least two cases men died in custody. Both were seized on suspicion of hoarding weapons.
The European Union (E.U.), through the European Commission's Aid Coordination Office in Liberia, continued to provide the country with assistance in the fragile transition period. The E.U. focused not only on immediate assistance needs, such as clean water, but also on the process of post-war reconstruction, including support for retraining of ex-combatants, the transportation of returning refugees, and the electoral process.
The European Commission program plans following the election focused on assistance to civil society and education, with significant E.U. funding available because the allocated funds for Liberia had accumulated unspent during the seven year war. E.U. representatives in Monrovia stated that respect for human rights was to be an important factor in their decision-making process to provide aid. However, the benchmarks to condition aid to human rights needed to be further articulated.
The U.S. remained a significant contributor to Liberia, providing close to U.S. $100 million in assistance in 1997, including approximately $30 million to ECOMOG, $30 to 50 million in humanitarian assistance, and $9 million for elections. Having assisted with the training of 500 police by the International Criminal Investigation Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) for the July 19 elections, the U.S. committed to continue assistance to the rebuilding of the Liberian National Police and the judiciary, through ICITAP. However, in September, the U.S. suspended its police training program following the appointment of NPFL-stalwart Joe Tate, who was notorious for his lack of respect for the rule of law as police commissioner under the previous Transitional Government.
Through its Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. developed a plan to participate in Liberia's redevelopment conditioned on a number of factors, including good governance and human rights. According to the State Department, human rights indicators were considered in the decision-making process to provide aid to the Taylor government. As with the E.U., the benchmarks to condition continued aid to human rights needed to be further articulated.
Relevant Human Rights Watch report:
Emerging from the Destruction: Human Rights Challenges Facing the New Liberian Government, 11/97
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