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Human Rights Developments
Although President Charles Taylor declared his intention to head a government that respected human rights and the rule of law, the actions of his government during his first full year in office dispelled hopes that this government would live up to its promises. President Taylor took office following an election in July 1997 that ended a brutal seven-year civil war. A former faction leader during the war, he inherited a country deeply divided by the numerous demobilized faction fighters, a shattered economy and political system, and the displacement of over half its population.

During the war, 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, 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. The U.N. estimated that some 15,000 to 20,000 children had directly participated in violent acts, were exposed to fighting, and were themselves brutally victimized.

The timetable for disarmament, demobilization, and the election that brought the conflict to an end, under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations (U.N.), was extremely tight. A number of important measures required in the terms of the peace accord were not completed prior to the election, particularly the disarmament and demobilization of combatants and the return of refugees from neighboring countries. The larger context in which the electionwas held placed limitations on how free and fair it could be, and President Taylor’s victory was due in large part to the implicit threat that he would resume the fighting if he lost.

Moreover, in a bid to negotiate peace in Liberia, international actions dispensed with demands for accountability in an effort to broker a political resolution of the long war, however tenuous. The peace accords granted a general amnesty to faction fighters for abuses committed “in the course of actual military engagements,” posing a serious obstacle to reconciliation and rebuilding efforts. Those responsible for committing some of the most unimaginable atrocities during the war were neither punished for their actions nor effectively demobilized. Former faction fighters–particularly those of Taylor’s faction, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL)–continued to act with impunity and remained a serious impediment to continued peace.

The wholesale enrollment of fighters from Taylor’s former faction into the country’s security forces posed a major threat. Following his inauguration, the new president rejected the peace accord provision that provided for an open and transparent restructuring of the security forces by the West African peacekeeping force. Instead, former NPFL fighters were placed in the security and police forces without serious efforts to provide training or to meet pledges to incorporate members from the other armed factions. The Liberian defense minister stated that the Armed Forces of Liberia consisted of some 14,000 troops, despite the government’s estimate that it needed an army of no more than 5,000. After taking office, Taylor also created a new special security unit, known informally as the “tie-dye” boys due to their blue camouflage uniforms, which quickly became notorious for harassing civilians and looting. Former armed NPFL fighters were also permitted by the government to create security firms for hire by private sector companies. There were complaints of intimidation, extortion, and general lawlessness by both the government forces and the private security companies.

The newly constituted armed forces were responsible for killings, “disappearances,” and the harassment of government critics and opponents. Throughout the year, tensions escalated. A prominent incident was the in-custody killing of prominent Taylor critic Samuel Dokie, along with his wife and two others, after their arrest by Taylor’s special security services bodyguards on November 28, 1997. Although the government announced that steps would be taken to hold those responsible accountable, the security officers brought to trial for the murders were acquitted. Nowah Flomo, a market woman, was seized from her home in June 1998 following a confrontation with a security officer; her arrest was never acknowledged and her “disappearance” remained unsolved as of October 1998. Five security officers were arrested in connection with her case, but released in August. After a public uproar, they were reportedly rearrested but no further steps were taken by the government to investigate the case or to prosecute the responsible officials.

The relationship between the state security forces and supporters of officially disbanded warring faction leader Roosevelt Johnson steadily worsened during the year, culminating in fighting in the capital Monrovia and Mr. Johnson’s flight from the country. President Taylor repeatedly accused Mr. Johnson of plotting to overthrow him by force while Mr. Johnson claimed that Taylor’s forces were attempting to kill him. On June 6, six former fighters of Johnson’s ethnic Krahn group, the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO-J), “disappeared” at the international airport where they were scheduled to depart on a flight to the Gambia. Their papers were reportedly seized by immigration officials and none of them boarded the plane, although the Ministry of Justice later denied that they had been stopped and claimed that they had reached their destination in the Gambia where they had planned “military training to destabilize the government.” Throughout the year, there were complaints by members of the Krahn and Mandingo groups of harassment and threats by security forces who accused them of supporting Mr. Johnson, particularly in Lofa and Nimba counties.

There were two outbreaks of violence in Monrovia–a sign of how fragile and volatile the situation was. In August, ECOMOG soldiers opened fire to disband an armed group of Johnson supporters on Camp Johnson Road, the home of Roosevelt Johnson, killing one and dispersing the group. Clashes also broke out on September 18 and 19 between government security forces and Johnson supporters in central Monrovia. The crisis began when Liberian troops tried to arrest the former rebel leader, fanning out through his neighborhood stronghold, largely populated by his ethnic Krahn supporters. Small arms, rocket, and mortar battles erupted in the capital and security forces shot into the U.S. Embassy as Mr. Johnson sought refuge there. Some fifty people were reported killed. The U.S. Embassy refused to turn Mr. Johnson over to the Taylor government on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial; he remained in the embassy for one week before being flown to safety in Sierra Leone. Trials commenced in a military court of twenty-two people on various counts ranging from murder to treason.

The incident was reminiscent of a previous attempt by Taylor to arrest Johnson during the civil war in 1996, sparking fighting which claimed hundreds of lives. At that time, Johnson also fled to the U.S. Embassy which helped him reach Ghana. When Taylor won the presidential election in 1997 he reached a tenuous peace with Johnson who returned to become Liberia’s rural development minister.

The independent press periodically came under attack by the government. Staff members of the Inquirer newspaper were subjected to arbitrary arrests and detention, while the New Democrat was denied registration. The independent Star Radio station was closed by the government for one month in January 1998, and the government threatened to shut down Radio Veritas of the Catholic Church. In one particularly threatening case, the producer and broadcaster for the Ducor Broadcasting Association, Alex Redd, was abducted and held captive for two days by security forces on December 21, 1997. When he contacted the police to file a complaint after his release, he was detained and later charged with “treason” for inquiring into the Dokie murder. Shortly afterwards the charges were amended to filing a “false report to law enforcement officers” on the grounds that he had lied about his abduction. Following his release, he was harassed and received death threats. He eventually fled the country and sought political asylum.

Voluntary repatriation of the estimated one million refugee and internally displaced Liberians continued. In September, the U.N.High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that since operations began in December 1997 some 80,000 people were repatriated with UNHCR help, and 185,000 returned home of their own accord. According to UNHCR, some 480,000 Liberian refugees were in neighboring countries at the outset of the repatriation program. Of those, 235,000 were in Guinea, 160,000 in Ivory Coast, 17,000 in Ghana, 14,000 in Sierra Leone and 6,000 in Nigeria. Statistics on the return of internally displaced populations were unavailable, although many returned on their own. The Liberian Refugee, Repatriation and Resettlement Commission complained that security personnel at checkpoints were harassing returnees. In September, UNHCR held a meeting to discuss reintegration of returnees and the rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure in host countries. The increased security risks and the growing volatility within the country, led to serious questions by year’s end as to whether the repatriation program should continue as scheduled and for the need for neighboring governments to remain prepared to host Liberian refugees in the following year.




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