(New York, November 25, 2002) - The United Nations Security Council should extend the arms embargo on Liberia to all rebel groups, and closely monitor the compliance of the Guinean government with that embargo, Human Rights Watch said today.
In a new report, “Liberian Refugees in Guinea: Refoulement, Militarization of Camps, and Other Protection Concerns”, Human Rights Watch said the Guinean government’s close relationship with Liberian rebel groups is posing a serious threat to refugees’ security and protection in Guinea. Hundreds of Liberians seeking asylum in Guinea are being forced back to Liberia to join the ranks of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), either as fighters or to work for them as porters. LURD soldiers have prevented others from even reaching the border.
International human rights law prohibits the return, or refoulement, of people to situations where their life or freedom would be threatened.
“The Guinean government is clearly violating international human rights law in its treatment of these refugees,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “On top of that, Guinean authorities are facilitating human rights abuses by the Liberian rebels.”
Many refugees told Human Rights Watch how LURD members operate freely and openly within Guinea. They described how the Guinean military near the border stop refugees, select some for return, and order them back to Liberia. Often, the Guinean soldiers physically handed refugees over to LURD commanders.
Human Rights Watch’s report was released to coincide with a U.N. Security Council discussion on Monday, November 25 of sanctions imposed on the Liberian government because of its support for rebels in Sierra Leone.
Human Rights Watch researchers were particularly alarmed by the situation in Kouankan, the largest refugee camp in Guinea: LURD combatants, often uniformed and sometimes armed, were able to move freely in and out of the camp, and in some cases were reported to be residing there. Guinean military officials who controlled the only entry point to the camp were clearly aware of the movements of LURD members, but were doing nothing to prevent them.
“Refugees have been threatened and intimidated,” said Takirambudde. “The LURD have engaged in forced military recruitment of men and young boys among the refugees, and have abducted adolescent girls for sex, then returned them to the camp. This is not acceptable: the civilian nature of all refugee camps must be preserved, and camp residents must be safe.”
Within the last two weeks, Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of some Liberian refugees leaving Kouankan camp and seeking safety in refugee camps in Sierra Leone.
In the areas of Koyama and Fassankoni, refugees were not being forced back to Liberia, but were facing a range of other abuses, including arbitrary arrest and detention in military or police custody, on unsubstantiated charges of fighting for the Liberian government. Several male refugees who were detained were ill-treated by the Guinean military or police. They were not seriously questioned about any criminal offense and in most cases, were able to secure their release after bribing Guinean officials.
Human Rights Watch also called on the Guinean government to allow unrestricted access to the border areas to staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and humanitarian agencies. Government authorities have often blocked access on the grounds that the areas are too dangerous.
Human Rights Watch also urged UNHCR to take a more active and public role in calling on the Guinean government to ensure refugee protection and security, and to immediately report to the authorities any instance of abuse.