On Friday, Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan are hosting an international donors' conference to raise $500 million to rebuild Liberia.

Donors will only be successful in building the rule of law in Liberia if they address the serious abuses of the past. Should the conference fail to produce the necessary funds and long-term attention to matters such as bringing Charles Taylor, the exiled president-warlord, to justice, Liberia could well slide back into chaos.

In 1989, Taylor, a little-known rebel leader, launched a rebellion to take control of Liberia. Rebel groups and horrors against civilians multiplied. Signature atrocities included widespread rape, massacres inside churches, mutilation and torture, cannibalism and the forced conscription of child combatants. Today, 14 years and two civil wars later, life is unbearable for the average Liberian.

Since 1990, Human Rights Watch researchers have taken hundreds of testimonies from victims of egregious violations by all warring parties.

Villagers were rounded up and burned alive, displaced civilians were massacred as they tried to flee, women and girls were brutally raped. And these were not random incidents. They were the result of a deliberate policy by the highest levels of government and rebel leadership.

Today there is some cause for optimism. A peace agreement in August provided for a two-year transitional government, disarmament and demobilization of the fighting forces, and elections in 2005. Taylor was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. In September, the United Nations mandated the deployment of 15,000 UN peacekeepers, who are now in the process of being extended countrywide.

However, Liberia's needs are profound. More than 40,000 combatants, including some 15,000 children, must be disarmed, retrained and provided with meaningful work. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, who were forced to flee their homes during the wars, must be reintegrated into their towns and villages from squalid camps in and outside Liberia. The crumbling, looted infrastructure of hospitals, schools and courts must be rebuilt. The army and national police must be thoroughly revamped and retrained.

One priority, however, remains conspicuously absent from the reconstruction agenda: the need for justice and accountability for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against thousands of Liberians over the past 14 years.

While the peace agreement provides for a truth and reconciliation commission, the international community and the Liberian transitional government alike have avoided openly discussing — let alone tackling — justice and accountability. Liberia's current minister of justice, himself a former rebel leader, has recently and predictably rejected the need for justice.

The peace accord avoided the discussion of a general amnesty, committing only to discuss it at an unspecified future date. American officials told Human Rights Watch that "sometimes we need to be patient, sometimes justice can wait." This view is at odds with the fact that numerous high-level and well-known war criminals are holding government portfolios. Waiting to convict them could easily translate into a consolidation of their positions, giving them the means to launch another war that the fragile region could ill afford.

Many argue that justice is a luxury given the enormousness of Liberia's needs, or that those who insist on accountability for heinous war crimes are spoilers, saboteurs of peace. But the price of a future cycle of violence is even higher.

Most recently, in neighboring Sierra Leone, murderous rebels were given an amnesty as a condition for signing a peace accord. They went on to attack both the government and UN peacekeepers. In any discussion of reconstruction and peace-building, justice must be front and center.

Kofi Annan and Colin Powell should urge the transitional authorities in Liberia to avoid granting a general amnesty, and should ask the international community to press for justice and accountability for the abuses committed there.

Finally, they should strongly urge Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to comply with international obligations and hand Taylor over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The international donors' conference on Liberia will need to weigh many competing priorities for the country's reconstruction. But neglecting to focus on justice could potentially undermine any prospect for long-term peace and indeed cost the international community more in the long run.

The writer is the researcher on Liberia and Sierra Leone at Human Rights Watch. She was based in Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1999 to 2003.