Human Rights Developments
The ten-year regime of President Samuel K. Doe, characterized by its utter disregard for human rights, came to a violent end in 1990 with the killing of Doe and the disintegration of the country into warring factions. Instead of benefiting from the end of the dictatorship, the Liberian people have been subjected to further abuses by all sides.
The conflict in Liberia, which began in late December 1989 and gathered momentum throughout much of 1990, has bequeathed a disasterous human rights situation. All parties to the conflict -- the Liberian Army and the two insurgent forces, Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Prince Johnson's Independent National Patriotic Front (INPFL) -- have committed grave abuses of human rights. Even the West African "peace-keeping" force -- ECOMOG -- has been accused of abuses.5 Many thousands of people have been killed, and over half the population of Liberia has been displaced, including over 750,000 who have become refugees in neighboring countries.
The conflict began in Nimba County, in the northeast, where Taylor's forces attacked. The army responded with a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, killing civilians indiscriminately, burning entire villages, looting and raping. The victims were primarily members of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups, who make up most of the population in Nimba. President Doe, an ethnic Krahn, had surrounded himself with members of his own ethnic group, providing economic and educational opportunities for them at the expense of the rest of the population, and permitting the mostly Krahn military and police to commit egregious abuses against civilians. Doe's government was particularly hostile toward the Manos and Gios because of an abortive coup attempt in 1985, led by Thomas Qwiwonkpa, a former general from Nimba, who was a Gio.6
As the conflict wore on, Doe's forces committed abuses outside Nimba as well. On the night of July 29-30, government soldiers massacred some 600 people -- mostly Gios and Manos, including many women with children -- at St. Peter's Church in Monrovia.
Doe's death on September 10 did not end army abuses. The remnants of Doe's forces continued to operate, under the command of Gen. David Nimley, who himself has been implicated in gross abuses against civilians. The army engaged in torture and inhumane treatment of detainees and, especially after Doe's death, widespread looting, pillaging and harassment of civilians.
The NPFL increasingly committed abuses against the Krahns as well as the Mandingos, another ethnic group which was viewed by the rebels as having supported Doe. Prince Johnson's INPFL, a smaller force which broke from the NPFL in February, was engaged in abusive conduct within Monrovia. Rebel abuses included killing civilians, torturing and mistreating detainees, taking hostages and conscripting children. The most dramatic of the rebel atrocities against prisoners was carried out by Prince Johnson himself: the mutilation and killing of Doe.
In the meantime, ECOMOG joined the fray in late August. Concerns about the ECOMOG force include: its bombing of heavily populated civilian areas; abuses by its soldiers including looting, harassment of civilians and attacks against women; and the coordination of its activites with the remaining Doe soldiers and some of Prince Johnson's forces, without regard to their past abuses. These actions violate the obligations that ECOMOG's member states have now incurred as occupiers of part of Liberia under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.
On November 28, all the parties to the conflict signed a ceasefire agreement in Bamako, Mali. As of the end of December, the ceasefire appeared to be holding and conditions, at least in Monrovia, were improving.
Despite the long-standing historical ties between the United States and Liberia, the Bush administration has not adequately exercised its special responsibility toward the Liberian people at this critical juncture. US policy toward Liberia must be viewed in the context of Washington's extensive support of the Doe regime. During the eight years of the Reagan administration, US officials minimized the regime's obvious human rights abuses and poured money into Liberia,7 making it the largest recipient of US aid in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, the US did not use its aid program as a lever to press for human rights improvements.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen appeared to adopt a "wait-and-see" attitude throughout most of 1990. As late as June, US officials were still justifying their support for Doe while downplaying the systematic abuses of his regime. In testimony on June 19 before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Assistant Secretary Cohen responded to questions about past US support for Doe by saying:
I think that if you look back at the beginning of the Doe regime, you can look at it two ways. It was a brutal takeover with a lot of cruelty; that was the bad side. On the other hand, it represented the takeover of Liberia by the majority of the people....So, I think that it was quite natural for us to want to help, and help bring them along. And that, I would say, explains why we invested a lot of money in the Doe government.
The close US involvement with the Doe regime was underscored in late January 1990, when two US military advisers were sent to Nimba County to accompany the commander of the Liberian government forces. The administration claimed that their purpose was to advise the Liberian army on how to curb abuses. But this claim was wholly unrealistic, since two US advisers could hardly serve as a restraining force for troops intent on abusing civilians. At most, the advisers served as a public-relations cover for the abuses that were committed.
In testimony before of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa on November 27, Cohen described US policy as one of "neutrality." Between December 1989 and the early summer, Cohen said, in meetings with all those involved, the US message was "always the same: Liberia's problems must be settled by Liberians on the basis of democratic values." What this neutrality appears to have meant is that the Bush administration has simply deferred to ECOWAS. This is particularly misguided because the ECOWAS military force, ECOMOG, has assumed a combat role in alliance with the INPFL and the remnants of Doe's forces. That these Liberian troops, who have been responsible for grave human rights abuses, are coordinating their military operations with a "peacekeeping" force is most alarming.
Instead of protesting abuses, the Bush administration has reverted to its role of apologist for those Liberians in power. After meetings with rebel leaders Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson in September, Assistant Secretary Cohen stated that both men "would like to see Liberia with a truly democratic system, and they would cooperate in organizing that."8 This statement was startling in light of the horrendous atrocities that troops under both men were then committing -- atrocities that Assistant Secretary Cohen found no time to comment on publicly. The Assistant Secretary should have used the meeting to make clear publicly that, unlike the policy toward Doe, there will be no US assistance to any force that tries to seize or maintain power by slaughtering civilians. Later, in his November 27 testimony, Cohen expressed reservations about Taylor's negotiating posture during in the peace process, but failed to condemn human rights violations by any of the parties to the conflict.
Cohen also testified that while Doe was still in power, the US "offered to evacuate Samuel Doe and his family from Liberia to another African country whenever he wished to leave, but he failed to take up the offer." This effort is significant in light of criticisms leveled at the US for not calling on Doe to step down, similar to the manner in which the US helped to engineer the departure of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti.
Approximately half of Liberia's population has either fled the country or is internally displaced. The primary countries receiving Liberian refugees are the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ghana.9 These countries -- particularly the local people who have taken the Liberian refugees into their homes and villages -- need additional assistance to bear the burden of the huge influx of Liberian refugees. Because of the historical links between Liberia and the United States, and because US support for Doe played a major role in the destruction of the country, European governments and international agencies have looked to the US to take the lead in focusing international attention on Liberia's plight, since they consider Liberia a "US problem." The US is already the largest donor to Liberian refugees. As of December 19, the US government had provided $65,514,988 in assistance to the refugees, out of a total of $112,992,146 provided by the international community.
Another dimension to the problem involves Liberians stranded in the United States who seek temporary refuge from the political and ethnic violence plaguing their country. On July 27, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) issued a cable establishing a voluntary departure program for Liberians on a case-by-case basis, enabling some Liberians to remain in the US. To apply for the new status, however, Liberians with valid visas must turn in their documents and effectively place themselves in deportation proceedings -- a step that many are unwilling to take. Moreover, this new status applies only to those Liberians who arrived in the US before July 27, allowing them to stay for six months; Liberians arriving since then receive no special protection.
While Africa Watch welcomes this step, it is not sufficient to protect all Liberians in the United States who might face persecution if returned to their native country. First, given the continuing level of violence in Liberia, the July 27 cutoff date should be extended to include those who have fled Liberia since then, as well as those who will be forced to flee in the future if abuses do not subside. Second, since the fighting and its attendant abuses did not end on July 27 and abuses may continue for many months to come, the six-month voluntary departure period should be extended to no less than one year. Third, to make it economically feasible for Liberians fearing persecution to remain in the United States, the INS should establish a system for prompt processing of requests for employment authorization, along the lines of the deferred-departure program for Chinese in the United States instituted after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Some relief came from an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act passed by Congress in October. Section 302 establishes the category of "temporary protected status"; the Attorney General may accord such status if he finds that there exist "extraordinary and temporary conditions in the foreign state that prevent aliens who are nationals of the state from returning to the state in safety." The amendment specifically provides that these conditions include:
The granting of temporary protected status in the United States also includes work authorization. While Liberia is not specifically mentioned in the amendment, it provides an obvious vehicle for protecting Liberians during this tumultuous period in their country's history. In November, the State Department wrote to the Attorney General requesting that Temporary Protected Status be extended to Liberians.
A related problem is that, at the moment, it is almost impossible for Liberian refugees in other West African countries to enter the United States, even if they have relatives there. The reason for this seems to be that, given the level of violence in Liberia, it is extremely difficult for such a refugee to counter the presumption that he or she intends to immigrate to the United States. In addition, for fiscal year 1990, the regional ceiling for refugee admissions to the United States from Africa was only 3,500. The ceiling for fiscal year 1991 was raised slightly, to 4,900.
A further difficulty was caused by the normal procedure for registering as a refugee, which requires applicants first to obtain refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and then to apply for admission to the United States at one of the US refugee-processing posts in Africa, none of which is in West Africa. In late December, however, the State Department issued a cable which designated Liberia a country of special humanitarian concern for fiscal year 1991. This enables Liberians to apply for refugee status without either prior clearance from the State Department or referral from UNHCR. In addition, the cable authorizes US embassies in West Africa -- Abijan, Accra, Conakry, Freetown and Lagos -- to process refugee applications from Liberians.
The Work of Africa Watch
Africa Watch has attempted to document abuses by all sides to the Liberian conflict, and has tried to influence US policy to confront the tragedy more constructively. In response to the first wave of refugees who fled to the Ivory Coast beginning in late January, Africa Watch sent a researcher to the Ivory Coast in February, who traveled to the Danane and Toulepleu prefectures and conducted interviews with refugees from the Mano, Gio and Krahn ethnic groups. In April, Africa Watch published a 28-page report, Liberia: Flight From Terror, which discussed human rights violations committed by the Liberian armed forces, rebel abuses and the role of the United States.
On June 19, Africa Watch testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa about human rights in Liberia. Africa Watch urged the US government to publicly call on both the Liberian goverment and rebel forces to cease their attacks on civilians.
Another researcher went to the Ivory Coast in September to interview more recent refugees and to meet relief workers knowledgeable about the current situation in Liberia. She interviewed newly arrived refugees in several Ivorian villages in the area of Tabou, as well as refugees who had fled in July to the Ivorian department of Guiglo. The mission resulted in a 27-page newsletter about violations of the laws of war by all parties to the conflict, and included sections on the humanitarian needs of those displaced by the conflict, both within and outside Liberia, and US policy. Africa Watch also published three articles about the human rights situation in Liberia: "A Cry From Our Distant Cousins," in the October 2 edition of the Los Angeles Times; "The World Watches Liberians Die," in the October 23 edition of the International Herald Tribune; and "Failures of State," in the November-December edition of Africa Report.
Africa Watch worked with members of the Liberian community and other human rights activists to disseminate information about the new INS guidelines. In September, Africa Watch wrote letters of concern to INS officials about US immigration policy toward Liberians, and expanded on these concerns in a memorandum to the Senate Judiciary Committee later in the month.
5 ECOMOG, or the Economic Community Monitoring Group, comprises five countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS): Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. They entered Liberia as a peace-keeping force on August 24, but soon took on an offensive role against Charles Taylor's NPFL. The stated purpose of the ECOMOG force was to neutralize Taylor's troops, install the interim government and organize fair elections.
7 From 1980 to 1985, the US provided $500 million to Doe's government. After the fraudulent general election of 1985, Congress passed resolutions conditioning further Economic Support Funds on concrete human rights improvements. Because of congressional pressure, the US ended most assistance to Liberia in 1986. However, US military "advisors" remained in Monrovia.
9 As of mid-December, the number of refugees was estimated as follows: Sierre Leone, 235,000; Guinea, 409,000; Ivory Coast, 235,000; Ghana, 8,000; Mali, 1,500; and Nigeria, 1,000. In mid-October, Sierra Leone announced that it could no longer accept refugees, although refugees have continued to enter that country.
10 The amendment also provides for the granting of "temporary protected status" if there has been an earthquake, flood, drought, epidemic or other environmental disaster; if the foreign state is unable, temporarily, to handle the return to the states of aliens who are nationals of the state; and if the state has requested such designation."