Without exception, all of Liberia's state structures have deteriorated severely as a result of the country's long-waged civil war. Of particular relevance to securing and maintaining respect for human rights in post-war Liberia are the reconstitution and revitalization of the Justice Ministry and judiciary, the national police force, the prison system, and the military.18

Although a democratically elected government is in place, and the security situation is better than it has been since the outbreak of the civil war seven years ago, Liberia remains in a very precarious position. Although the ECOMOG presence has not always been a positive factor in the peace process, the 11,000 ECOMOG troops served a very important function in the lead-up to the election and continue to be responsible for the secure environment. This arrangement, however, is only temporary. ECOMOG is scheduled to phase out by early 1998. A strong civil society, and competent and vigorous law enforcement will be necessary to ensure peace and stability in Liberia. The concerns that must now be addressed include the rebuilding of the justice system and the restructuring and training of the military and the police.

There is a pressing need for the justice and law enforcement systems to begin to address the likely consequences of the war, including property disputes that will erupt when returnees find their land occupied; the threat of retaliation by or against former combatants; and the general increase in violent crime within such a militarized society. There has been a steady increase in the numbers of armed robberies due to the ease with whichformer combatants engage in acts of violence, and the general lack of peacetime opportunities. State institutions need to begin to address these issues in order to ensure a secure environment in which reconciliation and rebuilding can take place.

The Ministry of Justice and the Courts

The Ministry of Justice is vested with great responsibility for the promotion of the rule of law in Liberia. The ministry of justice is responsible, among other things, for the administration of the judiciary, the National Police Force, and the Bureau of Rehabilitation (which administers the prisons).

During the Transition Government, most of the courts were reinstated both in Monrovia and in the countryside. However, some of the courts designated by the Transitional Government were tribunals that had been created by the NPFL faction during the war and were not necessarily headed by competent judges. The mandate of these courts expired one month after the election and all courts will be reconstituted (with new judges named) by the new government. During the Transitional Government, the courts were functioning without the necessary equipment or supplies to allow them to do their work effectively.

The Liberian justice system is headed by a five-judge Supreme Court, under which there are Circuit Courts and other courts of record (corresponding to the thirteen counties), and the Justice of Peace and Magistrate's courts. In addition to the statutory legal system, Liberia also has traditional courts that are bound by customary and unwritten law in domestic and land disputes, as well as petty crimes. Traditional courts cannot rule on issues governed by statutory law, and decisions by traditional courts can be reviewed in the statutory court system. Over the past two decades, the judiciary has been greatly weakened, not only by the war, but also by executive interference in the time of the Doe government. Arbitrary detention, executive interference and pressure on judges, as well as corruption, left a justice system that was virtually non-functional when the war broke out.

The new Liberian government has pledged to allow a strong and independent judiciary. A reconstituted Supreme Court has already been sworn in. The new chief justice, Gloria Scott, has publicly promised to uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary and to resist interference from other government branches. This commitment to judicial independence is the most important and crucial step towards establishing the rule of law in Liberia. But, the creation of a strong judiciary will require the selection of qualified and professional lawyers to the bench as well as better working conditions.

During the Transitional Government, the Bar Association (after much protest from the warring factions, particularly Charles Taylor) was permitted to provide recommendations for judicial appointments. The rationale for the involvement of the legal community in the process of judicial selection is to ensure that the judges selected are well-respected by their colleagues, and to encourage the nongovernmental Bar Association to have a voice in the process. The Taylor government should follow this precedent and engage the Bar Association's assistance in the creation of an independent judiciary.

The Police

The National Police Force is under the Ministry of Justice. During the Doe era, the police force was used as a means of providing jobs to political patrons. Although a high school diploma was a requirement for recruitment, most of the police force during the Doe years were illiterate. Prior to the war, the police force numbered approximately 2,000 members. There was some restructuring of the police force under the Transitional Governments during the war. By the time the election was held, during the war, the role of the police was limited mainly to traffic control and the protection of civilians from common crimes in Monrovia.

According to the police, their mission is:

to maintain order, ensure compliance with the regulation and laws of the region it is charged with enforcing, and to provide for the safety of all persons and their property within the region. This shall be accomplished with impartiality according to the highest professional law enforcement standards, with the utmost respect for human rights and dignity, with the goal of gaining and building public confidence and trust.19

In reality, however, the Liberian police have been responsible for arbitrary arrests, detention without charge, corruption and brutality during the Transitional Government, according to Liberian human rights groups. During that time, the size of the police force grew as the factions used police force appointments as a means to reward their supporters.

It is clear that the new government needs to determine what size force is needed for law enforcement, and to conduct a full screening of the existing police force. The police are currently preparing to re-open police stations throughout the country. The government initially named Charles Deshield to serve as police commissioner. In September 1997, the government's stated commitment to human rights was undermined by the appointment, without explanation, of notorious NPFL-stalwart Joe Tate to replace Mr. Deshield, which prompted the United States to immediately suspend its police training program. Joe Tate had previously served as police commissioner previously under the Transitional Government made up of appointees from the various factions. During that time, the police were responsible for abuses.

At the moment, the police are unarmed, and are working with ECOMOG to address crime, in particular the rise in armed robberies. Liberian patrol police should remain unarmed, but should be given batons and back-up radios so they can call for armed assistance when needed. The Police Commissioner should review and revise the internal rules on a range of procedures, including the use of teargas or violence.

The Military

The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), the government army under the Doe government, remains the official military, although ECOMOG constitutes the primary and only deployed military force at this time. With the possible exception of the many former combatants roaming the country without skills and opportunities, the restructuring of the AFL remains one of the greatest challenges to continued peace in Liberia. The AFL could pose a significant threat to the peace given its history and connections with several of the warring factions (none of which has been effectively demobilized to date). Numbering at least 7,000, and unpaid by the Transitional Government as of late July for almost a year, the mostly Krahn force remains encamped in very overcrowded conditions at the Barclay Training Center in Monrovia and the Schiefflin barracks on the outskirts of the city.20

The AFL has had a history of ethnic and political persecution and serious human rights violations during the Doe government. President Doe had surrounded himself with members of his Krahn ethnic group. The Krahn make up less than 5 percent of the population, but are disproportionally represented in the AFL. The bulk of AFL troops are Krahn. As the war approached Monrovia in 1990, President Doe widely recruited members of his Krahn group and the allied Mandingo to serve in the AFL without any training. The AFL were responsible for widespread killings particularly of members of the Gio and Mano ethnic groups, not to mention widespread destruction and looting.

Following Doe's death, the AFL remained a player in the war by supporting factions opposed to Taylor's NPFL. Various efforts were made to neutralize the detrimental effects of the AFL by including them in peace talksand catering to their demands to remain in the barracks. As part of the demobilization process, AFL soldiers handed in their weapons.

Since the election, the AFL have been organizing to make their demands heard by the Taylor government as fears of ethnic persecution and dismissal from their jobs become a possibility. The AFL leadership, Gen. Hezekiah Bowen, has expressed fears that a purging along ethnic lines of the military will take place now that Charles Taylor has won the presidency. This fear was further heightened shortly after the election when a former NPFL general, Isaac Musa, stormed the Ministry of Defense and threatened to "wipe everybody and sweep the AFL personnel [from the ministry]. . .," stating "this is the time to get even with all of you at the AFL. . .we know what to do with everybody." President Taylor did not respond publicly to this event, and has consistently talked of reconciliation and the need to ensure a well-disciplined military force. President Taylor has also agreed to an extension of ECOMOG's stay in order for it to assist in the restructuring and retraining of the security forces.21

According to an outrageous proposal put forth by General Bowen, the AFL is asking to be retired with full pensions. At a cost of $52 million, General Bowen is proposing that pensions for all soldiers, compensation packages, death or disability benefits for AFL families, a three month reintegration/training program, and the resettlement of retired soldiers in their home area. When asked by Human Rights Watch/Africa what the AFL would do if these demands were not met, General Bowen articulated a commitment to pursuing the matter constitutionally through the courts.

The Taylor government is currently reviewing these demands and is reportedly considering granting pensions to some AFL members and dismissing others (particularly those recruited at the outset of the war who were armed without any training). President Taylor has called for the integration of former fighters from all factions into the new AFL. In the same way that this gesture will neutralize the possible threat of renewed fighting by disgruntled fighters, the Taylor government needs to ensure that the fears of the existing AFL soldiers are dealt with.

Another major concern is the fact that ECOMOG is slated to train the restructured military. Given ECOMOG's own past history of human rights abuses, corruption and active support for anti-NPFL factions during the war, the West African peacekeeping force does not provide a good training model. ECOMOG should not be responsible for such training unless there is active oversight from the U.N. and the International Committee for the Red Cross, and unless a component on human rights and humanitarian law is included in the training.


The Ministry of Justice, through the Bureau of Rehabilitation, is responsible for managing civilian prisons. During the Doe era, military prisons were controlled by the Armed Forces of Liberia. The prisons run by the Ministry of Justice are intended for to hold persons either charged or convicted. Police cells are used for detaining suspects and others without charge. The prisons have historically been overcrowded, without ventilation or sanitary facilities. Prisoners were often subjected to violence at the hands of prison guards. The three major prisons during the Doe era were the Monrovia Central Prison, the Post Stockade Military Prison (in Monrovia), and a notorious maximum security prison camp, Belle Yallah, in Lofa County. During the civil war, the prisons were damaged and emptied as the fighting spread throughout the country.

Prior to the election, Monrovia Central Prison had been reopened by the Interim Government, followed by the Transitional Government, and has been functional for a number of years. In July, 1997, there were reportedlysome 60 to 70 (only 2 to 3 female) prisoners being held. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has rebuilt latrines in the prison and replaced some roofing. However, physical repairs are still required, as are a great many other improvements to the prison system.

Additionally, the new government should continue the registration system established during the Transitional Government and ensure that the prisons cooperate with the County Attorney's office to see that suspects are brought before the court within the 48 hour constitutional requirement. During the Doe era, the lack of a log-book and a mechanism to monitor the intake of prisoners had been one reason that prisoners languished for years without trial in Monrovia Central Prison.

The Human Rights Commission

Given Liberia's history of massive human rights violations, the announcement by President Taylor that a Commission on Human Rights would be created by his government was, in principle, a welcome development. However, for such a commission to genuinely play a role in establishing accountability and transparency, it must be given the mandate, independent authority and adequate government funding to do so. Most importantly, the commission must be given the clout to enforce and to make public its findings. A human rights commission that does not have the necessary investigative capability and the will and means to make its findings and recommendations heard may prove to be a paper tiger.

Ultimately, the real test of the Taylor government's human rights commission will be in its actions. The commission's record over the course of its first year will go some way toward answering the following pivotal questions:

O Will the commission possess real investigatory capacity?

O Can the commission institute real and serious investigations?

O Will the commission go beyond perfunctory investigations and pursue an agenda that encompasses issues of national importance?

O Does the commission have the requisite budget and infrastructure?

O Does the commission have the independence required to investigate the government's actions and make public its findings?

If the answer to these questions is no, the Liberian government's human rights commission will join the list of other such government-sponsored bodies on the African continent that have been created merely to deflect criticism. The Taylor government's credibility on human rights will rest very heavily on the success of this commission.

The terms of reference for this commission are still being drafted by the Taylor government. Unfortunately, the government has not consulted widely with the broader society to discuss how such a commission could best function to serve the needs of the Liberian people. In the September draft bill for the creation of this commission, the government listed only select nongovernmental groups from which its commissioners would be drawn: 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 restrictions against the involvement of other nongovernmental organizations was questionable, particularly since one of Liberia's leading human rights groups, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission was not on the list. The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission had been particularly outspoken regarding the Taylor faction's human rights violations during the war.

18 This section relies in part on background information contained in Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, "First Steps: Rebuilding the Justice System in Liberia," New York, December 1991. 19 Undated document provided by the Liberian National Police, Monrovia, July 1997. 20 Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, Gen. J. Hezekiah Bowen, former minister of defense, Monrovia, July 21, 1997; Augustine Otavius, "ECOMOG Gives Reasons on BTC Issue," Monrovia Daily News, May 1, 1997. 21 A. John Kollie, "Isaac Musa Storms Defense," The Inquirer (Monrovia), July, 31, 1997; "There Will Be No Witch Hunting," Daily Times (Monrovia), July 28, 1997; Text of presidential inauguration speech by Charles Taylor, Liberia Communications Network radio, August 2, 1997; "President Taylor Negotiates Extension of ECOMOG mandate," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, September 2, 1997, Source: Liberia Communications Network radio, August 30, 1997.