Accountability for Human Rights Abuses

Having come out of a situation of brutal conflict in which civilians were overwhelmingly targeted by all factions, there is a need for the government to take steps to hold those responsible for committing gross abuses of human rights accountable for their crimes. Reconciliation and rebuilding efforts will continue to be haunted by the fact that there has been no punishment for those who have committed some of the most unimaginable atrocities. Unfortunately, international efforts to negotiate peace in Liberia dispensed with accountability in an effort to find a political solution. One human rights activist lamented that "the whole peace process undermined justice."22 Another said, "Reconciliation requires coming to terms with the past. There has to be some acknowledgment that what was done was wrong."23 Yet another said "The future political role of some of the major players in the conflict has just been left to the magnamity of the new president."24

Human Rights Watch/Africa believes that those who commit gross abuses of human rights should be held accountable for their crimes. It is the responsibility of governments to seek accountability regardless of whether the perpetrators of such abuses are officials of the government itself. Article 19 of the Cotonou Peace Accord of July 25, 1993, granted a general amnesty "to all persons and parties involved in the Liberian civil conflict in the course of actual military engagements." Human Rights Watch/Africa holds that this amnesty does not cover acts outside the scope of combat that are prohibited under international humanitarian law, such as killings of civilians and torture. Where former combatants have wantonly committed human rights abuses, they should be held accountable in a Liberian court of law.

Human Rights Watch/Africa also recognizes that accountability may also be achieved by public disclosure and condemnation in cases of lesser responsibility and/or less severe abuse. The government should also create a truth commission, perhaps as part of a commission on reconciliation, to collect testimony and evidence about the wrongs committed during the course of the war and publicly name those responsible for the acts. Comparative efforts from elsewhere in the world could be looked to as examples by the Liberian government to create such a commission.

Women's Human Rights in Post-Conflict Liberia

Past and current human rights violations against Liberian women continue to undermine their ability to fully play a part in the economic and political rebuilding process. As a result of both the violence inflicted upon them and of their second-class status under law, Liberian women continue to be faced with unique problems. Many women who lost everything are now heads of households for the first time. Most of the refugees are women and children. Many of these women are faced with the difficult responsibility of trying to rebuild their lives while providing food and shelter to their children.

According to Liberian women and local and international women's groups, sexual violence was extremely prevalent during the Liberian war. One study conducted by the Center for Abused Women and Girls, a Liberian nongovernmental organization, found that rape survivors included women and girls from ages ten to sixty-five years. Fighters from all the groups regularly raped women and girls, often forcibly keeping them for long periods, for sex and for menial labor. Like elsewhere in the world, many Liberian women do not want to acknowledge that they were raped due to the stigma. Often rape survivors do not tell anyone in their family about the rape because of feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame. As a result, many Liberian women have been unwilling to seek the help they needto address the health complications, psychological trauma, and social isolation they have experienced as a result of the violence inflicted on them.

Due to the war, traditional family and community support networks have broken down. Many young girls who should be in school have been forced into situations such as prostitution or household labor in order to support themselves. The problems facing these girls and women have resulted in a rise in sexual exploitation, particularly of young girls, and of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. One children's rights activist noted that "the number of pregnant girls in Liberia is frighteningly high from rape and exploitation. We are seeing more twelve and thirteen-year-old girls being exploited. For instance, young girls are taken in by relatives and in return they are expected to clean the house and have sex with the man of the house. Often these girls have no immediate family to return to and no other choice but to remain in such a situation."25

Compounding the difficulties is the fact that when women return to their homes of origin, they encounter long-standing customary practices that discriminate against them. Such discrimination may limit women's ability to claim their property as they return to their home areas. Displaced widows are likely to face difficulties as they return to find their homes occupied. The situation is further compounded for women not married in a civil ceremony. Under customary law, women cannot inherit, and are often treated as property themselves despite article 11 of the Liberian Constitution that guarantees equal protection under the law. This discrimination will pose difficulties for the large number of female-headed refugee and internally displaced households who will be returning to their home areas. Currently, due to the efforts of the Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia (AFELL), a Liberian nongovernmental organization, a draft bill has been brought before the legislature which, if passed, would grant inheritance rights to women married under customary law. This bill should be passed as soon as possible and steps should be taken by the government to assist returning refugees and displaced persons, the bulk of which are women and children, to secure their property.

Demobilization of Soldiers (Including Child Soldiers)

The complete demobilization of combatants is a critical step toward lasting peace in Liberia. In an eleven-week period between November 1996 and February 1997, ECOMOG troops disarmed 21,315 NPFL, ULIMO and AFL fighters/soldiers-including some 4,306 children and 250 female adults-of an estimated total of 33,000 fighters.26 The United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) monitored and verified the disarmament process, while the Liberian transitional government created the National Disarmament and Demobilization Commission (NDDC) to facilitate the process. The exercise can be viewed as substantially complying with the peace accords. However, the high percentage of disarmed combatants only resulted after the estimated overall number of combatants was reduced from 60,000-a likely inflated figure reported by the factions in 1995, to 33,000.

Although thousands of weapons were handed in, weapons continued to be discovered in ECOMOG raids throughout the disarmament period. During the last weeks of the voluntary disarmament period, there was a dramatic increase in the numbers of weapons collected, particularly heavy artillery, as well as a realization that the factions continued to hoard weapons. The determination and forcefulness of the ECOMOG Force Commander, Nigerian Maj. Gen. Victor Malu, was largely responsible for the successful disarmament. Threat of additional sanctions may have also played a role, including strengthened punitive measures against faction leaders that did not comply with the peace accord, including restrictions on travel, freezing of assets, visa exclusions of family and associates, and the possibility of international prosecution in a war crimes tribunal called for by the Organization of African Unity (OAU). These sanctions were, however, never acted upon.

Hidden weapons continued to be discovered well after the end of voluntary disarmament, and some 3,750 weapons and 152,500 pieces of ammunition were uncovered shortly before the election through cordon and search operations by ECOMOG.27 Some excessive force was used by ECOMOG in the course of these operations.

Due to the short time timetable for the implementation of the peace process, little more than confiscation of weapons occurred before the election. Combatants were not systematically given psychological counseling, training or other vocational opportunities, or even transported and integrated into their home communities. The lack of time also led to insufficient resources and planning to allow for long-term demobilization programs to be established.

To date, former combatants remain grouped together. In many places, they have not been integrated into communities. The chain of command remains intact and these combatants can be easily rearmed and organized into their former structures. Even if they do not pose a threat to national security, many of these combatants have no jobs and may be prompted to turn to organized criminal activity. One displaced person in Kakata told Human Rights Watch/Africa, "we have problems with the fighters when they don't have jobs or money. They are used to having money."28

Even more disturbing, throughout the country former combatants continue to operate as an informal civil authority.29 In Kakata, former NPFL fighters interviewed at the Kakata Research and Teacher Training Institute (KRTTI) displaced persons camp stated they decided to stay after they captured the town. Over 500 former combatants remain in the town. Neither transportation to another area nor encampment in a demobilization center took place.30

The ages of the demobilized fighters ranged from six years old to seventy-two years old. The average age of the fighters was between fifteen and twenty-eight years old. The largest number of fighters came from Lofa county (approximately 6,000). Although most fighters had some formal schooling, at least 4,000 had no educational qualifications. The rest had only elementary education. Very few fighters had attended college or vocational training. Many of these fighters had been given drugs, such as marijuana.

There has been little or no social demobilization to reintegrate these soldiers into their communities. Child soldiers have been returned to their families, but little support has been available in cases where reintegration into the family has caused problems. In many cases, help is not needed and child soldiers have been able to make the transition without difficulty. In other cases, however, families are struggling with the after effects of having theirchildren turned into killers. One father spoke to Human Rights Watch/Africa about the difficulties of dealing with his son, a former fighter who had come home:

I have two sons who were forced to become fighters at ages fourteen and seventeen years old. Their minds are polluted. My son does things differently. He beats and kicks his sisters. He has no respect for me. He warns me that he has one bullet for me. I have tried to talk to him, but it is not easy to love him anymore. My other son has been easy to come back. I think it is the commanders that they were under.31

According to the U.N. Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Office (HACO), some 21 percent (about 4,000) of the soldiers demobilized were children. The ratio of child soldiers was higher than the expected 15 percent and the U.N. believes that these numbers indicate not only that more children were involved with factions than expected, but also that the factions were more willing to release children before adults in order to conserve their troops more effectively. A small number of non-combatant children (particularly street children) around Monrovia also sought to enter the demobilization program in order to take advantage of the incentives being offered at sites where child soldiers were not required to hand in a weapon.

According to UNICEF, the physical and psychological status of these children has varied from place to place, but they all share trauma, uncertainty about their future, insecurity, and above all, a desire to go back to school or to learn some trade. UNICEF estimates that some 15,000 to 20,000 children directly participated in the war. Many of these children have seen or participated in brutally violent acts, were forced to kill or maim, were exposed to fighting, and were themselves victimized and beaten. Some fought with different factions as a means of survival. According to UNICEF, 60 percent of Liberia's school-going children are not in school. Those that are in school are faced with ill-equipped facilities and staff.

Many child soldiers served in the faction for over five years. When asked what they wanted to do with their lives, 77 percent of the child soldiers replied that they wanted to attend school. Ten percent said they wanted to learn a trade; another 10 percent wanted to go into petty trading; 2 percent wanted to go into business; and less than 1 percent said they wanted to go into civil work. A number of people in the humanitarian community noted that there was a need for educational or vocational institutions for demobilized child soldiers who could no longer return to the school level they were in when the war began. One children's rights activist noted that the demobilization process

concentrated mainly on handing in weapons. Yet more was needed. When you look at these children, many of them may not seem traumatized in the way you imagine. They seem `normal,' but developmentally they are stunted. They themselves talk about lost time. Many are not in school. But they want to be. They realize the value of education. However, there was little coordination and organization to provide what was needed for these children at the outset. I attended a meeting called by the U.N. in November [1996], when the demobilization process was already half finished, and they were just beginning to discuss bridging packages for child soldiers.32

Despite the inadequacy of the demobilization of combatants, including children, the process has been considered a success by the U.N. and ECOMOG. Peter Tingwa who heads the U.N. Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Office (HACO), was quick to characterize the demobilization as a success to Human Rights Watch/Africa despite the limitations. Mr. Tingwa stated that demobilization was "successful in one way. . .becauseit did, in several places, break down the command structure. . .[In Bomi county] Ulimo is gone. . .Although, in some areas, commanders still exercise control, in the whole, our assessment was those ties would break down."33 However, it is unlikely that the problem of the thousands of former fighters is going to disappear without a government effort to complete the demobilization process. The command structure of many faction battalions will continue to operate on the ground and pose a potential problem of crime and insecurity unless the government takes steps to provide training or employment opportunities to the former fighters. Former fighters should be encouraged to return to their home areas and not remain grouped together in areas where they constitute an intimidating presence. Further, the government should continue to search for the hidden arms and ammunition that remain scattered around Liberia.

22 Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, Monrovia, July 16, 1997. 23 Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, Monrovia, July 14, 1997. 24 Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, Monrovia, July 14, 1997. 25 Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, Monrovia, July 23, 1997. 26 "U.N. Secretary-General, "Twenty-Second Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia," U.N. Doc. S/1997/237, March 19, 1997, para.13. 27 One of the more dramatic discoveries took place on March 7, 1996. ECOMOG troops conducted an investigation of the residences of former faction leaders and Alhaji Kromah was arrested when three truckloads of weapons and ammunition were found at his residence in Monrovia. U.N. Secretary-General, "Twenty-second Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia" U.N. Doc. S/1997/237, March 19, 1997; As recently as July 1, ECOMOG was reported to have recovered 159 assault guns and ammunition in Bong County. "West African Peacekeeping Force Recovers Hidden Arms and Ammunition," text of report by Liberia Communications Network radio, July 1, 1997; A source also confirmed that arms had been transported across the borders by the factions into small towns and villages in neighboring countries. Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, Monrovia, July 14, 1997. 28 Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, Kakata, July 24, 1997. 29 In Zwedru, only 284 fighters were disarmed and the newly constituted civil authority consisted of the superintendent and her deputy, who were the LPC battle commander and military chief of staff, respectively. Refuge Policy Group, Participation of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons in the Liberian Elections (Washington, DC: 1987); Justice and Peace Commission, "Briefing Paper, April-May 1997, " Monrovia. 30 Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, KRTTI displaced persons camp, Kakata, July 24, 1997. 31 Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, Kakata, July 24, 1997. 32 Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, Monrovia, July 13, 1997. 33 Human Rights Watch/Africa interview, Peter Tingwa, director, U.N. Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Office (HACO), Monrovia, July, 21, 997.