The peace agreement signed between the Liberian government and two rebel groups in August 2003 ended more than three years of internal armed conflict and provided for a transitional government, largely made up of members of the three former warring parties, to guide Liberia to elections in 2005. In 2004, the deployment of some fifteen thousand United Nations peacekeepers and one thousand civilian police, and the disarmament of more than ninety thousand combatants contributed to a marked decrease in abuses against civilians and attacks against human rights defenders. However, the human rights situation remains precarious as a result of frequent criminal acts by ex-combatants in the face of inadequate police and civil authorities; striking deficiencies within the national judicial system; infighting and allegations of corruption within the transitional government; serious shortfalls in financing the program to reintegrate and train demobilized combatants; and continued regional instability, most notably in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea.
There has been little discussion on how to ensure accountability for past human rights abuses. The selection of commissioners for the truth and reconciliation commission mandated by the 2003 peace agreement, lacked transparency. The Nigerian government, which offered former president Charles Taylor a safe haven in August 2003 when rebels threatened to take the capital Monrovia, has refused to hand him over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which indicted him for war crimes connected with his support for rebels in Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, several of Taylor’s close associates have been implicated in plans to attack neighboring Guinea, which once served as a haven for the rebels which led to his removal from power.
Ongoing Insecurity and Related Abuses
Protection of the civilian population remains an urgent priority, particularly given serious institutional deficiencies within the national police force and judicial system. By the end of 2004, peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) were deployed in all major towns and along most highways. Prior to this deployment and the disarming of ex-combatants there were frequent reports of harassment of civilians, forced labor in rubber and diamond producing areas, extortion at market places, looting of foodstuffs intended for aid distribution, assaults against aid workers, illegal checkpoints, and looting. Civilians living in rural areas beyond the reach of UNMIL peacekeepers remain particularly vulnerable to attacks by demobilized combatants from all former factions. Women and girls living within camps for the internally displaced remain vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation, primarily by other camp residents.
Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of Former Combatants
During 2004, over ninety thousand combatants including some 12,600 women and six thousand children were disarmed and demobilized. However, concern was raised about the quantity of arms turned in— only one rifle, rocket launcher, pistol or mortar round for every three fighters on average—and because combatants were reluctant to surrender heavy weapons. A key challenge for Liberia is the degree to which disarmed combatants can be successfully reintegrated and trained. This is jeopardized by significant shortfalls in funding to support promised education or skills training programs. The dearth of programs, particularly in the capital Monrovia where the majority of ex-combatants have concentrated, makes them vulnerable for re-recruitment; since at least June 2004, commanders claiming to represent a fledgling Guinean insurgency and others claiming to support Guinean President Lansana Conte have engaged in the recruitment of ex-combatants, including children. In December 2003, the U.N. Security Council voted to reapply the arms embargo and a travel ban on individuals involved in previous attempts to destabilize the region.
Re-establishing the Rule of Law
Decades of corruption and mismanagement, and fourteen years of war led to the near collapse of most state institutions, including the judicial system. Over the next several years the international community must devote significant resources to create a functioning police force, and professional and independent judiciary. An ambitious rule of law strategy consisting of four components: police, judicial, corrections, and human rights, has been integrated into UNMIL. Developing all four components of the program simultaneously is essential to promoting the rule of law.
Under former president Taylor the Liberian Police was an arm of repression and exploitation. Over the next two years, the 1090 strong civilian police component of UNMIL will train a force of some 3,500 police officers, 1,800 of whom are to be functional in time of the projected October 2005 elections. UNMIL has undertaken to thoroughly vet and screen any previous human rights abusers from the new force. The new Liberian Police Service must be free of political influence, balanced along gender and tribal lines, and adequately trained in human rights standards.
Court personnel including magistrates, lawyers and judges have for decades been subject to poor conditions of service including low salaries. Their judicial independence has been compromised by political interference and corruption. Numerous courtrooms were looted and destroyed during the war and at present the judicial system lacks basic resources and personnel. There are very few detention facilities and prisons. Funding to rehabilitate court and prison infrastructure, and adequately train and remunerate court staff, including public defenders, prosecutors and judges, is urgently needed and should be a priority for the international community.
Accountability for Past Abuses
Civil society has expressed interest in having those most responsible for atrocities during Liberia’s fourteen year internal conflict held accountable for their crimes. However they maintain that the disarmament process must first be completed and a greater modicum of security established before any such process is initiated. Meanwhile, the chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) and several ministers and high-level functionaries, themselves former commanders within a warring faction, have expressed opposition to trying war criminals. Through inclusion of an amnesty in the 2003 peace agreement was avoided, article XXXIV of the accord commits the government to “give consideration to a recommendation for general amnesty” at an unspecified date. The international community should continue to pressure the Liberian parliament to desist from passing an amnesty, and must begin to explore ways for those most responsible for war crimes and other serious violations of international law to be brought to justice. In preparation, local and international human rights groups should continue the process of investigating and documenting atrocities committed since 1989.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
A truth and reconciliation commission was mandated by the 2003 peace agreement and in January 2004, eight Liberians were appointed as commissioners by NTGL Chairman Bryant. However, the commissioners lack the relevant experience, and among them is one of Bryant’s close family members. The selection process lacked transparency and there was insufficient consultation with civil society. After significant input from the UNMIL human rights section and local and international human rights organizations, an act which called for the reconstitution of the commission to include the appointment of international and national commissioners was drafted and is under consideration by NTGL members. The selection process for commissioners will require significant input and monitoring by local and international human rights organizations.
Successive Liberian administrations have been characterized by widespread nepotism and corruption. President Taylor siphoned off public funds, largely derived from the exploitation of local timber, diamonds and iron ore. Consistent allegations of corruption by members of the NTGL, including numerous scandals about lavish spending and the awarding of contracts have been made. Two commissions envisioned to stem corruption—the Governance Reform Commission and the Contract and Monopolies Commission —were set up under the 2003 peace agreement, but have yet to adequately address the allegations. The U.N. Security Council should refuse to lift sanctions on the sale of diamonds and timber, imposed respectively in 2001 and 2003, until the new government is able to assert effective and transparent control over these revenue sources.
Key International Actors
International Actors, notably the United Nations and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were committed to bringing Liberia’s recent conflict to an end and filling the security vacuum left after former President Taylor departed into exile in August 2004. They have yet to address the issue of justice for atrocities committed during Liberia’s fourteen year internal conflict and refused to call on Nigeria to surrender former president Taylor to the SCSL, despite concerns that he might destabilize Liberia and the region.
ECOWAS took the lead on resolving internal disputes within the NTGL, but did little to pressure the warring parties to desist from committing abuses against civilians and address concerns about corruption. ECOWAS members actively lobbied members of the Liberian parliament to vote against a resolution calling on Nigeria to surrender Taylor to the SCSL. The United States' refusal to commit ground troops during the rebel assault on Monrovia in 2003 provoked disappointment. However, the U.S. Congress committed U.S. $200 million in humanitarian assistance to Liberia and approved US $240 million for U.N. peacekeeping in Liberia. The U.S. took the lead on the restructuring of the Liberian Army, which is estimated to be ongoing through 2005 and include a comprehensive vetting component to screen out notorious human rights abusers. While U.S. $ 520 million was in January 2004 pledged to reconstruct Liberia, donating nations had by years’ end only delivered U.S. $244 million of this amount.