Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July 2014, 15:15 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Liberia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1998
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Liberia, 30 January 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa5618.html [accessed 31 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.

LIBERIA

After more than 7 years of civil war, implementation of the August 1996 Abuja Peace Accord restored peace to Liberia. The human costs of the war were immense--200,000 war-related deaths, 1.2 million persons displaced internally, and approximately 750,000 refugees in neighboring countries.

Under the provisions of the Abuja Accords, presidential and legislative elections were held on July 19 for the first time in 12 years. Thirteen political parties competed, including the parties of the three major former faction leaders--Charles G. Taylor, Alhaji Kromah, and George Boley. Charles Taylor won the presidency with over three-quarters of the votes cast and his party, the National Patriotic Party, won control of both houses of the legislature. The elections were judged free and transparent by international observers. Taylor was inaugurated as President on August 2 and promised to give high priority to national reconciliation, human rights, the rule of law, ensuring a stable environment for economic development, and eliminating corruption. The judiciary is subject to political influence, outside pressure, and corruption.

Approximately 10,500 West African peacekeepers (ECOMOG) were deployed throughout the country, providing the security that facilitated disarmament, demobilization, the holding of national elections, and the return of some refugees. More than 20,000 weapons and over 10 million rounds of ammunition were turned in to ECOMOG between November 1996 and February 1997, the end of the period for voluntary disarmament. Demobilization and reintegration programs for the more than 20,000 former combatants who disarmed (21 percent of whom were former child fighters under age 17) were established but many former combatants were unable to participate. While significant disarmament was achieved, factional command and control structures were not completely dismantled and remained largely in place. ECOMOG remained the key military force supporting the Liberian National Transition Governments (LNTG) III and IV as well as the new Taylor administration. In December ECOMOG began drawing down its troops in preparation for leaving the country; an agreement for a continued ECOMOG presence was being negotiated. For the past 7 years, ECOMOG assumed many police powers in the absence of a central government capability. The outlook for maintenance of security after ECOMOG's departure remains unclear. Although the ECOMOG peacekeeping force generally maintained internal discipline, there were a number of incidents in which individual ECOMOG soldiers killed and tortured civilians.

As an institution, the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) remained largely inactive. In October the Government announced that it would begin restructuring the AFL, although the Abuja Accords stated that ECOMOG was to restructure the AFL. The President's decision resulted in a very public dispute between him and the ECOMOG force commander. The new Taylor administration also sought to move 4,000 largely Krahn AFL troops and their families from the central barracks in downtown Monrovia to the outskirts of the capital, creating tension between the AFL troops and the new Government.

Under the LNTG III and IV Governments, the Liberia National Police (LNP) and the National Security Agency (NSA), which report to the Ministry of Justice, together with the Special Security Services (SSS), which report directly to the Head of State, were responsible for internal security, but they lacked the resources and training to function effectively. After Taylor's inauguration in August, his administration made security a top priority, placing many NPFL former combatants in the security apparatus. In September Taylor reappointed as police director his cousin, who was known to have directed and participated in the looting of Monrovia in April and May 1996. In October the President announced that a 1,000-man paramilitary force would be armed and deployed along the border with Sierra Leone to prevent a spillover of hostilities from that country. By year's end, the administration had placed several hundred unarmed NSA and SSS officials at major border crossing points with Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Members of the security forces committed human rights abuses.

The economy, ravaged by civil war, remained in severe disarray. The Taylor administration inherited an external debt estimated at over $2 billion and over $230 million in domestic debt. No reliable information on the gross domestic product was available. Prior to 1990, the cash economy was based primarily on iron ore, rubber, timber, diamond, and gold exports. Eighty-five percent unemployment, a 15 percent literacy rate, the continued internal displacement of civilians, and the absence of infrastructure throughout the country continued to depress productive capacity, despite the country's rich natural resources and potential self-sufficiency in food. Government officials, businessmen, and former combatants continued to exploit the wealth of the country, logging old growth timber through environmentally unsound mining methods, and illegally tapping rubber trees in plantations under their control. Profits from these illicit enterprises were used for personal benefit. In December the President announced that a new currency would be introduced in 1998 to replace the two separate currencies that were in use in different parts of the country in addition to the U.S. dollar, which is also legal currency. The new currency was designed to address the multiple currencies problem, which had hindered economic activity.

The Government's human rights record was poor, and there were serious problems in many areas; however, there was some improvement in comparison with 1996. Security provided throughout the country by ECOMOG and the largely successful disarmament program led to a decline in human rights abuses prior to September; however, abuses increased towards the end of the year. Security forces committed extrajudicial killings; however, it was difficult to distinguish in many cases whether some killings were a result of political, criminal, ethnic, or other motives. Security forces were responsible for a number of disappearances. Security forces beat citizens, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs used torture to coerce confessions. Conditions in jails remained life threatening, and police and other security forces at times arbitrarily arrested and detained persons and infringed on citizens' privacy rights. On two occasions, the Government investigated or punished security force members for offenses. The judicial system, hampered by inefficiency, corruption, and a lack of resources, was reconstituted in April with the installation of a defactionalized, independent Supreme Court to decide disputes arising from the national elections. However, after his election, President Taylor, exercising his constitutional prerogative, installed a new Supreme Court. The judiciary was generally unable to provide citizens in all parts of the country with their rights to due process and a fair trial due to lack of resources. The Government limited freedom of speech and the press; security forces intimidated and occasionally beat journalists, and journalists often practiced self-censorship. The Government restricted freedom of movement. Unfavorable conditions limited the return of refugees from neighboring countries, as well as former combatants who were not relocated after disarmament. However, by December more than 100,000 refugees and internally displaced persons had returned to their previous home areas. Approximately 1.5 million citizens depend upon humanitarian assistance to survive. At year's end, authorities increased the harassment of democracy and human rights groups. Violence and discrimination against women, and violence against children are longstanding problems. The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) persisted, although apparently on a much reduced scale. Discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities remained a problem. Forced labor, including by children, was a problem, and authorities provided little protection for worker rights. Ritualistic killings and vigilante justice continued.

No progress was made in resolving outstanding incidents of past human rights abuses, despite the appeal of many local and international organizations. The Taylor administration enacted a controversial bill in October to create a Human Rights Commission, which was limited to investigating only current and future human rights abuses, with no power to compel the testimony of witnesses and no government funding to conduct its activities. In December President Taylor appointed a former rival, Alhaji Kromah, as chairman of the commission on national reconciliation; however, the commission was not constituted or functioning by year's end.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

The incidence of political and extrajudicial violence and killing decreased in comparison with 1996, but violence and killings increased during the last months of the year. It was often difficult, however, to distinguish between political, criminal, or ethnic killings. Members of the security forces committed a number of extrajudicial killings.

On January 16, nine people, including five former fighters of the ULIMO-Krahn faction, were ambushed and killed on the Tubmanburg highway in Bomi County, allegedly by former members of the Congo Defense Force. Also in January, a Mandingo taxi driver was brutally murdered in Monrovia. The killing led to a wildcat strike of taxi drivers, most of whom are Mandingos, who claimed continued anti-Mandingo bias in the society (see Section 5). In March a senior government official from the Ministry of Finance was killed in his home in the course of an apparent robbery. Some observers believe that he was killed to conceal alleged governmental financial mismanagement.

In August and September, a number of bodies of individuals killed in suspicious circumstances were discovered in Monrovia, for example, the body of an unidentified adult male was found on the lawn of a former finance minister who belongs to the Mandingo ethnic group. In August a female teacher and major opposition party supporter was killed by an unknown assailant. Thirteen bodies were found in the 2-month period. There is no conclusive evidence whether the killings were criminally or politically motivated. There have been no leads as to the perpetrators.

In October police, alleging an escape attempt, fatally shot a suspected armed robber; there are unconfirmed reports that he was shot in the back of the head at close range and that he had ties to a major opposition political party. Also in October, Monrovia city police beat a taxi driver to death for a minor vehicle violation. No action was taken against the police. On November 29, government security personnel detained opposition political leader Samuel Saye Dokie and three family members at a checkpoint near Gbarnga, Bong County. The Dokies disappeared. Their mutilated, burned bodies were discovered 3 days later. The head of the SSS admitted that he had ordered the Dokies' arrest, but disavowed participation in or knowledge of the Dokies' murder. Five suspects, including at least three SSS officers involved in the Dokie abduction, were subsequently arrested; they were awaiting trial at year's end. On December 19, a 34-year-old man, who had been beaten brutally by police, died while in custody in Monrovia. At year's end, no action had been taken against the police.

At least two persons died in detention facilities due to harsh conditions and official negligence (see Section 1.c.).

The results of the investigation into the October 1996 assassination attempt against Charles Taylor was never made public.

Ritualistic killings, in which young people are murdered and body parts extracted, continued. Incidents included: In February an 18-year-old boy in Gardnersville, a Monrovia suburb; in March in Junction, Grand Cape Mount county, a young woman; in May a 1-month old baby in Caldwell, Montserrado county; also in May, a fisherman in Grand Bassa county; in October, a 2-year-old girl in Buchanan, Grand Bassa county; and a young man from Monrovia in September. No police action has been reported against such practices.

Vigilante justice also continued. In February civilians in Monrovia caught and beat to death a known rapist and armed robber after police refused to take the suspect into custody. The police subsequently took no action.

No progress was made in investigating the many killings from previous years, including two massacres in Sinje, Grand Cape Mount county in 1996. There was no progress in the case of the canibalization of a university student referred to civil authorities by ECOMOG or the canibalization of the AFL Chief of Staff in 1996.

There was no further developments in the discovery of mass graves in 1996. None of the equipment stolen from international agencies was returned and none of those who stole relief supplies and food in 1996 were tried or punished for their crimes.

Although ECOMOG generally maintained internal discipline, there were a number of incidents in which individual ECOMOG soldiers killed civilians. In February ECOMOG soldiers were involved in the death of a man in Vonzula, Grand Cape Mount county. In May during a cordon-and-search operation for illegal weapons at Lajoy gold mine, Grand Cape Mount county, ECOMOG soldiers tortured and murdered two men. In June ECOMOG soldiers also beat to death a man in Sanoyea, Bong county while interrogating him. There was no reported investigation of the incident or punishment of the soldiers involved.

b. Disappearance

There were no confirmed reports of disappearances perpetrated by ECOMOG or the LNTG III regular police or security forces. However, there were credible reports that security forces were involved in such disappearances. Members of the joint security forces of the LNTG IV in May attacked and beat the general commander of a police station in Monrovia who later disappeared. In December four persons incarcerated in the (Gbarnga) Bong county detention facility disappeared. There have been confirmed disappearances of a few people and several opposition activists and businessmen are missing or otherwise unaccounted for at year's end.

There were credible reports that a number of demobilized child fighters, who had been reunited with their families, were abducted again by members of their former warring factions for forced labor (see Section 5).

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits torture and other degrading treatment; however, government security forces beat persons, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs used torture to coerce confessions.

During the latter part of the year, there were numerous credible reports of government security forces beating and intimidating journalists (see Section 2.a.), as well as beating civilians for minor offenses.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs used torture to coerce confessions. Although the Supreme Court ruled that trial by ordeal, or sassywood--commonly, the placement of a burning metal object on a suspect's body to induce confession in a criminal investigation--is unconstitutional, the Ministry of Internal Affairs continued to have licensed agents who subjected suspects to this practice at the Ministry. A lawsuit brought in 1994 for injuries resulting from sassywood is still pending before the Supreme Court.

In September joint security forces and ECOMOG troops wounded six people at the Bridgestone/Firestone rubber plantation in Harbel, Margibi county, during a labor strike (see Section 6.e.).

After the end of the period for voluntary disarmament in February, some ECOMOG troops detained more than 50 former fighters during nationwide cordon-and-search operations for weapons. Many of these former combatants reported being tortured to elicit information about illegal weapons; they were then incarcerated in the Monrovia Central Prison. The prisoners were never charged with any offense and were released in March. During several cordon-and-search operations in which ECOMOG arrested, interrogated, and shot several former combatants, ECOMOG left the victims, who in some cases suffered life-threatening injuries, untreated; but following the intervention of an international organization, the victims received treatment. Individual ECOMOG soldiers also tortured and killed persons (see Section 1.a.).

In September and October, while enforcing a long-forgotten law that prohibits market activity on Sundays and at any time during the week on the streets, police beat several women marketeers, confiscated and never returned thousands of dollars worth of goods and produce, and destroyed hundreds of small market stalls.

There were many incidents in which former combatants, who claimed not to have received sufficient benefits for disarming, harassed and extorted civilians and, in some areas, engaged in massive looting. There were credible reports that returning refugees and displaced persons were harassed by former combatants, especially in the border areas. Also in January, civilians in Grand Cape Mount asked that humanitarian relief supplies not be delivered for fear that former fighters would continue to steal the supplies at gunpoint (see Section 1.f.). In February when former fighters in Nimba, Bomi, and Grand Cape Mount counties continued to harass civilians, the ECOMOG force commander issued a stern warning about such behavior and took additional steps to protect civilians.

In January several individuals, who claimed to have been kidnaped, incarcerated, and tortured in the Watanga (Monrovia) secret jail of the former NPLF faction, publicized the details of their detention. Their claims appeared to be credible. They also reported that other persons were murdered and that they were ordered to bury them.

Neither the LNTG III, LNTG IV, nor the newly elected Government adequately addressed the often life threatening conditions in government jails. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice, sought to make improvements to prison facilities in Monrovia and Kakata. The Governments did not provide prisoners with adequate food or medical care. They did not pay guards for months. Cells were small, crowded, and filthy. Two inmates died in the Bong County detention facility in November, allegedly from starvation. Women, constituted about 5 percent of the prison population, and were held in separate cells, but there were no separate facilities for juvenile offenders. Police who caught children for petty crimes often took them to their own homes rather than incarcerating the minors with adult criminals.

The police director ordered the escaped prisoners released in 1996 to return to jail or be subject of an intensive search. One prisoner surrendered, but later escaped again.

Human rights groups were granted access to prisoners in Monrovia, and these groups frequently obtained needed medical treatment for prisoners. In a number of cases, human rights groups and interested individuals achieved the release of prisoners.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and provides for the rights of the accused, including warrants for arrests, and the right of detainees either to be charged or released within 48 hours. In practice some LNP officers and other security officials often disregarded these rights and made arbitrary arrests. Many officers, whose average monthly salary was already less than $5.00, often were not paid and accepted bribes to arrest persons based on unsubstantiated allegations. The police have almost no logistic or forensic capabilities, and generally were unable to investigate crimes, including murder cases. Most people arrested for serious crimes are not released within 48 hours or brought before a judge as the Constitution requires. In September and October, the new police director, allegedly in an effort to combat the increase of armed robberies in the capital, arrested dozens of suspects who were incarcerated for prolonged periods without being charged. The police director and the SSS director also frequently forced journalists who published stories perceived as antigovernment to visit police headquarters or the Justice Ministry where they were often threatened and intimidated.

In July the editor of the Liberia Communications Network was arrested at a press conference held in the Independent Elections Commission's (IECOM) headquarters after asking the IECOM chairman whether there had been tampering with the ballots for the national election; the editor was not charged and was later released. In August the editor of the Funtimes Gazette was arrested for publishing an article about President Taylor's personal life. Following public criticism, the editor was released. In October the LNP Director ordered the editor of the Inquirer newspaper, which had published several critical articles about the police, arrested for allegedly buying stolen property, although there was no evidence to support the charge. The Inquirer editor later was released. The police director also attempted, but failed, to have Liberia's leading human rights advocate arrested following a press conference that the advocate had called to protest the Inquirer's editor's arrest. Following public criticism, this matter, too, was dropped. Also in October, the LNP Director ordered the arrest of one of his officers without an arrest warrant, based upon the officer's reported death threat against the director. The arresting officers, unable to locate the individual either at his home or at church, detained the man's wife, children, and other occupants of the house; a local human rights organization urged police to release them from unconstitutional detention, which they did once the officer surrendered.

ECOMOG soldiers played the major role in policing the country, particularly during the early part of the year. Many citizens continued to turn to ECOMOG rather than the unarmed, unpaid, and underequipped police force to arrest and detain alleged criminals. ECOMOG regularly turned detainees over to civilian authorities. In May, however, ECOMOG detained several former members of the ULIMO-Krahn faction in Tubmanburg and a former Krahn cabinet minister and two assistants in Monrovia for their alleged participation in an attempt to assassinate Charles Taylor. Although the Krahn were held for several weeks, they were never charged or turned over to civilian authorities.

The Government does not employ forced exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary has always been subject to political, social, familial, and financial pressures. Corruption and lack of professionalism remained a recurrent problem. Even after the elections, the judiciary did not function in most areas of the country due to lack of infrastructure. Acting under his constitutional authority, in October President Taylor installed a new Supreme Court which began making plans to make the judiciary more professional and reestablish courts outside of the capital. All of the new Supreme Court justices are trained professionals. At year's end, how they will execute their responsibilities is not clear.

The court structure is divided into four levels, with the Supreme Court at its apex. All levels of the court system in Monrovia, including the Supreme Court, functioned, though erratically. Two new courts were established. Although a new juvenile court was constituted in June, the first in the country's history, no cases were tried. A criminal court for hearing armed robbery cases also was created, but remained relatively inactive due to lack of resources and trained personnel.

Under the Constitution, defendants have due process rights that conform to internationally accepted norms for fair trial. Most of these rights, however, were ignored in practice. Customary law also was used and, as in previous years, the Ministry of Internal Affairs subjected persons accused of occult practices and other crimes to trial by ordeal, submitting defendants to physical pain to adjudicate guilt or innocence (see Section 1.c.).

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

While the Constitution provides for these rights, authorities sometimes ignored them. The Constitution provides that police must obtain a warrant, or have a reasonable belief that a crime is in progress, or is about to be committed, before entering a private dwelling. In practice most police and other governmental security forces entered private homes and churches without a warrant to carry out arrests and investigations. In one case, police arrested family members of a suspect whom they sought to locate (see Section 1.d.).

g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations of Humanitarian Law in Internal Conflicts

More than a million civilians remained dependent on humanitarian aid for survival. However, before the end of the period for voluntary disarmament in February, some civilians asked that no food be delivered to their communities because they did not want to be further brutalized by factional fighters, who seized such provisions from their homes and communities. In June former fighters in Bong county went on a rampage and looted civilian homes as well as a Catholic relief service food warehouse. In December disgruntled former NPFL fighters looted and set ablaze the homes of administration officials in more than 10 towns, including Buchanan, in Grand Bassa county, claiming that President Taylor had neglected them since they were disarmed.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, however, the Government limited and continually challenged these freedoms. In April the NPFL-appointed Information Minister blocked the publication of six Monrovia newspapers, claiming that they had not paid the required registration fees. His action was interpreted as an indirect warning that the Government would ban papers if it objected to what was printed. In July after a local newspaper reprinted a foreign newspaper editorial about Taylor's election victory, the Information Minister cautioned members of the press to scrutinize their newspapers to ensure that they accorded due courtesy and respect for government officials. In November the Minister also blocked the reopening of an independent newspaper, allegedly because the law required that permits be requested in January. Shortly thereafter, the Information Minister granted a permit to another new newspaper owned by the President. The Minister also repeatedly warned members of the press to be careful about what they printed concerning the Government and singled out three newspapers in particular as being antigovernment. Citizens, including journalists, usually showed considerable restraint and self-censorship in favor of the Government. In November the Taylor administration also threatened to close the national radio station, which was known for its independence. In December the station's reporting became more favorable towards the Government. Government harassment of the press increased noticeably at year's end.

Starting in September, arbitrary arrest, illegal detention, and intimidation of journalists by government security forces became commonplace (see Section 1.d.). Six independent newspaper editors and many journalists were arbitrarily detained and arrested for publishing articles that security forces considered antigovernment; a well-known former NPFL general and six unidentified men attempted to kidnap a leading broadcast journalist from his home; the country's foremost political cartoonist received numerous death threats and may have been put under surveillance by government security forces; an independent journalist, who was detained in Bong County following the Dokie funeral and his attempted investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Dokies' deaths, was charged by the police with treason; this charge was later reduced.

The restrictive Media Law, instituted during the Doe regime in the 1980's, remained in force and provided the Ministry of Information with wide discretion in regulating journalists. In May the Press Union of Liberia adopted a code of conduct for journalists to encourage professionalism. The code of conduct, however, in some instances appeared aimed at punishing journalists for publishing articles unfavorable to the Government. Some members of the press were barred from official press conferences at the executive mansion for printing stories unfavorable to the Government; other members of the press were beaten at the executive mansion by government officials. No official action was taken against the perpetrators.

Largely as a result of the national elections and the candidates' desire to influence public opinion, the press grew from 6 newspapers in January to 15 by July. Charles Taylor either owned or controlled seven of the newspapers that published regularly up to the elections. Newspapers controlled by other prominent political figures usually were published only when there was a political purpose involved. All eight independent newspapers had to deal with repeated attempts at censorship and struggled to stay in business. By October the number of regularly published newspapers had dropped to six. Four could be considered independent and, when the Government allowed them, were capable of serious, critical, newsworthy reporting.

Before the war, there were three regional television stations in operation in addition to one in Monrovia. Regular television broadcasts ceased when the war started in 1989. The President's privately owned media company reopened a television station in Monrovia on August 2 to broadcast Taylor's inauguration. The station remained on the air but only broadcast sporadically. In September DUCOR Radio Broadcasting opened Monrovia's second television. It, too, broadcast only sporadically.

Throughout the year, the government radio station (ELBC), the Taylor-owned station (KISS-FM), and the two independents--Radio Monrovia and DUCOR radio--broadcast regularly but only within the greater Monrovia area. A Taylor-owned short wave radio station, based in Totota, Bong county, also broadcast throughout West Africa, the only station with such a capacity prior to the holding of national elections on July 19. This short wave radio station was the only source of information for voters outside the greater Monrovia area and contributed to Taylor's electoral victory. The ELBC also had a short wave radio, but it broadcast only sporadically. Subsequent to the election, two other radio stations--the Catholic Church's Radio Veritas and the independent Star Radio--began broadcasting throughout the country. With the exception of the Taylor-owned media, most other stations, including the government-owned station, were poorly equipped and subject to pressure from government officials. In December the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications claimed that Radio Veritas and Star Radio were illegally using diplomatic broadcast frequencies and threatened to shut them down. In early January 1998, Star Radio was closed by the Government.

During the IECOM announcement of election results, ECOMOG forced Radio Monrovia to stop its live broadcasts.

Academic freedom was generally respected at the University of Liberia; however, the administrators and faculty carefully avoided antagonizing any powerful interest groups. The students felt more free to voice their criticisms. Due to a lack of funding, the university did not begin its academic year in August, as is customary, but resumed in December.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly and the Government generally respects this right, but limited it in some instances. Although ECOMOG generally ensured security throughout the country in the period leading up to and during the presidential campaign and on election day, there were several incidents of political harassment and violence against candidates. While campaigning in Sanniquellie, Nimba county, the Unity Party standard-bearer and her campaign workers were assaulted: Taylor partisans smashed the candidate's car windshield, threw acid on two of her campaign workers, and severely beat another. On June 17, in Gbarnga, Bong county, the Reformation Alliance Party's presidential candidate was greeted by catcalls and rock throwing by Taylor partisans when he began his campaign in the former NPFL stonghold. Several other incidents were reported around the country, especially in Monrovia. However, the number of incidents decreased as the electoral campaign progressed and total violence during the campaign was low. The Constitution provides for the right of association, and the Government generally respects this right, but limited it in some instances.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution recognizes freedom of religion as a fundamental right, and Liberia has no established state religion. Although Islam is gaining adherents, as much as 40 percent of the population profess to be Christian. A significant portion of the population follows traditional animism or blends traditional religions with Christianity or Islam. Although the law prohibits religious discrimination, Islamic leaders complained that Muslims, especially Mandingos, were discriminated against (see Section 5). In September when the new Speaker of the House invited a Muslim mullah to open the session with a prayer, Christian members of the House strenuously objected, arguing that such action was unconstitutional. After long debate, the mullah was allowed to pray, but the legal issue remains unresolved.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for freedom of movement throughout the country as well as the right to leave or enter. In the period leading to national elections, ECOMOG maintained numerous checkpoints throughout the country. The week before the July 19 presidential election, the border with Guinea was closed, although the border with Cote d'Ivoire remained open. After the elections, ECOMOG significantly reduced the number of its checkpoints and began to prepare for handing over its security functions to the new Government. Freedom of movement within the country after the Taylor administration took office was further restricted by numerous checkpoints set up by security forces and by the extremely poor condition of roads that had not been maintained during the 7 years of war. Also in December, the Government reinstituted an exit visa requirement for all residents and sometimes refused to issue permits for travel. The Government also announced that diplomats should notify the Foreign Ministry a week in advance of any proposed travel outside of the capital.

Some government officials, including the police, and some former fighters set up roadblocks to harass and extort money or other valuables from civilians, including internally displaced people and refugees who had returned to their home towns and villages, and humanitarian aid workers.

Following the military coup in Sierra Leone in May, ECOMOG increased its presence along the border with Sierra Leone and, at different times, when fighting intensified in eastern Sierra Leone, restricted access to its border area. On October 21, the Taylor administration announced that it was closing the border with Sierra Leone to prevent fighting in Sierra Leone from reigniting fighting in Liberia. The practical effect of this announcement was unclear since ECOMOG controlled the borders. Following fighting in Sierra Leone in December, more refugees fled into Liberia through unmanned border crossing points.

Since 1990 over 1.2 million citizens (of an estimated prewar population of 2.8 million) have been internally displaced. With the improved security conditions made possible by ECOMOG, more than 100,000 internally displaced persons and refugees returned to their home villages to register and vote. According to the UNHCR, as many as 480,000 Liberian refugees remain in neighboring West African countries.

The Government provided first asylum. Following the military coup in Sierra Leone in May, about 30,000 new Sierra Leonean refugees fled to Liberia. Although no official census has been taken, there are probably more than 120,000 Sierra Leoneans living along the western border in Grand Cape Mount and Lofa counties.

The LNTG III and IV Governments and the Taylor administration cooperated with the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in attempting to assist refugees, primarily Sierra Leoneans. However, inaccessibility to refugees due to poor road conditions and the limited capacity of local NGO's severely limited the amount of relief assistance that could be provided. The Taylor administration has cooperated with the UNHCR's efforts to inform Liberian refugees about the UNHCR's voluntary repatriation operations. There were no reports of forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.

There were several instances of mistreatment of foreigners, including citizens of ECOWAS countries, especially Nigerians. In September two members of ECOMOG's Nigerian contingent (which constituted over half of the ECOMOG force) in Monrovia were stoned and beaten by a mob provoked by the superstitious belief that even slight body contact with foreigners could harm Liberians. Several immigration officers were dismissed for beating and harassing foreign nationals in October. Some members of the expatriate community complained about the Taylor administration's lack of cooperation in issuing visas. In October the administration announced that Sierra Leonean refugees living in Grand Cape Mount county would be moved inland for security reasons, but at year's end had not implemented this policy.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides for the right of free and fair elections and citizens exercised their right to change their government in elections deemed free and transparent on July 19. Since the election was held on the basis of proportional representation, President Taylor's party, the National Patriotic Party, won control of the legislature by the same 75 percent margin that he won the presidency.

The July 19 national elections were held under the auspices of the Abuja II Peace Accord rather than the Constitution. On the first day that the newly elected national legislature convened, it reaffirmed the primacy of the Constitution in all matters, including future elections.

At year's end, the legislature had not exercised real independence from the executive branch. There are only a handful of opposition legislators, but they tend to be much weaker than traditional opposition figures.

There are no restrictions on the participation of women in politics; however, they are underrepresented, largely illiterate, and generally did not have access to voter and civic education programs during preelectoral activities. The sole female candidate among 13 in the presidential race finished a distant second. Overall numbers of women in high-ranking positions in the Taylor administration and in the various political parties are low. Two of the 20 cabinet positions are held by women and a woman was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

One cabinet minister is Muslim (see Section 5).

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The LNTG III and IV Governments and the Taylor administration permitted domestic and international human rights groups to operate. During the national elections, more than 400 international and 600 local observers surveyed election activities. However, at year's end, reported incidents of harassment of democracy and human rights groups had increased.

Domestic human rights organizations were underfunded, understaffed, and their personnel lacked adequate training. In September 12 of the small, local human rights organizations joined to establish the National Human Rights Center of Liberia. In October four human rights groups constituted a new umbrella organization called the Liberia Federation of Human Rights Organizations. Both of these organizations sought to ensure that human rights issues were kept in the forefront of the country's postconflict development plan.

Some of the human rights groups, as well as lawyers performing legal aid work and U.N. human rights personnel, visited prisoners in the police holding cells and the central prison. None reported governmental interference with their activities. As a result of the security environment provided by ECOMOG prior to the elections, several domestic human rights organizations established branches outside of the capital.

The United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) had responsibility for monitoring the human rights situation until September 30, when its mandate ended following completion of disarmament, demobilization, and the holding of national elections. For 9 months, three experienced UNOMIL human rights officers conducted investigations and worked to build the capacity of local human rights organizations. No UNOMIL human rights reports were made public. In December it was announced that a U.N. peace-building mission would be established in Monrovia for 6 months.

In October the new Government created a human rights commission; however, it triggered considerable controversy by limiting the commission's investigatory power to prospective abuses only, with no power to compel testimony or gather evidence and no funding to support operations. At year's end, the human rights commission had not functioned. Although the independent media urged the Government to create a commission to investigate the Dokie murders, the Government declined.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on ethnic background, race, sex, creed, place of origin, or political opinion, but discrimination exists. There are no laws against gender based discrimination, ethnic discrimination, or female genital mutilation (FGM).

Women

Domestic violence against women was extensive but never seriously addressed as an issue by the governments, the courts, or the media. Several NGO's in Monrovia and Buchanan continued programs to treat abused women and girls and increase awareness of their human rights, but NGO's are not vocal about women's political rights.

The status of women varies by region, ethnic group, and religion. Before the outbreak of the civil war, women held one-fourth of the professional and technical occupational positions in Monrovia. Some women currently hold skilled jobs in government, including the judiciary. On the whole, however, the situation of women deteriorated dramatically with the onset of war, the closing of most schools, and the loss of their traditional role in the production, allocation, and sale of food. In urban areas, women can inherit land and property. In rural areas, where traditional customs are stronger, a woman is normally considered the property of her husband and his clan and usually is not entitled to inherit from her husband or retain custody of her children if her husband dies. The LNTG III and IV Governments and the Taylor administration did not sign a law passed by the legislature that would have ensured equal rights for women. There were very few programs to help any combatants reintegrate into society; and particularly, no programs especially designed to help former female combatants. The absence of special programs, however, was not discriminatory, but reflected the fact that there were few former female former combatants. Several women's organizations, however, advanced family welfare issues, helped promote political reconciliation, and assisted in rehabilitating former combatants as well as civilians affected by the war.

In Monrovia at the end of the year, a growing number of professional women's groups--including lawyers, marketeers, and businesswomen--became increasingly vocal about their concerns. Government officials often responded negatively to public criticism and there were reports of harassment and possible surveillance of outspoken critics.

Children

Due to the poor condition of government schools, most children who attended school went to private institutions. However, many private schools had to be refurbished, which were largely destroyed during the April and May 1996 fighting since the Government decided not to pay private schools the subsidies that had been in effect before the war, school fees were drastically increased, thereby denying a large sector of the school-age population access to education. In both public and private schools, however, children were often asked to provide their own books, desks, copy books, pencils, and reams of paper.

Denied a normal childhood during the civil war, Liberian youth were seriously victimized. An estimated 50,000 children were killed; of those wounded, orphaned, or abandoned, many witnessed terrible atrocities or committed atrocities themselves. Twenty-one percent (4,306) of the combatants who disarmed under the provisions of the Abuja II peace accord were child soldiers under the age of 17. As education and nurturing were almost completely disrupted, many children suffered post traumatic stress disorder syndrome. Some are still addicted to drugs. It is estimated that 1.4 million children experienced violence, hunger, and homelessness during the war. The number of street children in Monrovia and the number of abandoned infants increased significantly following disarmament. NGO's and UNICEF continued retraining and rehabilitation programs for a limited number of former child fighters (see Section 6.d.).

After a 2-year effort by the Association of Female Lawyers, a bill creating a juvenile court system, enacted in 1959 and amended in 1971, was implemented in June. The new court system was limited to Monrovia and lacked the resources and personnel to function effectively. Children continue to be incarcerated with adults and there were long delays in deciding cases involving minors.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health. FGM traditionally has been performed on young girls by northern, western, and central tribes, particularly in rural areas among traditional societies. Prior to the onset of the civil war in 1989, approximately 50 percent of women in rural areas between the ages of 8 and 18 underwent FGM. In some instances, female health professionals in the tribes participated in the practice to the extent of providing postoperative care. The war, however, totally disrupted village life. The war caused most of the population to flee to neighboring countries or become internally displaced. Social structures and traditional institutions, such as the secret societies which often performed FGM as an initiation rite, were also undermined by the war. Most experts believe that the civil war has caused a reduction in FGM, estimating that the incidence has dropped to as low as 10 percent. The most extreme form of FGM, infibulation, is not practiced. The Government has taken no action against FGM.

People With Disabilities

The war produced a large number of people with permanent injuries in addition to persons disabled from other causes. There is no legal discrimination against the disabled, but in practice they do not enjoy equal access to public buildings. There are no laws mandating accessibility to public buildings or services.

Religious Minorities

The law prohibits religious discrimination. However, some Muslims, who now represent a significant portion of the population, believe that Liberian secular culture gives preference to Christianity in civic ceremonies and observances, and that discrimination spills over into areas of individual opportunity and employment. Although there are some Muslims in senior government positions, many Muslims believe that they are bypassed for highly desirable government jobs. The Taylor administration dismissed many Muslims, particularly Mandingos, from longstanding jobs. Following President Taylor's public accusation in September that Muslim Mandingos were fighting in Sierra Leone, prominent Mandingos in Monrovia and elsewhere began receiving threats to their person and property from unknown individuals. Many Muslim business proprietors believe that the Taylor Government's decision to enforce an old statute prohibiting businesses from opening on Sunday discriminates against them, as they celebrate their Sabbath on Friday and consequently are forced to close for the two most active selling days of the week. There were also credible reports that returning Muslim Mandingo refugees were not allowed to resettle in their home villages in Lofa, Bong, and Nimba Counties.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Although the Constitution bans ethnic discrimination, it also provides that only persons who are negroes or of negro descent may be citizens or own land, thus denying full rights to many people who were born or lived most of their lives in Liberia. There has been no governmental initiative to repeal this racial test. In September and October during the confirmation hearings for Taylor Government nominees, the issue of national and ethnic origins was widely debated, particularly for two cabinet nominees, of mixed Lebanese-Liberian parentage, and for one minister-designate who is a Muslim Mandingo, naturalized Liberian citizen.

The 1975 economic Liberianization law prohibits foreign ownership of certain businesses, such as travel agencies, retail gasoline stations, and beer and soft-drink distributors. In October several bills extending the Liberianization law were passed by the legislature, but by year's end they had not been signed into law by the President.

Some members of former President Samuel Doe's ethnic group, the Krahn, believe that they were being systematically discriminated against by the Government, although there are some Krahn holding ministerial positions in the Government.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution states that workers, except members of the military and police, have the right to associate in trade unions. The Constitution also states that unions are prohibited from partisan political activity. Government interference in union activities, especially union elections and leaderships conflicts, was commonplace both before and during the civil war.

Although legal economic activity almost halted during the war, unions proliferated. Thirty-two functioning unions were loosely organized under two umbrella groups--the Federation of Liberian Trade Unions and the Congress of Liberian Trade Unions--with the common objective of protecting the rights of their 60,000 members, who were largely unemployed. The actual power the unions exercised was extremely limited, as the country's work force is largely illiterate and the labor laws tend, in some respects, to favor management.

The Constitution is silent on the right to strike, but labor laws protect this right. Due to the destruction of the economy and the continuing 85 percent unemployment rate, strikes were infrequent. On September 6, however, about 300 people demonstrated at the Bridgestone/Firestone rubber plantation in Harbel, Margibi county, demanding greater death and insurance benefits and immediate reemployment of more than 3,000 former employees. After ECOMOG troops fired warning shots into the air to disperse the crowd and the shots were ignored, ECOMOG moved to break up the demonstration, shooting six workers.

During the year, neither the LNTG III, LNTG IV, nor the Taylor administration took discriminatory actions against organized labor. With the advent of each new administration, however, many workers were dismissed and replaced with political appointees. Unlike previous administrations, the Taylor Government reportedly dismissed large numbers of Muslim Mandingos. The Taylor Government also strictly enforced the union registration requirements that had fallen into disuse during the war. Many civil servants had not been paid for almost a year; the Taylor administration paid most of them by the end of December.

Liberia's status as a beneficiary of the trade preferences under the United States' generalized system of preference (GSP) program was suspended in 1990 as a result of the Doe Government's failure to take steps to provide internationally recognized worker rights.

Labor unions traditionally have affiliated with international labor groups such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

With the important exception of civil servants, workers (including employees of public corporations and autonomous agencies) have the right to organize and bargain collectively. In the past, agreements were negotiated freely between workers and their employers without government interference. These rights were largely moot because of the lack of economic enterprise.

There were no export processing zones. All were destroyed after the war started.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced labor, but even before the civil war this prohibition was widely ignored in rural areas where farmers were pressured into providing free labor on community projects that often benefited only local leaders. In many parts of the country, this practice continued. The proliferation of forced labor during the civil crisis by factions that used captured enemies declined dramatically with the conclusion of voluntary disarmament in February.

The Constitution prohibits forced and bonded labor by children. There were credible reports, however, that former combatants kidnaped former child soldiers who had been reunited with their families in order to use them for forced labor, primarily in illicit logging and mining operations.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

Even before the civil war, enforcement of the law prohibiting employment of children under age 16 during school hours in the wage sector was lax. In all areas of the country, particularly where there were no schools, small children continued to assist their parents as vendors in local markets or on the streets, to take care of younger brothers and sisters, and to work on family subsistence farms. With few educational opportunities and with rampant economic hardship, most children still worked to help keep their families alive.

The Constitution prohibits forced and bonded labor by children, however, there were reports of its use (see Section 6.c.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Labor law provides for a minimum wage, paid leave, severance benefits, and safety standards, but the enforcement mechanism collapsed during the war and the Taylor administration did not make this a high priority issue. With the economy almost totally destroyed, citizens were forced to accept any work that they could find regardless of wages or working conditions. The 1977 Labor Law requires a minimum wage of approximately $.25 per hour not exceeding 8 hours per day, excluding benefits, for unskilled laborers. Agricultural workers are paid $1.50 for an 8 hour day, excluding benefits. Skilled labor has no minimum fixed wage, but industrial workers usually received three or four times the wage paid to agricultural workers. The Ministry of Labor did not have the resources to monitor compliance with the labor laws. In practice wages are paid in Liberian dollars which are worth less than three cents in U.S. currency. Even if both spouses work, the minimum wage is far less than a family needs to survive. Families dependent on minimum wage incomes also engage in subsistence farming, small scale marketing, petty extortion, and begging.

The Labor Code provides for a 48-hour, 6-day regular workweek with a 30-minute rest period per 5 hours of work. The 6-day workweek may extend to 56 hours for service occupations and to 72 hours for miners, with overtime pay beyond 48 hours. Prior to 1990, there also were government-established health and safety standards, enforced in theory by the Ministry of Labor. During the war, these regulations were not enforced. Even under the Labor Code, workers did not have a specific right to remove themselves from dangerous situations.

Search Refworld

Countries