Covering events from January - December 2003

As armed conflict worsened, government forces and armed opposition groups were responsible for widespread abuses against civilians including killings, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and forcible recruitment of children. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were forced to flee their homes. Despite cease-fire and peace agreements, hostilities and human rights abuses continued. The UN Security Council authorized deployment of an international peace-keeping operation. Those responsible for human rights abuses enjoyed almost total impunity.


From January internal armed conflict worsened and spread to previously unaffected areas. The armed opposition Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) advanced towards the capital, Monrovia, and a second armed group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), emerged in March in the east of the country, taking control of the strategic port of Buchanan in July.

The killing of three humanitarian workers by government forces in late March and the abduction of others aggravated an already alarming humanitarian situation. Threats to their security and looting of supplies and vehicles forced humanitarian agencies to reduce or suspend their activities. By April delivery of emergency assistance was impossible to about 70 per cent of the country.

Negotiations to resolve the conflict began in Accra, Ghana, on 4 June under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). President Charles Taylor announced his readiness to relinquish power in the interests of peace. On that day the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued an indictment against President Taylor for crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed during Sierra Leone's conflict. These charges related to, among other crimes, killings, mutilations, rape and use of child soldiers perpetrated by Sierra Leone armed opposition forces whom he had actively supported in order to destabilize Sierra Leone and gain access to diamond resources. The Ghanaian government ignored an international arrest warrant and calls by AI for President Taylor's arrest, and he was allowed to return to Liberia the same day.

A cease-fire signed on 17 June, which anticipated a transitional government without President Taylor, collapsed within days. LURD forces again advanced towards Monrovia. Fighting and indiscriminate shelling during June and July exacted a heavy toll on civilians in Monrovia; the UN estimated that more than 1,000 people were killed and some 450,000 made homeless. Acute shortages of food, clean water, sanitation facilities and medical care resulted in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and collapse of law and order left Monrovia's inhabitants, including Sierra Leonean refugees and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, increasingly vulnerable to human rights abuses.

As civilian casualties mounted, the UN Secretary-General, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, international humanitarian agencies and the Liberian population called for urgent international military intervention. Indecision by the international community continued until early August when the UN Security Council authorized deployment of an ECOWAS force.

President Taylor left Liberia on 11 August, travelling to Nigeria with implicit guarantees from the Nigerian government that he would be neither prosecuted in Nigeria nor surrendered to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. While the Nigerian government argued that it was acting in the interests of peace in Liberia, AI condemned violation of its obligations under international law. In early December, Interpol allowed worldwide circulation of the arrest warrant against Charles Taylor with a view to extradition.

President Taylor was replaced by Vice-President Moses Blah. On 18 August a peace agreement was signed in Accra between the government, LURD, MODEL and political parties. The agreement provided for a power-sharing National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), to take power by 14 October, elections in 2005 and inauguration of a new government in early 2006. Gyude Bryant was elected Chairman of the NTGL.

While security in Monrovia improved following deployment of ECOWAS forces, hostilities continued in Bong, Nimba and Grand Bassa Counties. ECOWAS forces were subsequently absorbed into the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). Only some 6,500 of the projected 15,000 UN peace-keeping troops had been deployed by the end of the year, restricting UNMIL's capacity to deploy extensively outside Monrovia. Disarmament and demobilization of an estimated 40,000 combatants began falteringly in December and was quickly postponed.

Civilians targeted in armed conflict

Civilians lived in constant fear of undisciplined armed groups who killed, raped, forcibly recruited children and looted. After the peace agreement, violence increased in some areas as command structures broke down and combatants made last-ditch attempts to seize territory and property before deployment of UNMIL forces. The gravity of abuses against civilians prompted an emergency report by the Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 8 August which described the grievous abuses against civilians and called for international support in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls, including those who had been internally displaced and Sierra Leonean refugees, by government, LURD and MODEL forces were widespread. Young women and girls were abducted and forced into sexual slavery.

As violence reached a peak in Monrovia during June and July, the number of reported rapes increased significantly. Civilians fleeing continuing fighting in Bong and Nimba Counties after the peace agreement also reported rape by pro-Taylor militia, LURD and MODEL forces.

Forced recruitment of children under 18 years old – both boys and girls and some as young as 10 – by all parties to the conflict was rampant. Children in camps for internally displaced people were particularly vulnerable. Some of those resisting recruitment were beaten or shot by pro-Taylor militia. With a minimum of training, children were sent directly to the front line. Girls were forcibly recruited to provide sexual services, to carry ammunition or to cook for fighting forces.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated that as many as one in 10 Liberian children may have been recruited to fight in Liberia or neighbouring countries.

It was estimated that more than 15,000 children, both boys and girls, among the ranks of former government and armed opposition forces needed to be disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated into their families and communities.

More than a thousand civilians were killed and many others injured in Monrovia during June and July, either in cross-fire or by indiscriminate shelling of areas with no obvious military targets, including those harbouring thousands of displaced people. While most shelling was attributed to the LURD, government forces were also responsible.

Violations by government forces and militia

Government forces, including special security units such as the Anti-Terrorist Unit, and pro-Taylor militia were responsible for summary executions, rape and forced recruitment, including of children. Scores of civilians suspected of opposing President Taylor were reported to have been summarily executed, in particular by militia. It was frequently difficult, however, to obtain detailed and corroborated information because witnesses and victims feared reprisals. For example, credible but unsubstantiated reports were received of killings by government forces of more than 350 civilians, including women and children, in villages in River Gee County in April. Harassment and looting were systematic, forcing thousands to flee their homes.

While indiscriminate shelling or stray bullets caused many civilian casualties in Monrovia from early June, others resulted from random attacks by undisciplined government forces.

Some members of militia accused of rape or caught looting were summarily executed by their commanders in June and July in Monrovia after the authorities announced that those responsible would be dealt with severely.

Abuses by armed opposition forces

Both LURD and MODEL forces were responsible for deliberate and arbitrary killings, torture and illtreatment, rape and forcible recruitment.

Civilians in areas around Gbarnga, Bong County, reported that LURD forces had summarily killed several men in August, apparently because they were perceived to be supporters of President Taylor. LURD forces attacked internal displacement camps around Monrovia; in March a large camp known as Rick's Institute was caught in fighting, forcing an estimated 25,000 people to flee. A large number of people were reported to have been abducted by the LURD and used to carry looted property, arms and ammunition. In late June the LURD leadership made a commitment to end the use of child soldiers, threatening to punish commanders who persisted in using children. This did not appear, however, to result in any significant change.

After the peace agreement, civilians fled as villages in Bong County were attacked and looted by LURD forces. As they fled, their few remaining possessions were looted by pro-Taylor militia.

In April there were reliable reports that MODEL forces deliberately and arbitrarily killed civilians perceived to be government supporters. In November civilians fleeing attacks by MODEL forces as they advanced through Nimba County reported deliberate and arbitrary killings, rape, looting and destruction of villages.

Both groups also used civilians as forced labour, for example to carry looted property and harvest crops.

Arbitrary detention and extrajudicial execution of perceived opponents

Attempts by President Taylor's government to suppress critics were sustained and brutal. The independent media, human rights activists, members of ethnic groups such as the Krahn and Mandingo associated with the armed opposition, and others perceived as opponents were arbitrarily detained and ill-treated.

Although President Taylor announced in early June that all political prisoners and "prisoners of war" were to be freed, none was released until 11 July. Some 40 detainees were released, including Sheikh Sackor, Executive Director of Humanist Watch, who had been held without charge or trial since July 2002. After repeated adjournments of his trial, charges of treason against Aloysius Toe, a leading human rights activist arrested and imprisoned in November 2002, were finally dropped in July.

In June President Taylor claimed that a plot to overthrow him while he was in Ghana had been foiled. Two officials arrested in connection with the alleged plot, John Yormie, Deputy Minister for National Security, and Isaac Vaye, Deputy Minister of Public Works, subsequently "disappeared". On 16 July President Taylor publicly confirmed that they were both dead. Despite apparently incontrovertible evidence that government forces were responsible, there was no official investigation into the circumstances of their deaths and no one was held accountable.

The circumstances of the death in Liberia in early May of Sam Bockarie, a leading member of the Sierra Leone armed opposition Revolutionary United Front and closely associated with President Taylor, remained unclear. He had been indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in March. The government claimed that he had died in a confrontation with government forces but suspicions surrounding his death were compounded by the reported murder several days later of his mother, wife and two children in Monrovia. It appeared that Sam Bockarie had been killed to prevent him giving evidence to the Special Court which would implicate President Taylor.

Refugees and internally displaced people

Protracted conflict had forced an estimated one million Liberians, a third of the population, to flee their homes, becoming either refugees in neighbouring countries or internally displaced. During 2003, there were some 500,000 internally displaced people and 300,000 refugees.

Liberian refugees in Côte d'Ivoire, indiscriminately associated with Ivorian armed opposition groups, risked summary execution by Ivorian government forces. Despite the risks, especially for Krahns and Mandingos, by February an estimated 43,000 Liberians had no option but to return to Liberia. As fighting escalated in eastern Liberia, both Liberian and Ivorian refugees were forced back and forth across the border.

Between January and March, as the LURD advanced into Grand Cape Mount County, more than 9,000 Liberians, including deserting combatants, fled into Sierra Leone.

Internally displaced people were particularly vulnerable and suffered serious abuses both in Monrovia and other parts of the country. In addition to systematic looting, extortion and intimidation, they were abducted for fighting, sexual slavery and forced labour.

As LURD forces advanced towards Monrovia in June, up to 300,000 internally displaced people and Sierra Leonean refugees were concentrated in the capital. Already living in appalling conditions, they were then caught in fighting and shelling.

Ending impunity

No action was taken to end impunity, despite repeated reminders, including by the UN Secretary-General, the Security Council, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Liberia and the Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, that those responsible for human rights abuses should be brought to justice.

While providing for a truth and reconciliation commission, the peace agreement also stated that the NTGL would consider a recommendation for general amnesty to all those engaged or involved in military activities during the conflict. NTGL Chairman Gyude Bryant publicly expressed a preference for such an amnesty.

AI called on the international community, in consultation with the Liberian people, to develop a long-term strategy to end impunity, including an early international, independent investigation to establish accountability and identify an appropriate court for trying those alleged to have been responsible for crimes under international law.

International peace-keeping operation

In early August, the UN Security Council authorized deployment of an ECOWAS multinational force to support implementation of the cease-fire, to be replaced by a UN peace-keeping operation. In September the Security Council established UNMIL, with effect from 1 October, with a mandate to support implementation of the peace process, to protect UN staff and civilians and to support humanitarian and human rights assistance and security reform.

AI had called for an unambiguous mandate to protect civilians and a strong human rights component within UNMIL, stressing the need for regular and public reporting on human rights. In November it called for swift deployment of additional UNMIL troops to areas of the country where civilians continued to suffer human rights abuses.

Military assistance to government and armed opposition forces

The Panel of Experts established by the UN Security Council to monitor compliance with UN sanctions, including a ban on arms transfers and rough diamond exports in force since 2001, provided evidence that arms continued to reach Liberia. In May the Security Council renewed prohibition of all sales or supply of arms and related matériel to any recipient in Liberia, including the LURD and MODEL. Sanctions on timber exports came into effect in July. The Security Council demanded that states in the region cease military support for armed groups in neighbouring countries.

The governments of Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire were identified as providing assistance to, respectively, the LURD and the MODEL.

AI called for arms sanctions to remain in place and also called for UNMIL to report to the UN Security Council sanctions committee on Liberia any information relating to the transfer of military assistance to Liberia or misuse of weapons for human rights abuses.

AI country visits

AI delegates visited Liberia in November to carry out research, and to meet the Chairman and other members of the NTGL. They also met a number of UNMIL personnel.

This 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.