Republic of Liberia

Covers the period from April 2001 to March 2004.

Population: 3.2 million (1.7 million under 18)
Government armed forces: 11-15,000 (estimate)
Compulsory recruitment age: no conscription in law
Voluntary recruitment age: 16
Voting age: 18
Optional Protocol: not signed
Other treaties ratified (see glossary): CRC, GC AP I and II, ILO 182

Government armed forces and allied armed groups, as well as armed opposition groups, recruited and used child soldiers, some as young as seven years old. Reports indicated that some 21,000 child soldiers needed demobilization, including an unknown number of girls abducted into sexual servitude. Despite a peace agreement in August 2003, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs had yet to begin by March 2004.


Armed conflict in Liberia resumed in July 2000 with incursions from Guinea by the armed political group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). Fighting intensified in 2002, leading to further recruitment of child soldiers by all parties to the conflict. In early 2003 the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) broke away from LURD and began an offensive from bases in Côte d'Ivoire, supported by Ivorian government forces and militia.1 Despite sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, prohibiting all sales or supply of arms and related matériel to any recipient in Liberia, the embargo was repeatedly violated, including by neighbouring countries.

The use and abuse of child soldiers was deliberate policy at the highest levels of government and the two armed opposition groups.2 Child soldiers, often under the influence of drugs given them by their commanders, witnessed and participated in the killing and rape of civilians and other abuses.3 Poorly trained child soldiers were killed and maimed in combat. Girls undertook frontline and other military and domestic duties, and were often abducted into sexual servitude.

A ceasefire agreement in June 2003 collapsed within days. President Charles Taylor's position was compromised by an indictment for crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious human rights violations, issued by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He was accused, with others, of "bearing the greatest responsibility" for crimes, including the use of child soldiers, abduction and forced labour, committed as a result of his support of the armed opposition during Sierra Leone's ten-year armed conflict.4 In August 2003 the UN Security Council authorized deployment of an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) force that was subsequently integrated into the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). President Taylor left for exile in Nigeria and a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed.5

The National Transitional Government of Liberia, which included representatives of forces responsible for gross human rights abuses, was undermined by continuing tensions between and within parties to the conflict and the slow deployment of peacekeepers.6 A UN disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program began in December 2003 but was suspended days later. It had not restarted by March 2004. Insecurity continued in several parts of the country.7


National recruitment legislation

Under Liberian law, the age of voluntary recruitment is 16 and there is no conscription. Neither measure was enforced. Furthermore, several militias and paramilitary units have no legal status.8

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement committed the new government to "paying special attention to the needs of former child soldiers" and provided for the release of people who had been abducted. However, the large numbers of abducted children had not been released by March 2004.9

Under the penal code, criminal responsibility begins at 16. Minors aged between 16 and 18 may benefit from reduced sentencing in some instances. They may, however, be sentenced to death and executed.10 No child soldiers were known to be in detention.

Child recruitment and deployment

Use of child soldiers by government forces was systematic, widespread and endorsed at the highest level. Commanders of child soldiers in government units such as the Small Boy Units (SBUs) were as young as 12.11

As conflict intensified in 2002 the government stepped up conscription of former combatants in the capital, Monrovia, recruiting former child soldiers and other children into the armed forces, the paramilitary Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) and associated militias. Further recruitment, often forcible, occurred in response to the emergence of MODEL in 2003 and again as conflict intensified in the months before Charles Taylor's departure as LURD advanced towards Monrovia.12 Children as young as seven were recruited.13 As LURD attacked Monrovia in June and July 2003, more children joined government and opposition forces, to protect themselves and their families as well as to loot.14

An attempt to conscript school children into the armed forces in the northern town of Ganta, Nimba County, sparked protest riots in March 2003.15 In mid-2003, an estimated one in ten of children in the Montserrado camps for the internally displaced on the outskirts of Monrovia were recruited into government forces.16 Girls were abducted from church, raped, and forced to carry ammunition.17

Children who had served in the previous Liberian conflict before 1997 and had been demobilized were re-recruited. Child soldiers often had to do the recruiting, driving round in pickups, arbitrarily selecting children. Children at risk while travelling to or from school had to be kept away from barely functioning schools. By 2003 government forces were reported to be conscripting children into SBUs directly from classrooms.18 Children attempting to flee to Sierra Leone with their parents were seized at checkpoints by the ATU. Those whose parents were unable to "buy" their freedom were sent to the front, without proper training.19 The armed forces and the ATU were also reported to have forcibly recruited children from refugee camps in Sierra Leone.20

Children as young as ten years old were sent to the front, after receiving training for between one and four weeks. Young children became SBU commanders, known for their daring and ruthlessness. Despite internal rules prohibiting abuses against civilians and looting, child soldiers, like their adult counterparts, often looted and killed with the knowledge of their commanders. Others were strictly punished for such offences, including by summary executions. Children were made to act as spies and infiltrate enemy lines, used as bodyguards, and subjected to forced labour, carrying heavy loads, cooking and cleaning.21 Forced labour was continuing in March 2004.22

Girls were recruited as both fighters and helpers. They were routinely raped and sexually assaulted, including at the time of recruitment. Young girls were often assigned to commanders. Older girls were made to capture other girls to provide sexual services for men and boys in their units. The number of girl soldiers is not known.23

Numerous child soldiers in Liberia admitted to participating, often under the influence of drugs given them by commanders, in grave human rights abuses including unlawful killings of civilians, summary executions of captured combatants, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as widespread looting. Others killed or looted under orders and the threat of death.24

Despite the August 2003 peace agreement, many child soldiers continued to operate with government militias, looting and stealing from the local population. Others were abandoned by government forces and awaited official demobilization.25

Armed political groups

Both LURD and later MODEL systematically recruited, used and abused child soldiers, forcing them to witness and commit human rights abuses, often while drugged.

Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD)

As LURD mounted an offensive in 2002, its recruitment of child soldiers increased. Children and adults were forcibly recruited, including from Liberian refugee camps in Guinea, as LURD pushed towards Monrovia in 2003. Civilians fled LURD attacks towards government held territory or back to LURD bases in the interior. Fleeing children, often under the age of 15, were targeted for recruitment. Camps for the internally displaced were systematically attacked and children abducted. After two weeks of training, new recruits were sent to the front line. Other children joined LURD after witnessing human rights violations against their families by government troops, or because of perceived material advantage in a desperate humanitarian situation.26

LURD forced an unknown number of women and girls into sexual slavery, and abducted them for forced labour, fetching water, cooking and cleaning. Girls as young as 14 were coerced into becoming "wives", sometimes under threat of death. Some girls were abducted purely to provide sexual services. Women fighters sometimes carried out the abductions.27

LURD's recruitment of children spread into neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where many Liberians had fled. Children as young as 13 were recruited in refugee camps and at the Guinean border, where they were conscripted with other refugees, with the complicity of members of the Guinean armed forces, and forced to carry arms and ammunition from Guinea into Liberia. LURD commanders' personal belongings or other provisions were carried by children as young as ten years old back to Liberia from Guinea. LURD child soldiers also participated in the 2002-03 conflict in Côte d'Ivoire, some recruited as mercenaries by the Ivorian government.28

In June 2003 LURD pledged to end the recruitment of child soldiers and demobilize those in its ranks, but appeared to take no action to this end.29

Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL)

After its split from LURD in early 2003, MODEL operated initially from bases in Côte d'Ivoire, where children in refugee camps were recruited, often forcibly, with the open support of the Côte d'Ivoire government. Ivorian children were also recruited to fight in Liberia, girls as helpers, fighters and for sexual services. In July 2003, as MODEL advanced into Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, Liberia, boys and young adults who had sought protection in a church compound were forcibly recruited. Local residents reported seeing at least 200 girls and many more boys in the MODEL forces, and were particularly fearful of young boy fighters, although relations with MODEL improved after abuses were committed in the first few days.30 One humanitarian worker reported seeing a MODEL child soldier so small that the barrel of her gun was dragging on the ground.31

Child soldiers were also used as porters, often to carry goods looted from local people.32 Despite the August 2003 peace agreement and the formation of the transitional government, parents in MODEL-controlled areas continued to keep their children at home for fear of recruitment.33 Forced labour by MODEL was continuing in October 2003.34

Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR)

Programs to disarm and demobilize child fighters before the August 2003 peace agreement were criticized as badly managed.35 Many demobilized or escaped child soldiers in refugee camps in Sierra Leone and Guinea were not benefiting from child protection programs and were at extreme risk of re-recruitment by groups fighting in Liberia or Côte d'Ivoire.36 Only a third of child soldiers who fought in the pre-1997 war were demobilized and reintegrated.37 Many others were re-recruited as hostilities resumed.

Demobilization of child soldiers was hampered by the lack of commitment of military commanders from all factions, who continued to deny the existence of child soldiers in their ranks. Commanders reportedly ordered child soldiers to conceal their ages in some cases. In August 2003, 80 former child soldiers from government and opposition forces were under the care of the UN after spontaneously handing in their weapons. However, no official demobilization program then existed.38

The UN, under pressure to begin demobilization as fighters spontaneously left their units, still armed, was criticized for poor preparation of the DDR program that began in December 2003. Special facilities for child soldiers and women and girl combatants had not been prepared.39 The program halted within days, following a riot by fighters loyal to the former government who demanded money for handing in their weapons. At least nine and possibly as many as twelve civilians were killed in two days of violence. In February 2004 UNMIL announced that the first instalment of money promised under the program would be awarded only after completion of a two- to three-week demobilization process. In March 2004 the program was yet to resume. The number of fighters to be demobilized was estimated at between 38,000 and 53,000.40 The program included specific objectives in relation to former child soldiers including access to healthcare, skills training, family tracing and reunification, increased awareness and improved capacity of non-governmental organizations and agencies to address the immediate and longer-term needs of former child soldiers. A number of measures specific to girls and women were included in the DDR program although concern remained that their special needs would not be adequately addressed.41

Other developments

The international community recognized the gravity of child soldiering in Liberia, and the UN Secretary-General and Security Council condemned the use of child soldiers in the Liberian conflict on several occasions. In November 2003 the Secretary-General identified the government armed forces, LURD and MODEL as users of child soldiers, condemning the increased recruitment of children.42 In recognition of the regional nature of the conflict, the Secretary-General noted that there could be no regional stability without the successful DDR of combatants, including children, and unless the issues of child soldiering and the proliferation of arms were addressed.43

The UN Panel of Experts on Liberia reported explicitly on the forcible recruitment of refugees in Côte d'Ivoire, including children, by Liberian armed political groups.44 A joint declaration by the European Union Presidency and the USA in April 2003 deplored the forced recruitment into conflict or servitude of civilians, including children, to fuel conflicts in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire.45 In July 2003 UNICEF, ECOWAS and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict jointly appealed for an end to the fighting, and emphasized that the mobilization of children and women violated all international human rights and humanitarian standards.46

Liberia's initial report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child acknowledged that "a large number of persons below the legal age [16] were conscripted by the various factions into their armed forces". The report stated that the rehabilitation and reintegration of former child soldiers was of "critical concern" to the government.47

Liberia reportedly ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in October 2003, but the instruments of ratification had not been deposited with the UN as of March 2004.48

* see glossary for information about internet sources

1 Human Rights Watch (HRW), How to fight, how to kill: Child soldiers in Liberia, February 2004,

2 AFP, "Les enfants soldats libériens ont commencé à déposer les armes (UNICEF)", 23 August 2003.

3 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit.

4 Amnesty International (AI), Urgent Action 283/03: Impunity/Legal concern, 12 August 2003,

5 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of Liberia, LURD, MODEL and the political parties, Accra, Ghana, 18 August 2003.

6 AI, Liberia: The promises of peace for 21,000 child soldiers, 17 May 2004.

7 Information from AI, May 2004.

8 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit.

9 AI, Liberia: The promises of peace for 21,000 child soldiers, op. cit.

10 Initial report of Liberia to UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, UN Doc. CRC/C/28/Add.21, 22 September 2003,

11 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit.

12 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit.; IRIN, "Liberia: UNICEF calls for end to atrocities against children", 22 April 2003,

13 AI, Liberia: The promises of peace for 21,000 child soldiers, op cit.

14 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit.

15 IRIN, "Liberia: Child soldiers are back on the frontline", 9 June 2003.

16 Information from Save the Children, 30 June 2003.

17 AI, Liberia: "The goal is peace, to sleep without hearing gunshots, to send our children to school; that is what we want", 18 December 2003.

18 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit.

19 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit.; Letter to the UN Security Council regarding the Mano River Union, 17 July 2002.

20 Save the Children UK interviews with child refugees in Sierra Leone, March-April 2003. 21 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit. 22 Information from AI, May 2004. 23 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit. 24 See HRW and AI reports on Liberia. 25 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit. 26 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit. 27 HRW, "The guns are in the bushes": Continuing abuses in Liberia, January 2004.

28 HRW, Trapped between two wars: Violence against civilians in western Côte d'Ivoire, August 2003; IRIN, "Liberia: Preparing for the transition from war to normal life", 12 December 2003; HRW, Liberian refugees in Guinea: Refoulement, militarization of camps, and other protection concerns, November 2002.

29 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit.

30 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit.; Trapped between two wars, op. cit.

31 HRW, Liberia: Greater protection required for civilians still at risk, Briefing Paper, September 2003.

32 HRW, How to fight, how to kill, op. cit.

33 UN OCHA, Liberia Humanitarian Situation Update, No. 93, 21-29 March 2004, http://www.reliefweb. int.

34 HRW, "The guns are in the bushes", op. cit.

35 IRIN, "Liberia: Child soldiers are back on the frontline", op. cit.

36 Information from Save the Children, March 2003.

37 IRIN, "Liberia: Preparing for the transition from war to normal life", op. cit.

38 AFP, op. cit.

39 HRW, "The guns are in the bushes", op. cit.

40 IRIN, "Liberia: UN discontinues immediate $75 cash payment to disarmed fighters", 20 February 2004.

41 AI, Liberia: The promises of peace for 21,000 child soldiers, op. cit.

42 Report of the UN Secretary-General on children and armed conflict, UN Doc. A/58/546S/2003/1053, 10 November 2003,

43 Report of the Secretary-General on ways to combat sub-regional and cross-border problems in West Africa, UN Doc. S/2004/200, 12 March 2004; Statement by the President of the Security Council, UN Doc. S/PRST/2004/7, 25 March 2004.

44 Report of UN Panel of Experts on Liberia, UN Doc. S/2003/498, 24 April 2003,

45 Joint Declaration on the humanitarian situation, especially the practice of forced recruitment, in Liberia, 14 April 2003.

46 Cited in IRIN, "Sierra Leone: Child soldier rehabilitation programme runs out of cash", 22 July 2003.

47 Initial report of Liberia to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, op. cit.

48 AI, Liberia: The promises of peace for 21,000 child soldiers, op. cit.


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