Human Rights Developments

Although President Charles Taylor declared his intention to head a government that respected human rights and the rule of law, the actions of his government during his first full year in office dispelled hopes that this government would live up to its promises. President Taylor took office following an election in July 1997 that ended a brutal seven-year civil war. A former faction leader during the war, he inherited a country deeply divided by the numerous demobilized faction fighters, a shattered economy and political system, and the displacement of over half its population. During the war, all the factions were responsible for terrorizing the local populations in order to loot and to discourage support for rival factions. The widespread atrocities against civilians included extrajudicial executions, torture, forced labor, and extortion. The factions consisted predominantly of bands of armed fighters, many as young as ten years of age, with no formal military training. The U.N. estimated that some 15,000 to 20,000 children had directly participated in violent acts, were exposed to fighting, and were themselves brutally victimized. The timetable for disarmament, demobilization, and the election that brought the conflict to an end, under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations (U.N.), was extremely tight. A number of important measures required in the terms of the peace accord were not completed prior to the election, particularly the disarmament and demobilization of combatants and the return of refugees from neighboring countries. The larger context in which the electionwas held placed limitations on how free and fair it could be, and President Taylor's victory was due in large part to the implicit threat that he would resume the fighting if he lost. Moreover, in a bid to negotiate peace in Liberia, international actions dispensed with demands for accountability in an effort to broker a political resolution of the long war, however tenuous. The peace accords granted a general amnesty to faction fighters for abuses committed "in the course of actual military engagements," posing a serious obstacle to reconciliation and rebuilding efforts. Those responsible for committing some of the most unimaginable atrocities during the war were neither punished for their actions nor effectively demobilized. Former faction fighters–particularly those of Taylor's faction, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL)–continued to act with impunity and remained a serious impediment to continued peace. The wholesale enrollment of fighters from Taylor's former faction into the country's security forces posed a major threat. Following his inauguration, the new president rejected the peace accord provision that provided for an open and transparent restructuring of the security forces by the West African peacekeeping force. Instead, former NPFL fighters were placed in the security and police forces without serious efforts to provide training or to meet pledges to incorporate members from the other armed factions. The Liberian defense minister stated that the Armed Forces of Liberia consisted of some 14,000 troops, despite the government's estimate that it needed an army of no more than 5,000. After taking office, Taylor also created a new special security unit, known informally as the "tie-dye" boys due to their blue camouflage uniforms, which quickly became notorious for harassing civilians and looting. Former armed NPFL fighters were also permitted by the government to create security firms for hire by private sector companies. There were complaints of intimidation, extortion, and general lawlessness by both the government forces and the private security companies. The newly constituted armed forces were responsible for killings, "disappearances," and the harassment of government critics and opponents. Throughout the year, tensions escalated. A prominent incident was the in-custody killing of prominent Taylor critic Samuel Dokie, along with his wife and two others, after their arrest by Taylor's special security services bodyguards on November 28, 1997. Although the government announced that steps would be taken to hold those responsible accountable, the security officers brought to trial for the murders were acquitted. Nowah Flomo, a market woman, was seized from her home in June 1998 following a confrontation with a security officer; her arrest was never acknowledged and her "disappearance" remained unsolved as of October 1998. Five security officers were arrested in connection with her case, but released in August. After a public uproar, they were reportedly rearrested but no further steps were taken by the government to investigate the case or to prosecute the responsible officials. The relationship between the state security forces and supporters of officially disbanded warring faction leader Roosevelt Johnson steadily worsened during the year, culminating in fighting in the capital Monrovia and Mr. Johnson's flight from the country. President Taylor repeatedly accused Mr. Johnson of plotting to overthrow him by force while Mr. Johnson claimed that Taylor's forces were attempting to kill him. On June 6, six former fighters of Johnson's ethnic Krahn group, the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO-J), "disappeared" at the international airport where they were scheduled to depart on a flight to the Gambia. Their papers were reportedly seized by immigration officials and none of them boarded the plane, although the Ministry of Justice later denied that they had been stopped and claimed that they had reached their destination in the Gambia where they had planned "military training to destabilize the government." Throughout the year, there were complaints by members of the Krahn and Mandingo groups of harassment and threats by security forces who accused them of supporting Mr. Johnson, particularly in Lofa and Nimba counties. There were two outbreaks of violence in Monrovia–a sign of how fragile and volatile the situation was. In August, ECOMOG soldiers opened fire to disband an armed group of Johnson supporters on Camp Johnson Road, the home of Roosevelt Johnson, killing one and dispersing the group. Clashes also broke out on September 18 and 19 between government security forces and Johnson supporters in central Monrovia. The crisis began when Liberian troops tried to arrest the former rebel leader, fanning out through his neighborhood stronghold, largely populated by his ethnic Krahn supporters. Small arms, rocket, and mortar battles erupted in the capital and security forces shot into the U.S. Embassy as Mr. Johnson sought refuge there. Some fifty people were reported killed. The U.S. Embassy refused to turn Mr. Johnson over to the Taylor government on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial; he remained in the embassy for one week before being flown to safety in Sierra Leone. Trials commenced in a military court of twenty-two people on various counts ranging from murder to treason. The incident was reminiscent of a previous attempt by Taylor to arrest Johnson during the civil war in 1996, sparking fighting which claimed hundreds of lives. At that time, Johnson also fled to the U.S. Embassy which helped him reach Ghana. When Taylor won the presidential election in 1997 he reached a tenuous peace with Johnson who returned to become Liberia's rural development minister. The independent press periodically came under attack by the government. Staff members of the Inquirer newspaper were subjected to arbitrary arrests and detention, while the New Democrat was denied registration. The independent Star Radio station was closed by the government for one month in January 1998, and the government threatened to shut down Radio Veritas of the Catholic Church. In one particularly threatening case, the producer and broadcaster for the Ducor Broadcasting Association, Alex Redd, was abducted and held captive for two days by security forces on December 21, 1997. When he contacted the police to file a complaint after his release, he was detained and later charged with "treason" for inquiring into the Dokie murder. Shortly afterwards the charges were amended to filing a "false report to law enforcement officers" on the grounds that he had lied about his abduction. Following his release, he was harassed and received death threats. He eventually fled the country and sought political asylum. Voluntary repatriation of the estimated one million refugee and internally displaced Liberians continued. In September, the U.N.High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that since operations began in December 1997 some 80,000 people were repatriated with UNHCR help, and 185,000 returned home of their own accord. According to UNHCR, some 480,000 Liberian refugees were in neighboring countries at the outset of the repatriation program. Of those, 235,000 were in Guinea, 160,000 in Ivory Coast, 17,000 in Ghana, 14,000 in Sierra Leone and 6,000 in Nigeria. Statistics on the return of internally displaced populations were unavailable, although many returned on their own. The Liberian Refugee, Repatriation and Resettlement Commission complained that security personnel at checkpoints were harassing returnees. In September, UNHCR held a meeting to discuss reintegration of returnees and the rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure in host countries. The increased security risks and the growing volatility within the country, led to serious questions by year's end as to whether the repatriation program should continue as scheduled and for the need for neighboring governments to remain prepared to host Liberian refugees in the following year.

Defending Human Rights

Threats and intimidation against human rights organizations for reporting on abuses occurred periodically during the year. In July, Senator Thomas Nimley claimed human rights groups were an "enemy of the state" and were to blame for the delay in international assistance because they depicted a "negative picture" of the country. Members of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission complained that members of its staff were under government surveillance. In October, its director Kofi Woods was forced to flee the country after the Justice and Peace Commission issued a statement condemning extrajudicial executions by government forces arising from the violence on September 18 and 19. Despite these attacks, the emergent human rights community that had functioned only in Monrovia during the war continued to expand its activities. The organizations included the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission, the Center for Law and Human Rights Education, the Liberian Human Rights Chapter, the Association of Human Rights Promoters, Liberia Watch for Human Rights, the National Human Rights Monitor, the Movement for the Defense of Human Rights, the Liberia Civil and Human Rights Association, Liberia Democracy Watch, the Civil Rights Association of Liberian Lawyers, Fore-Runners of Children's Universal Development, the Center for Democratic Empowerment, and the Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia. The government Human Rights Commission got off to a slow start. The legislation creating the commission was flawed and, following international and domestic pressure, the act was amended by the legislature in July. The amended act empowered the commission to reach decisions by a majority vote, allowed review of a decision only by the Supreme Court, and gave the right to subpoena witnesses. Unfortunately, two of the most promising members of the commission, Kromah Bryemah and Luvenia Ash-Thomson, were rejected by the Senate, leading human rights groups to issue a statement questioning the government's commitment to the commission. Mr. Bryemah subsequently left the country, stating that he feared for his life after his detention and beating by police, actions he blamed on police director Joe Tate. President Taylor ordered a probe of the charge, but refused to make the findings public. Once the commission was constituted and able to begin its work it examined prison conditions and announced that it would observe the upcoming treason trials.

The Role of the International Community

New international aid to Liberia remained suspended due to Liberia's unpaid international debt of U.S. $3 million. A donors conference in April pledged U.S.$230 million to Liberia pending a debt repayment plan to stabilize Liberia's debts. In August, a team of representatives from the donor community and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund visited Liberia to assess a framework for aid. The donors insisted that aid to Liberia would be dependent on improvements in microeconomic reporting, fiscal discipline, and respect for human rights. President Taylor in turn blamed the international community for Liberia's lack of progress during his first year in office.

United Nations

The United Nations (U.N.) Department of Political Affairs retained a small U.N. political office following the withdrawal of the U.N. Observer Mission in July 1997, to serve as a focal point for post-conflict U.N. peace-building activities in Liberia and to coordinate U.N. activities in the country. This unit was also to provide advisory services to the government in defining post-conflict priorities, to raise international funds for Liberia, and to coordinate and liaise between the government and the international community. This unit remained in Monrovia during 1998 under special representative Felix Downs-Thomas, but maintained a very low profile and was not a prominent player in raising human rights issues.

The Economic Community of West African States Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG)

The relationship between President Taylor and ECOMOG remained tense, aggravated by the president's refusal to allow ECOMOG to train and restructure the Liberia armed forces in accordance with the peace accord. The Liberian Senate refused to ratify a status of forces agreement between ECOMOG and the Liberian government. Additionally, ECOMOG alleged that Taylor was undermining their peacekeeping efforts in Sierra Leone by supporting the Sierra Leonean rebel alliance that ECOMOG was seeking to defeat. ECOMOG retained a markedly scaled down presence in Liberia due both to the end of the war in Liberia as well as to its increased mobilization in Sierra Leone. However, it continued to man checkpoints in Liberia and to undertake search and cordon operations for arms. In a number of cases, arms and ammunition were discovered and confiscated. ECOMOG also played an indispensable role in defusing tension and stepping in on several occasions to prevent altercations between Taylor and Johnson supporters. In April, the ECOMOG commander, Brig. Gen. Timothy Shelpidi, accused the government of violating the U.N. arms embargoby rearming Liberian soldiers, special security service agents, and police units. Brig. Shelpidi publicly questioned where the origins of the arms, which included AK-47 rifles and rocket propelled grenades.

European Union

The European Union (E.U.) was the principal donor to Liberia, with $105 million in existing commitments for 1997-99. This assistance was managed directly by the European Commission and did not go through the Liberian government. According to the E.U., a normalization of this aid relationship depended on Liberia's progress on good governance, including macroeconomic management, democratization, and respect for human rights. Most of the assistance focused on health, water, education, food security, infrastructure, capacity building (which included funding to some civil society organizations and women's groups), and refugee resettlement. A new program was expected in 1999 to support the judiciary and strengthen the rule of law, and an independent media support program was under discussion. In addition, some member states had bilateral programs, including the Dutch, the British, and the Danish. E.U. officials claimed that they used quiet diplomacy, rather than public statements, to pressure the Liberian government on human rights, and that they remained very active and concerned behind the scenes. As a result, many ordinary Liberians and international observers outside the country were unaware of the E.U.'s actions on human rights matters or the scale of its programs.

United States

After Liberian forces fired into the U.S. Embassy, while in pursuit of Roosevelt Johnson on September 18, relations between the two countries became decidedly frosty. The U.S. Embassy remained closed as of October 3 pending an apology from the Taylor government. In October, embassy officials said that the U.S. government was reassessing its long-standing relation with Liberia and a decision would be made whether to continue, scale down, or close the embassy operations. The U.S. committed about U.S.$50 million in aid for Liberia in 1998, including funding to strengthen democratic institutions, human rights activities, the newly renovated law school, and the health care delivery system. However, the delivery of aid, apart from humanitarian assistance, was suspended in October. In July, a national conference on rebuilding Liberia prominently featured the U.S. special envoy for democracy and human rights in Africa, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and U.S. Special Envoy to Liberia Howard Jeter as guests in Monrovia. Kofi Woods of the Liberian Catholic Justice and Peace Commission participated in a face-to-face session held by President Bill Clinton during his visit to Senegal with a number of African human rights and civil society activists. In September, the U.S. attorney general extended temporary "protected status" to Liberians for one year from September 29, 1998, allowing an estimated 20 thousand Liberians who were in the U.S. at the time of the announcement to remain regardless of their visa status.
This report covers events of 1998

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