Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's president, speaks during the U.S.-Africa Business Forum in New York, U.S.

Liberia: What Hope for Human Rights?

James Torh spent Christmas day in Monrovia Central Prison in 1999. 

A few days earlier, on 15 December, a man in plainclothes came to the office of the NGO he was heading at the time and announced that the police commissioner wanted to see him. When he refused to go, a pickup truck containing 12 police officers arrived and he was forcefully arrested and taken to the police station. The next day he was charged with sedition because he had spoken out about the need for human rights and reconciliation following the end of Liberia’s first civil war in 1997. He was later released on bail but fled the country in March 2000 after receiving threats.

“Amnesty International rescued my future,” James says passionately describing the support the organization provided to help him flee to safety and linking him with support programmes. “If not for Amnesty International, I would be dead”.

Although space for freedom of expression has opened up, journalists still face threats due to Liberia’s harsh laws which criminalize libel

Today, James is a Commissioner at Liberia’s Independent National Commission for Human Rights; proof that 14 years since the end of the 2nd civil war in 2003, Liberia is taking some positive steps. The country’s third democratic presidential and legislative election will take place next week. “There is more stability now” says one activist. Another explains, “You can speak more freely now without the fear of being arrested”. But problems remain. Although space for freedom of expression has opened up, journalists still face threats due to Liberia’s harsh laws which criminalize libel. Four years ago, Rodney Sieh, editor of independent newspaper Front Page Africa, was imprisoned for three months for reporting on corruption in Liberia. He was unable to pay a fine of nearly USD$1.6 million in libel damages in a case brought by Liberia’s former agriculture minister, Chris Toe.

A bill to decriminalize press offences was introduced to the House of Representatives in September 2017 but was not voted on. Many activists, particularly the Liberia Press Union, are hoping the new government will pass this law and create a new era for freedom of expression.

Rodney describes his time in prison as “three months in hell”. Alarming stories of life in prison in Liberia continue. In June, a female inmate became pregnant by a male prisoner at Tubmanburg Central Prison after being coerced into sex. Prison officers knowingly facilitated access between the inmates. She was subsequently taken by prison officers and forced to have an abortion. Following an investigation by the Independent National Commission for Human Rights and the Department for Corrections, several prison officers were dismissed.

Across Liberia prison conditions remain appalling and prisoners suffer from overcrowding in dark, dirty cells without adequate food or health care. The majority of prisoners have not been convicted and can spend years waiting in pre-trial detention because they can’t access legal aid and due to lengthy delays in the justice system.

Delays in the justice system compound the other pervasive human rights challenges including extremely high rates of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). Rape was the second most commonly reported crime in Liberia, particularly against children, in the first half of 2016.

The government, UN and donors have invested in setting up SGBV units within the police and government ministries, as well as a specialized court to deal with such offences in Montserrado County, in the north west of the country. One stop centres, offering medical and support services to survivors, have been established in seven of the 15 counties and a new Domestic Violence bill has recently been passed by the legislature, and is awaiting signature by the President.

However, impunity for rape remains high with only 2% of the rape and SGBV cases reported in 2015 resulting in a conviction in court. No functional forensic or DNA testing facilities in the country, only two safe homes for survivors, challenges accessing one stop centres for those outside of Montserrado County and lengthy and costly court proceedings are some of the challenges to accountability for SGBV crimes.

This is compounded by corruption and cultural and patriarchal attitudes towards reporting these crimes. With the UN mission (UNMIL) leaving in March 2018 and a new incoming government, women’s rights activists are concerned that combating SGBV will be less of a priority. “It may be more challenging to address these issues when UNMIL leaves and there is less donor interest”, says Roberta*, a women’s rights activist. “Accountability for SGBV crimes is especially difficult when an influential person is involved.”

Liberia’s high incidence of rape is inextricably linked to the 14 year civil war when between 60 – 77% of women and girls were raped, according to the World Health Organisation

Liberia’s high incidence of rape is inextricably linked to the 14 year civil war when between 60 – 77% of women and girls were raped, according to the World Health Organisation. However, there has still not been any accountability for those suspected of criminal responsibility for war crimes in Liberia, including perpetrators of war time sexual violence. A few cases have been heard outside of Liberia, such as Mohammed Jabbateh, who is being tried in the US for perjury and immigration fraud over his role in alleged war crimes. Many activists would still like to have an internationalized war crimes court, similar to the one in neighbouring Sierra Leone, in order to address Liberia’s painful past – which was recommended in 2009 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Somewhat predictably, political will to end this scourge of impunity is lacking, given that many prominent political figures were themselves involved in the civil wars. Even President Johnson-Sirleaf was listed by the TRC as a figure who should be barred from holding political office for 30 years.

Today all eyes are focused on the forthcoming elections and the newly elected government to see whether they will progress and improve the human rights foundation of the country. Liberia, after suffering two civil wars and the devastating Ebola outbreak, is according to James “a smoking ruin now in better shape with a dose of hope”.*Name changed to protect her identity

The Original of this Blog was published on 6 October by the Africa Report