Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf led government must take no credit for good human rights record in Liberia

By Bernard Gbayee Goah

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
October 15, 2010


Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf continues to brag about the “improved” human rights record in Liberia under her administration. She recently boasted of her hard work in observing and improving human rights at the United Nations General Assembly. I would argue that human rights in Liberia are not improved and are in fact not where they should be after 5 years under her administration. There continues to be human rights abuses both in an effort to wrongfully protect offenders and wrongfully accuse the innocent.

Embarrassingly, the statement of President Johnson-Sirleaf is erroneous. Since the 2003 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the 1989 civil war in Liberia, the UN Mission in Liberia (UNIMIL) and UN International Police (UNPOL) have shared the responsibility of maintaining security within Liberia with the Liberian National Police and the Armed Forces. According to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s 2009 country report on human rights practices in Liberia (published March 11, 2010), there were many instances in which government security forces acted in a manner that infringed upon the rights of civilians. UNIMIL and UNPOL had no prior knowledge of these actions nor were they involved in carrying out these action.

The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor also mentioned mob violence and land disputes which resulted in deaths and ritualistic killings. Some of the killings were allegedly carried out by top government officials. They also report police abuse, harassment, and intimidation of detainees and citizens.

President Johnson-Sirleaf claims that Liberia’s human rights record is up to international standards. Yet the justice system, in its current state would prove otherwise. Prison conditions remain harsh and arbitrary arrests and detention are cloaked in darkness occurring in the late hours when few can witness the offenses against their neighbors. Once those who are arrested are behind prison doors, due process is often withheld as are their basic human rights. Instead of going to trial in a timely manner, justice is delayed. Instead of being tried with constitutional protection there are reports of trial by ordeal, leaving no legal recourse for the allegedly accused.

Many times people are arrested on unfounded charges or for crimes against the state. When in fact these people have done nothing wrong but to speak out against the current administration, which in turn takes personal offense and acts in retaliation. This is exactly what happened when Charles Julu was arrested in 2008 for crimes he allegedly committed but without due process and put into prison for months without being formerly charged. At last when pressure groups in the United States and elsewhere demanded a free and fair trial, Julu was declared not guilty by a Liberian court. Charles Julu died months later from alleged treatments he received while in prison. Up to now neither the government nor the United Nations has questioned the mysterious death of Charles Julu.

President Johnson-Sirleaf claims that Liberia’s human rights record is up to international standards. Yet the police, those hired to uphold the law and protect civilians, wreak havoc and instill fear. Police continually abuse, harass, and intimidate civilians, in an effort to extort money and for personal means. Journalists, human rights advocates, as well as other pressure group such as the Widows of Ex-AFL soldiers continue to be harassed, and threatened on a daily basis by police.

One wonders what criterion the Liberian government is using to substantiate its claims of an improved human rights record. The perceived improvement the outside world sees in Liberia is merely a mirage. My guess is the claims made by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf are easily accepted, and of course she knows this, because when people think of Liberia they remember the war and assume that there could only be improvement. Whereas it is true that people are not dying by the gun but instead rotting to death in prison on unfounded charges. Women and children are no longer raped by soldiers and rebels, but instead by neighbors. Banks and stores are no longer looted by rebels, but instead government officials. Just as during the war, those committing crimes walk free. What must be highlighted are the experiences of Liberians today, not the memory of what happened during war. If that were the case, the claim of an improved human rights record would not be accepted, but instead questioned.

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