Respect for Human Rights: The most necessary condition for collective security and sustainable peace in Liberia
A keynote Speech delivered at 2011 Commemoration of Human Rights Day
In Liberia, held on December 9, 2011 at the G. W. Gibson High School
By Tiawan Gongloe.
Before proceeding any further, may I ask everyone here to stand with me, in a moment of silence to the memory of the millions of people who have lost their lives around the world as victims of massive abuse of human rights, particular those who lost their lives in Liberia during the Liberian civil conflict. Thank you and you may be seated.
Tomorrow, December 10, 2011 marks another anniversary of the existence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that great instrument that makes it a duty for every government to recognize, respect and defend the rights of every individual in society and makes it a duty, also, for every individual or group to recognize and respect the rights of others. This day is being commemorated in Liberia today and I am deeply honored to be the keynote speaker. I believe that, like me, many persons are wondering why this program could not have been held on tomorrow. I can only speculate that, perhaps, the program is being held today to allow all Liberians to closely follow the honoring of two of Liberia’s distinguished daughters in Oslo, Norway, on tomorrow, December 10, 2011 for being winners of the Nobel peace prize this year. As the recognition of these two distinguished daughters of Liberia, one our President and the other a civil society leader, raises the profile of Liberia in a positive way and brings joy to every Liberian, it is important to view the honor as a way of the world drawing every Liberian’s attention to the importance of maintaining peace for the survival of Liberia. Yet peace is not sustainable without an uncompromising commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights. The Government of Liberia, all political actors in and out of government and each individual and group in Liberia must understand this basic fact. Therefore, I have chosen to reflect with you, my fellow Liberians and friends of Liberia on the topic: Respect for Human Rights the most necessary condition for collective security and peace in Liberia.
Historically, it was the desire to live in a place where the existence of an atmosphere of respect for human rights would be accorded the highest national consideration that attracted a lot of people to Liberia. While those who initiated the formation of the Liberian state were originally citizens of the United States, who chose to migrate to Africa, largely to escape the continuous violation of their human rights, many Africans following the Berlin Conference of the late 1880s, which divided the Africa continent amongst European colonizers, like the earlier settlers from the United States of America, chose to migrate to Liberia to escape the violation of their rights by those European colonizers. Liberia was therefore, meant, as our declaration of independence states, to be an asylum from the abuse of human rights. This means that the only form of human security that caused thousands of people to migrate to Liberia from the Americas and colonial territories of Africa was security from abuse of human rights. Migration to Liberia was not to escape the lack of food and water as a result of drought as other Africans have experienced. Migration to Liberia was not for the purpose of escaping poverty or the lack of socioeconomic development. Migration to this part of Africa before and after the creation of the Liberian state was for the purpose of escaping human rights violations. The hope of living in a country free from the abuse of human rights was the dream that inspired the evolution of the Liberian state. Our collective security in Liberia, therefore, depends on the degree to which we emphasize the respect for the protection of human rights. All Liberians, especially members of our security forces, many of whom are overzealous in the performance of their duties, must understand this historical fact.
We promised ourselves as a nation in the declaration of our independence in 1847 that we will establish a nation in which respect for human rights would be the number one national priority. Article one of our first constitution is on respect for human rights. Our motto, as controversial as it is, says, “The love of Liberty brought us here.” And our national Anthem says that we are a land of liberty by God’s command. Respect for human rights was meant to be the cornerstone of our evolution as a state, our survival as a country and our development and prosperity as a people. This was our dream. It was also a promise that we made to ourselves. But it is a dream that has not been realized because of the way succeeding generations of political actors have governed Liberia. It is a promise that has been betrayed by every generation of political leaders in Liberia. The experience has been that when politicians are not in power they see the need for uncompromising commitment to the protection of human rights. They criticize the government of the day for every violation of human rights. However, in almost all cases when Liberian politicians get to power they begin to provide justifications and excuses for the abuse of human rights. The violation of human rights are often justified by the need to fast-track development and the impossibility of doing so and at the same time observing every tenet of respect for human rights. Some call it benevolent dictatorship. Let me say to all Liberian politicians that any development that is based on the violation of human rights is not a sustainable development. Development cannot be a trade-off for the abuse of human rights. History has shown that infrastructural developments, for example, that are not based on the fundamental principles of respect for human rights, are meaningless and can be destroyed by the people it is meant to benefit in no time.
All political actors in Liberia today must always remind themselves that what was wrong yesterday in Liberia is still wrong today. Therefore, those politicians who find themselves in government must, at all times, not some time, muster the courage to change those wrongs with the same vigor with which they criticized other governments when they were not in government. The way to begin to change those things that are wrong is for officials of government to begin with themselves. The great Indian philosopher and political activist, Mahatma Gandhi once admonished agents of change in the following words, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Often, agents of change tend to live a life that is contrary to what they propose for others, when they get into power. Those who yesterday advocated for change and criticized governments for lack of respect of human rights and other basic tenants of democratic governance must be the change they wanted for Liberia yesterday as they serve in various key posts in government today.
The Government of President Sirleaf has the best opportunity to lay a firm foundation for the respect for human rights and other tenants of democracy, including good governance. I say this because this government is, largely, composed of those who advocated for change in the past in Liberia. It also has a lot of very highly educated and experienced Liberians of all ages who know what needs to be done to improve respect for human rights in Liberia. While a little progress was made in the last, nearly six years, much still needs to be done by the government to make respect for human rights a priority in Liberia.
The extent to which Liberia moves towards the building of a society in which human rights will be at the forefront of all governance issues depends on the way the President will conduct herself during her second term. If she decides not to compromise human rights issues during her second term, the message will be clear and will easily circulate among all who serve in government, particularly law enforcement officers in the performance of their duties. Officers of the Liberia National Police and all law enforcement officers must understand that their main duty is to protect the rights of every Liberian citizen and resident. They must therefore, restrain themselves in the performance of their law enforcement duties. The oath of the Liberian National Police has a line that says that officers must “maintain courageous calm in the face of danger.”Law enforcement officers must resist the temptation of getting angry and taking actions based on anger. Law enforcement officers must at all times remind themselves of their training, their duty manual, their oath and the Laws of Liberia, especially the Constitution of Liberian. Law enforcement officers must, when using force, especially the force of firearm, take note of the rules of engagement. The force that is needed to bring under the ambit of the law, a person who breaks the law, is reasonable force and not excessive force. The use of excessive force is a crime. Certainly, from all indications the force used on November 7, 2011 that led to the death of at least one person, was excessive. It was unjustifiable to fire life bullets at armless persons. According to photos from the scene of the event, the law enforcement officers that engaged the CDC on that day were protected by head gears and very long and wide protective shields, strong enough to protect law enforcement officers from even stones.
While the action of the CDC political party was in clear violation of existing laws, the action of the police was not consistent with its own duty manual. The dismissal of the Director of the Liberian National Police is a clear acceptance by government that police did not proceed with this matter in accordance with law. The next thing that needs to be done is to find out the person who discharged the bullet that killed the identified victim and bring him to justice for the homicide he committed. The police needs to do this in order to regain the trust and confidence of the public. The Liberia National Police should not allow one person to undermine its relationship with the public- a relationship that it needs very much in its effort to fight crime in Liberia.
One source of human rights violation in Liberia is conflict of interest. Conflict of interest undermines good governance and therefore, government’s ability to adequately protect the rights of its citizens and provide for their welfare. It promotes corruption. In order to address this problem President Sirleaf presented a draft code of conduct to the national legislature for its consideration and passage into law, since 2007. Members of the legislature for personal reasons failed, refused and neglected to pass this draft bill into law, even after many civil society organizations and advocates pleaded with them to do so. For this gross breach of public trust, amongst other things, 12 Senators and over 40 members of the House of Representatives were voted out of office by the people of Liberia. This is a clear warning to incoming legislators that the people will not allow them to put personal interest over the collective interest of all Liberians.
The President must take the lead in fast-tracking the end of conflict of interest in government. In my view, the best way to do this is for the President to resist the temptation of appointing members of her family into crucial decision-making roles in government, unless it is for positions that provide for the people an opportunity to vet such persons through the process of confirmation by the Senate. The first step, I advise, would be the removal by the President of Mr. Robert Sirleaf from at least one of the two positions that he occupies now, if not both of them. It is inconsistent with every tenant of good governance for Mr. Robert Sirleaf to be a senior advisor to the President and at the same time serve as member of the board of directors of the National Oil Company of Liberia. This is a clear conflict of interest in every way. It is important for the President to correct this situation before she takes her oath of office for her second term in office.
Mr. Sirleaf has made laudable contributions to the young people of this country by building football stadiums in many communities in Liberia for which every well-meaning Liberian is appreciative. He is bringing happiness to the young people of Liberia unlike Chucky Taylor who brought them sorrow. However, his presence in government in the current roles he occupies undermines these great contributions. This is a matter that many are whispering about. But as I have said before, I cannot whisper about matters that affect my country.
Going forward, it is important that President Sirleaf makes it clear by her actions that she intends to lay a firm foundation for making human rights the most cherished national value in Liberia. I suggest to her to make it clear that no media institution will be closed again under her administration for what it publishes because her government promotes the multiplicity of media institutions and that in such situation no one media has sufficient power to influence any negative conduct. Clearly, unlike before when Liberia had two radio stations, Liberia now has multiple radio and TV stations, with one radio station in almost every district of Liberia. In a situation like that, no media institution has the potential of posing threat to peace and security.
I also suggest that in addition to the freedom of information act, the President submits a bill to the legislature to repeal the laws on sedition, criminal libel against the President and criminal malevolence. These are gag laws. We cannot build a vibrant democracy and still have laws that inhibit free speech. To the memory of the Late Albert Porte, who advocated unsuccessfully for the repeal of these laws, I appeal to President Sirleaf to seek their repeal. Let the creation of a free society by the repealing of laws that undermine the exercise of the basic human rights of free speech be one of the President’s legacies. In order to give respect for human rights a higher profile, than it has now, I suggest that the President spear-heads the creation of a national human rights order or award, appropriately, named, and made the highest award to be given annually by the President to government officials and employees who show the greatest degree of respect for human rights.
As I emphasize the importance of human rights to our collective security and peace it must be made clear that human rights can only be exercised within the scope of the law. Therefore, existing laws that limit the enjoyment of human rights must be respected until they are amended or repealed. It is unlawful for any individual or group to violate a law because such law is considered, by them, to be unconstitutional. There are only two ways in Liberia to get rid of a law that is unconstitutional. It is either by an amendment or repeal of such law or a declaration of its unconstitutionality by the Supreme Court of Liberia.
In closing, it is important for all Liberians to know that Liberia is the most important African country, when it comes to the need to have respect for human rights. First, the reason for its formation was to protect human rights. Therefore, it was named Liberia, a land of liberty. Second, Liberia was the primary African Nation that signed the charter of the League of Nations and the United Nations Charter. Liberia was also represented at the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. Liberia, for a long time was a lone advocate for the human rights of oppressed people on the African Continent and elsewhere. Our history, as a nation, is tied to the development of human rights as a common standard for human interactions in the world. I have no doubt that our security, peace and development is inextricably tied to the protection of human rights. This is a basic truth that every Liberian must accept.
I thank you.