Rights and the Politics of Fear and Violence

(A presentation by Tiawan Gongloe at the panel discussion on Rights and the Politics of fear and Violence held at the Dag Hammarskjöld Lounge in commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the Center for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University in NY, NY on October 23, 2003.)

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 9, 2003

First, I want to thank Dr. Paul martin and his dynamic staff of the Center for the Study of Human Rights for inviting me to speak at this historic conference, marking the 25th Anniversary of the existence of the Center for the Study of Human Rights here at Columbia University in the City of New York.

Thirteen yeas ago, in 1990, I was one of the eleven human rights advocates brought here from around the world to study more about human rights advocacy and get exposed to other actors and institutions involved in the promotion and defense of human rights. Please join me in one moment of silence to the memory of two of my colleagues who were members of the 1990 class: Chung Yong Rae of South Korea and Chim Chum Satra of Cambodia. Chung died from lung cancer and Chum died while serving the UN in Rwanda. Thank you.

The current situation in Liberia presents Liberia as a classic example of how the use of fear and violence as political instruments to curtail human rights can lead to the collapse of a state. Over the past five months, Liberia has made headlines in major print and electronic media in the world. These headlines were not about positive developments in Liberia such as Liberians winning Nobel Price in medicine or doing something good for their country. The headlines were about how Liberian rebel and government forces were killing innocent Liberians with machine guns and rockets, raping women, forcibly arming children as young as seven years old, looting and destroying properties. The rebel forces consists of two groups: the Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and both groups are offshoots of rebel groups that were opposed to the National patriotic Front of Liberia, the rebel group led by Charles Taylor in the first phase of the Liberian civil war that lasted from 1989-1997. The government forces consist largely of members of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).

When Charles Taylor won the presidency of Liberia in 1997, many believed that he would have used his victory to reconcile the people and initiate policies that would have made it safe for his wartime rivals to live in Liberia. Those who believed that Taylor would have proceeded in a positive direction were probably guided by promises made by him in his inaugural speech when he took his oath of office as president of Liberia on August 2, 1997. In that speech he said that reconciliation, respect for the rule of law, respect for human rights, especially the right to freedom of expression would be the guiding principles of his administration. Perhaps in an effort to convince the rest of us who did not believe in his ability to fulfill those promises, Taylor erected billboards all over Liberia with the wordings “Liberia is a country of law, not of men. Let’s keep it that way.” Additionally, in the first few months of his presidency, Taylor opened and closed his press conferences with assurances of his government’s commitment to the promotion of respect for the rule of law and human rights.

Yet in late November 1997, just three months after his inauguration as president of Liberia, Samuel Dokie, a key Liberian opposition figure was arrested by police officers upon the directive of Benjamin Yeaten, Taylor’s Director of Special Security Service, along with Dokie’s wife, sister and his cousin, in the provincial city of Gbarnga, Bong County in central Liberia, while traveling to his hometown. Under the umbrella of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission two colleagues of mine and I filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus against the government to produce the living bodies of the Dokies in court. While we were in court arguing the petition, Taylor announced the death of the Dokies to the nation and promised to bring their killers to justice.

Benjamin Yeaten was not arrested, even though he had said publicly that he gave the orders for the arrest of the Dokies. However, Alex Redd, a Liberian journalist who went to Gbarnga to do some investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of the Dokies was later arrested and charged with the bogus crime of criminal attempt to commit treason. I provided legal representation for Alex during his court hearing. In the middle of the case, the government dropped the case for lack of evidence and Alex was set free by the court. Alex is currently living in exile in the United States.

Following Alex’s case, many journalists were arrested, detained and most often beaten up. Some were released by the police while others were taken to court. In almost, if not, all of the cases involving the arrest of journalists in the 1990s in Liberia, I found myself either at the police station or in the court representing the accused. I also provided legal representation for the Star Radio- a radio station sponsored by the USAID and Fondation Horrondelle and Radio Veritas-a station owned and operated by the Catholic Church of Liberia. These two stations were often closed by Taylor without due process.

Why were Liberian journalists and media institutions subject of constant attack by Taylor. It is simple. Liberian journalists were reporting the facts about developments under Taylor’s regime. Many of those facts, similar to those of the Dokies were about one form of human rights abuse or the other by agents of government to bring to justice those responsible for those abuses. In short, the Taylor regime violated the rights of journalists because they reported on the violations of the rights of others in Liberia. Consequently, throughout Taylor’s rule in Liberia, journalists lived in far because they were constant targets of brutal treatments by agents of government. Many of them are in exile in Ghana, the United States and other parts of the world.

Taylor’s strategy was to silence, not only leaders of opposition political parties but to strengthen the existing culture of silence and blind obedience to every action of government. Following the killing of the Dokies, Taylor went after Roosevelt Johnson, a former rebel leader opposed to him. In September 1998, soldiers encircled Camp Johnson road, a street in Monrovia, then occupied by Johnson and his supporters and killed hundreds of innocent civilians, many of them women and children. Johnson sought refuge at the US Embassy in Monrovia and was harbored there until he went to Nigeria. In 2000 Dr. Amos Sawyer, former interim president of Liberia and ConmanyWesseh, a leading pro-democracy activists were flogged in broad daylight, while sitting in their offices at the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE) by members of government security, disguised as disgruntled former combatants. Subsequently the two gentlemen went into exile. In 2001 three lawyers were detained by Taylor government because of statements made by them, in violation of their rights to freedom of expression. In March 2002, Frances Johnson Morris, a former chief justice of Liberia was arbitrarily arrested detained by Paul Mulbah, then Police Director, upon the orders of Taylor because she criticized Taylor for imposing a state of emergency in the entire country. In April 2002, I was arrested, detained and severely tortured, to the extend that my kidneys were injured. I was released from detention due to local and international actions.

The official reason for my arrest was a speech that I delivered in Conakry, Guinea at a conference of the Mano River Union Civil Society Movement on peace and development. In my view, I was arrested for everything that I was doing. I was a lawyer for all the perceived enemies of Taylor, including journalists, political activists, human rights activists, other lawyers, and civil society groups perceived by Taylor to be his enemies. I was also speaking out too often through the print and electronic media.

Following my arrest, Hassan Bility, the Editor-in-chief of the Analyst Newspaper was arrested, detained and his paper shutdown for publishing the speech for which I was arrested. Aloysius Toe, a human rights activist who issued the first release on my arrest was himself later arrested for attempting to organize a march to petition the government for the release of Hassan Bility.
Throughout Taylor’s rule in Liberia, he used fear and violence to chase out alternative Liberian leaders and silence every critical voice, but, it is important to note here that this strategy did not start with Taylor. Although Liberia, by its name stands for the land of the free and was meant to be that way, successive governments have used one form of fear or the other to exclude other Liberians from participation in government or to speak about how they are governed. The man who is credited in Liberian history as the father of brutal treatment of political opponents is William V.S Tubman. He ruled Liberia for 27 years from 1944 to 1971 against the resistance of many opponents whom he crushed through brutal means. It is his recipe for control of political power that Samuel Doe and Taylor adopted and strengthened in their attempt to control power.

What has the politics of fear and violence done to Liberia? The use of the politics of fear and violence has remained the generator that has kept the wheel of violence turning in Liberia. Doe used fear and violence and was violently killed in the end. Taylor‘s rule brought international sanctions on Liberia for the first time in Liberian history. He is the first president of Liberia and the whole of Africa to be indicted for war crime and crimes against humanity. And he is the first president of Liberia to live in exile. Further, he is the first president who did not build any infrastructure but destroyed almost all existing ones built by others before him. Today as the use of the politics of fear and violence Liberia has become a failed state. Additionally, the politics of fear and violence took Liberia away from the path of becoming a land of freedom as it was meant to become and made it a land of extreme political repression.

Liberia has taught a lesson for the world to learn. And that lesson is that the use of political fear and violence is counter-productive to the survival of the state and its authority. In this regard, what has happened in Liberia reinforces the correctness of the view that sustainable peace and progress are not possible where respect for human rights and the rule of law are absent. This means that people who have built their societies on promoting a culture of respect for human rights must remain firm in promoting such culture even in the most difficult and tempting period of their national lives.

Today, the United Nations has intervened in the Liberian conflict in a significant way, thereby, raising the hope of many Liberians that peace is at their doorsteps. However, for the UN to succeed in Liberia, it must give priority to human right issues, because it was the systematic violations of human rights that placed Liberia in its current condition as a failed state. The first place to begin is to bring to justice all persons accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Liberian civil conflict. The current situation where people accused of committing heinous crimes against the Liberian people are controlling the security and economy of Liberia creates great doubt as to the effectiveness of the current peace process. Finally, it is important that steps be introduced as quickly as possible to address the question of impunity, particularly as it relates to human rights violations in Liberia.

Thank you.

The issues of addressing impunity in Liberia and building a culture of respect for human rights and the rule of law formed part of oral presentations made by the same speaker in November 2003 at the University of California at Los Angeles Law School and African Studies Department , University of Southern California Law School, in Los Angeles and Standford University Law School in San Francisco California.