US Position on Liberia's 2003 Elections

The Perspective

January 21, 2002

At the MDCL conference on Liberia held on January 19, 2002, in Silver Spring, Maryland, the US Assistant Secretary of State, Ambassador Robert Perry, delivered a speech, which outlines America’s position on the Liberian national elections scheduled to be held in July, 2003. Below is the full text of the speech:

I am honored by the invitation to be the keynote speaker at this annual conference of the Movement for Democratic Change in Liberia. You are meeting while we commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was dedicated to freeing the human spirit from oppression.

You have braved the snow and the ice today to discuss strategies for free and fair national elections in Liberia in 2003. Please allow me to take just a few minutes to present to you some of the perspectives of the United States Government.

Liberia's origin and inspiration, as you all know, were largely an American experience, and one that links our people together. The story of African Americans would be incomplete without the Liberian connection, and the United States history is replete with the contribution of Africans whose descendants are today either African Americans or Liberians.

Liberia and the United States have a "special relationship" resulting from historical ties. Our nations have had differences over the years and often have not paid enough attention to each other's concerns. However, we share far too much not to care deeply about each other as members of the same family. We have a common language, similar constitutions and bills of rights, a common form of government, a similar flag, and for many of us, a common heritage.

The United States was deeply touched by Liberians' outpourings of grief, sympathy and support after the terrorist attacks of September 11, which also claimed the lives of several Liberians. In the face of those tragedies, Americans and Liberians must work harder than ever to rebuild close ties and to eliminate all forms of terrorism, wherever it is found. With your help, all Liberians could look forward to stability and peace in their country, and friendly relations with all their neighbors.

Liberia must not serve as a breeding ground for terrorism or as the launching pad for regional conflict. The strength of Liberia's society depends on the empowerment of its people. As you yearn to educate and prepare your children for assuming their proper role in society, Liberia's farmers and other business owners also want to get their goods and services to the world market. Liberians are crying for a fresh start. Elections in 2003, if truly inclusive, free and fair, certainly offer an opportunity for that fresh start.

The United States strongly endorses a national reconciliation process for Liberia facilitated by the ECOWAS and non-governmental organizations such as the Carter Center, International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and International Foundation Election Systems. As a first step, the United States will fund a pre-election assessment, led by these NGOs later this month.

The United States also believes that Liberian political groups should meet in a location where they all can be assured of appropriate support and security. We encourage the ECOWAS-Nigerian Government initiative to support an initial conference in Abuja to which all participants would be welcome, and in which they could set the ground rules and procedures for continued dialogue.

It is important for Liberia - and for the entire region - that the democratic opposition, which remains outside Liberia, is assured that it is safe to return home. Security guarantees must enable the opposition to conduct political activity and to interact freely with the Liberian people. With credible guarantees, opposition leaders should seize the opportunity to demonstrate that they are prepared to compete for a popular mandate to lead a democratic Liberia.

These are requirements for a meaningful process of promoting national reconciliation, strengthening civil society and establishing a functioning multiparty democracy. No Liberian government should fear the free expression of ideas and political challenges from its own citizens, who seek the responsibility and authority of a legitimate national mandate.

Freedom of the press, nationwide media access and transparency are critical to ensure that elections are free and fair. We believe that the government of Liberia recognizes that it needs to reconstitute a truly independent Election Commission, and ensure that all Liberian citizen opposition figures can run for office without harassment or restriction based on their recent residence.

We call on the Government of Liberia to lift restrictions on independent media to ensure that all Liberian citizens have access to a variety of opinions. Given the popularity of short-wave radio in rural Liberia, perhaps the simplest and most effective means to achieve this would be to allow Star Radio to re-open, and to permit Radio Veritas and other independent Liberian media to broadcast on short wave frequency.

The United States welcomes the Government of Liberia's promise to conduct free and fair elections and to welcome outside monitors and observers. Recalling our own resilience in holding national elections during our civil war, we challenge the Government of Liberia to abide by its public commitment to hold national elections as scheduled in 2003 "at all costs."

The United States Government again encourages those leaders in exile to return to Liberia, now, to help rebuild a vibrant multiparty democracy governed by rule of law. We also call upon the LURD and all other armed dissidents to participate peacefully. Liberians have suffered enough fighting during this past decade, and now it is the time for all Liberians to "follow the angels of their better nature," - "with malice towards none, and with charity for all." It is time for all Liberians to come together to rebuild their proud society. The sooner this healing begins, the better for all Liberians and for the entire region of West Africa.

Creating an enabling environment to hold free and fair elections in 2003, however, is only a good first step. In the meantime, the Government should listen to its citizens' concerns about the government's promises of good governance, transparency, prosperity based on free market, and respect for human rights, and then work with the Liberian people to address their legitimate concerns. We urge the Liberian Government to meet these challenges now, as laid out by the European Union in its "benchmarks" under the Cotonou Agreement, and to meet the terms of the United Nations Security Council for the removal of sanctions.

In this regards, we also would welcome a continuing role for ECOWAS and NGOs in supporting these processes. Liberia cannot truly be considered a friend of the United States while it seeks to destabilize its neighbors and create misery for the innocent people of the region.

As a result of the civil war, almost 10% of Liberia's population were killed, and about half of the population are either in refugee camps or internally displaced. Over the past decade all economic indicators have dropped significantly, government services have virtually disappeared, and the traditional subsistence economy has been severely disrupted. Unemployment stands at a staggering 85%. Life expectancy is only 47 years for Liberians while it is 76 years for Americans, and adult literacy is less than 40%. Only 26% of Liberians have access to safe drinking water, only 11% have access to sanitary facilities, and an estimated 10% of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS.

The fractured, untrained, undisciplined, and unreliable security forces continue to contribute to the Government's deplorable human rights record by creating a constant climate of fear and intimidation. We call on the Government of Liberia to correct these serious shortcomings.

Liberia holds enormous potential for future national reconstruction. This is evident in the resilience of the ordinary Liberian who, in the face of unimaginable adversity, is making a brave effort to rebuild their lives. This is also where - who are in this room - must help provide the inspiration and resources to fulfill your potential and answer the call to serve the mutual interests of our two countries.

During the past three months, my colleagues and I in the Africa Bureau in the Department of State have discussed these points with Foreign Minister Captan and several opposition leaders including Charles Brumskine, Togba Na Tipoteh, and Ellen Sirleaf. We believe they received the message well, and we look forward to further meetings with them. While the United States will not support candidates in Liberian elections, we strongly support vigorous democratic debate in Liberia over choices for its future, and free and fair elections to establish a mandate for a brighter future.

While the United States and the international community will do what they can to help, Liberia's fate rests in the hands of Liberians themselves. Your talents and resources are critical to Liberia's ability to recreate a prosperous society. We applaud your efforts to create alumni associations and talent databases to prepare for these endeavors. If Liberia is to have a fresh start, you must answer that call.

I would like to close with a passage from the speech that Dr. martin Luther King gave when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1964:

"Most of these people will never make the headlines and their names will not appear in Who's Who. Yet, when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live - men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization - because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness sake."

Thank you, may Gob bless you and may God bless Liberia!

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