Africa, Headlines

LIBERIA-HUMAN RIGHTS: Peace – and Rights – Should be Focus

LONDON, Aug 27 1996 (IPS) - Lasting peace will only be achieved in war- ravaged Liberia when the issue of human rights abuses against unarmed civilians by various armed factions is addressed in a comprehensive way, campaigners here say.

“Accountability must be the watchword,” says Glenn Calderwood, spokesperson for Britain’s Parliamentary Human Rights Group.

“Making these armed factions answer for their crimes against humanity is a process the people of Liberia have to go through to purge themselves of the past and ensure lasting peace for the future,” hje adds.

And Caroline Norris, of the worldwide human rights organisation Amnesty International, added: “It is essential that any agreement reached includes both mechanisms to ensure that human rights abuses are thoroughly investigated and remedied, and also basic institutional reforms for long-term future protection of human rights.”

Campaigners say the innocent victims of the country’s seven- year civil war have a right to justice. Only by making those responsible for rights abuses accountable for their crimes will a clear message be sent that human rights abuses will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

These thinly-disguised criticims of the latest peace plan for Liberia — unveiled last week at a meeting between West African leaders and assorted Liberian warlords in the Nigeria capital Abuja — has struck a chord with observers of that country’s bloody war.

Under the terms of the new peace plan, the various factions should disarm by the end of the year in readiness for democratic elections by May 1997. A new, democratically-elected government will be sworn into office on or about June 15. It was also agreed that former senator Ruth Perry should replace Wilton Sankawulo as chair of the five-member council of state.

This initiative is essentially a revision of the peace accord brokered in August 1995 by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) under which combatants would have disarmed by now and elections organised this week.

But it broke down last April after fighting erupted between two rival factions – Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Roosevelt Johnson’s United Liberation Movement (Ulimo-J). During the ensuing, two-month-long war, hundreds of civilians were held hostage and arbitrarily killed in cross fire.

Many had hoped that Ecowas leaders would have made good earlier threats at last week’s summit and imposed sanctions on the various factions. Or that steps would have been taken to convene war crimes tribunals to investigate rights abuses with the aim of bringing their perpetrators to book.

What they have done instead is to caution the warlords that breaches of the new accord could lead to their facing war crimes tribunals. And they have threatened sanctions ranging from exclusion from elections, visa restrictions and the expulsion of their families from safe havens in neighbouring countries.

Activists maintain that Ecowas leaders have used the issue of rights violations as a political bargaining chip in their desperate bid to end the spiral of violence in the West African state. It is a gimmick they contend will only serve to postpone an inevitable resumption of hostilities that can only give rise to more suich violations.

“This creates a climate where people think they can literally get away with murder,” says Norris. “Bringing those responsible for abuses to justice is a preventive rather than a vengeful measure. It is essential in breaking the cycle of violence and impunity and ensuring that such horrors do not recur.”

Since the bloody war commenced there have been at least 12 peace accords, none of which has lasted for more than a few months.

Campaigners argue that had the international community given firm indications during the early stages of conflict that human rights abuses would not be condoned, and that their perpetrators would not go scot-free, then previous peace initiatives might have borne fruit and the culture of impunity nipped in the bud.

Janet Fleischman, director of Human rights Watch/Africa, said: “The essential point is that none of the past peace agreements had specific provisions to guard against human rights abuses. Immediate steps need to be taken to put this right. Otherwise the outlook is not very good, I’m afraid.”

Civil war erupted in Liberia in December of 1989 after Charles Taylor launched an offensive from Cote d’Ivoire to topple the late U.S.-backed dictator Samuel Doe. A West African peacekeeping force, Ecomog – the Ecowas Ceasefire Monitoring group — was despatched to the country in the summer of 1990 just as Taylor’s NPFL — then in control of the rest of the country – was on the verge of taking the capital Monrovia.

Some analysts contend that peace would have returned to the country by now had Taylor been allowed to form a government. But Ecomog, supported by the United States, steadfastly prevented this, allowing other factions to form and enter the fray.

Among the latter are Ulimo, which subsequently split into two ethnically-based factions – Alhaji Kromah’s Ulimo-K and the Johnson-led Ulimo-J – and the so-called Liberian Peace Council (LPC). The conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 150,000 people, wrecked the mineral rich economy and displaced more than half the pre-war population of 2.7 million.

Their reservations about the latest peace plan notwithstanding, rights activists say they welcome any initiative that can provide some respite from the killing. “If this peace plan brings an end to the fighting and temporarily stops abuses, then it would have been helpful,” says Calderwood.

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