By Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights
In my line of work, it is all too rare to observe great progress. But that is what I found in Liberia two weeks ago. The previous time I had visited, in 2004, the effects of the terrible war were everywhere. I was moved to see what has been achieved since then, which is largely due to the government and people, with vital support provided by the United Nations Mission in Liberia.
However, the progress notwithstanding, there is a great deal that needs to be done to improve the human rights of Liberians. This is why I came to finalize an agreement with the government to open a new UN Human Rights Office in the country once UNMIL departs next year.
As we do elsewhere, this office will conduct human rights monitoring and reporting, as well as provide important technical assistance to state institutions, including the Independent National Commission for Human Rights, in addition to civil society groups.
During several meetings with the President and several cabinet ministers, as well as leading civil society activists and ambassadors, I solicited opinions on Liberia’s human rights challenges in order to determine the priorities for the new office.
High among those priorities were harmful traditional practices, many of which are in violation of international human rights treaties ratified by the Government of Liberia. They also lead to enormous suffering, especially for women and girls.
While the authorities have made some efforts to stop some practices – for example, by banning trial by ordeal and developing stricter regulations for bush schools – many informed me that enforcing regulations has been a challenge. Others stressed what they perceive as a lack of political will by state actors to tackle such practices, particularly female genital mutilation (FGM).
In May 2015, Liberia’s leaders pledged to criminalize FGM during the Universal Periodic Review, a review of the human rights records of UN member states. Despite this public assurance, the provisions aimed at banning FGM were removed from the Domestic Violence Act passed by the national legislature this year.
We urge the authorities to do far more within their power to end harmful traditional practices, and we encourage efforts to engage local leaders, educate communities, and provide alternative sources of income particularly for FGM practitioners.
Prolonged pretrial detention was also identified as a critical human rights challenge during my visit. According to the most recent statistics, 63 percent of the total prison population are detainees awaiting trial. I visited Monrovia Central Prison and witnessed terrible overcrowding, due largely to delays in judicial procedures. It also leads to inmates receiving insufficient food.
While we recognize the efforts of the government to allow some detainees speedier trial, the “fast-track” adjudication of cases only benefit those accused of low-level crimes. The majority of detainees, however, are accused of serious offences, and are therefore denied their right to due process. The accused are condemned to months or years of misery, even though many of them may be innocent of any crime.
I also visited the Palava Hut Memorial in Paynesville, the site of a mass grave for victims killed during the war. It was a somber moment that served as a reminder of the unspeakable atrocities that some Liberians inflicted on others. But, more importantly, it is a reminder that justice is yet to be delivered to the hundreds of thousands of war victims, and to those who continue to live with the trauma of the past.
It was made undeniably clear to me during my time in Liberia that many Liberians desire the implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including those that call for criminal accountability. We will be counting on the new Government of Liberia, to be formed following the October elections, to make transitional justice a paramount concern.
What we have learned in so many countries is that national reconciliation to overcome the horrors of the past is essential for moving forward to a sustainable shared future. Liberia’s leaders should remember that their country is unlikely to be the exception to this rule, and that true peace won’t be possible if the Liberian people feel that their desire for justice remains unmet.