Liberia Mission Report, 2003

At the request of the Head of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) Jacques Paul Klein, ILAC conducted the first post-conflict assessment of the Liberian judicial system. Between 19 November – 3 December, 2003, a seven-person team visited the Liberian capital, Monrovia, and rural areas of Liberia. The team met with more than 150 Liberians, including members of the judiciary, lawyers, police, prison officials, legal academics, NGOs, church leaders, human rights advocates and ordinary Liberians. The ILAC report made recommendations for the short, medium and long term reconstruction of Liberia’s legal system.


At the request of the Head of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) Jacques Paul Klein, the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) conducted the first post-conflict assessment of the Liberian judicial system. This Report summarises ILAC’s findings. In accordance with the terms of reference provided by the SRSG, this Report makes recommendations for the immediate reestablishment of two criminal courts in the capital, Monrovia, and for the short, medium and long term reconstruction of Liberia’s legal system.

Liberia, Africa’s oldest democracy, was founded in 1822 by US President Monroe as a safe haven for emancipated slaves. Independent since 1847, Liberia has a Constitution, the institutions of parliamentary democracy, and an adversarial legal system. The working language is English. Of the population of approximately 3.3 million, approximately 5 per cent are descendants of US and Caribbean slaves; 95 per cent are indigenous Africans.

Currently best known for its civil war and the role of its former president, Charles Taylor, in the war in Sierra Leone, Liberia had a skilled population and abundant natural resources. After 20 years of war, atrocities and torture, Liberia is now the world’s poorest country. Average annual income is USD 140. Life expectancy is 41.

Governed by the minority Afro-American settlers, Liberia enjoyed relative stability until the early 1980s, when Samuel Doe launched a military coup, suspended the Constitution, and assumed full power. In 1989, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, rebelled against Doe’s arbitrary rule, overran much of the country and in 1990, executed Doe. War intensified as rebels splintered and fought each other, the Liberian army, and peacekeepers sent by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

In 1993, the UN Security Council established the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL). Following a 1995 peace agreement, Charles Taylor was elected as President in 1997. Taylor formed a new government and announced a policy of national unity and reconciliation.

Peace-building was hindered by the inability of the government and opposition parties to resolve their differences over key issues of governance. National reconciliation was undermined by systemic abuses of human rights, the exclusion and harassment of political opponents, and the absence of security sector reform. In 1999, a new rebel faction, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) entered Liberia through Guinea and attempted to overthrow Taylor’s government. By 2002, conflict extended throughout Liberia. Battle lines shifted frequently and rural areas were denied access to vital humanitarian assistance.
In early 2003, a second rebel faction, Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) emerged. Again, the factions fought each other, Taylor’s armed forces, and other militia. In June 2003, rebels launched two separate attacks on Monrovia. Approximately 600 were killed and vi thousands were displaced. Food shortages, rapid inflation, massive looting, and outbreaks of cholera and dysentery followed.

On 8 July 2003, as fighting between government forces and warring factions intensified, the UN Secretary-General appointed Jacques Paul Klein as his Special Representative (SRSG) in Liberia. On 29 July, the Secretary-General outlined a three-phase deployment of international troops to Liberia, on 1 August the UN Security Council authorised the establishment of a multinational force in Liberia, and on 11 August Charles Taylor resigned and went into exile in Nigeria.
On 18 August, the Liberian parties signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Accra, Ghana. By that Agreement, the parties requested the UN to deploy a force in Liberia and to assist in the implementation of the Agreement. On 19 September, the Security Council authorised the establishment of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). Comprising up to 15,000 UN military personnel, 1,115 civilian police officers and a large civilian component, UNMIL is the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission.

Since UNMIL’s establishment on 1 October 2003, significant progress has been made in the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Monrovia and surrounding areas are stablising, disarmament has commenced, schools are reopening, and humanitarian assistance has reached rural areas.

UNMIL is committed to re-establishing the Liberian legal system as a matter of urgency. At the request of the SRSG, ILAC’s assessment was designed to review the current status of the Liberian judicial system and to identify and prioritise reforms which may ‘kick-start” that system in post-conflict Liberia. To do this, the ILAC team arrived in Monrovia less than seven weeks after UNMIL was established. It met with more than 150 Liberians, including members of the judiciary, lawyers, police, prison officers, legal academics, representatives of non-government organisations (NGOs), church leaders, human rights advocates, and ordinary Liberians.
Serious problems remain. Liberian society has collapsed, 150,000 are dead, 100,000 were displaced in Liberia, and a further 150,000 sought protection in neighbouring Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire. There is massive systemic corruption, the infrastructure is little more than a decaying shell, and under the terms of the amnesty granted to rebels by Comprehensive Peace Agreement, many of those who committed atrocities cannot be brought to justice.

There is an almost unanimous distrust of Liberia’s courts and a corresponding collapse of the rule of law. Liberia’s Constitution provides for an Anglo-American legal system, but in reality, there is no effective separation of powers, a limited understanding of the principles of transparency and accountability, little knowledge of contemporary notions of human rights, limited access to legal advice and defence counsel, and unconscionable delays. Taylor’s government withheld salaries from judges, prosecutors, court staff, police, and prison officers for 2.5 years. Judgement, freedom, and even life itself, were often sold to the highest bidder.

But after 20 years of civil war, Liberians want change. Liberia has sufficient qualified and experienced jurists. Training in judicial and professional independence is a priority, criminal procedure requires a radical overhaul, prosecutors must be recruited, defence counsel must be made available to indigent defendants, and a detention centre must be built. Police and prison officers require comprehensive training in all aspects of their duties, and transparency and accountability must be integrated into all areas of government.

Liberia is likely to require significant long-term assistance from the international community, together with a sustained commitment to reform by the Liberian government and its people. It vii must decide how to deal with those responsible for atrocities for which amnesty has not been granted. It must also consider whether to establish a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These are hard questions, to which there are no easy answers.

Rapid improvement is possible. This Report recommends short-term, practical projects that are designed to “kick-start” the Liberian judicial system in 2004. These projects will have immediate, tangible and visible benefits in Monrovia and the surrounding counties and will provide a foundation for medium and long term projects. This is first step in the process of reestablishing the rule of law in Liberia, and in developing confidence, both Liberian and international, in Liberia’s legal system.

The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs generously provided the funding for this mission.