Valerie Brender – Human Rights Watch
From 1989 to 2003, Liberia was engulfed in two civil wars that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced another one million. The West African country, now headed by Africa’s first elected woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is politically stable and rebuilding, assisted by numerous international donors and institutions.
Since early 2013, UNMIL has begun to draw down its peacekeeping forces—which currently number around 8,000 uniformed personnel—with the goal of more than halving its presence by 2015. Increasingly, maintaining law and order will be under the sole stewardship of Liberia’s government and its security forces.
The government has emphasized the importance of the security sector, specifically the police, in post-war human rights compliance and human development. Its two major development plans—the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) and Liberia Rising/Vision 2030—stress the importance of a professionalized security sector in securing human rights and access to justice.
The Liberia National Police (LNP), which stands at 4,417 police officers, is now twice the size of the army and bears the primary responsibility for maintaining law and order and creating the stability required for Liberia’s post-conflict economic prosperity.
But Human Rights Watch’s research in Liberia found that the ability of the police to enforce the law and investigate wrongdoing is severely compromised by lawlessness and abuse that police officers themselves inflict on ordinary Liberians, especially those living on the margins. The police force is riddled with corruption and a lack of professionalism and accountability. A 2012 survey showed that Liberians perceived the police to be the most corrupt institution in Liberia; the courts were a close second.
From November 2012 to February 2013, Human Rights Watch interviewed over 220 people about police abuses and the policing challenges.
Regardless of location, victims of police corruption frequently expressed their concern that in Liberia, “justice is not for the poor,” or “no money, no justice.” They described police extortion at every stage of a case investigation—from registration of a complaint to transportation to the crime scene, to release from police detention. This institutional neglect has created the credible perception among many Liberians that wealth, not guilt, determines the outcome of a criminal case.
UNMIL itself has flagged poor police conduct as a potential impediment to safeguarding peace and security in Liberia. The report also noted that while the development of security institutions had received considerable attention, there had been less of a focus on governance and accountability mechanisms for these institutions, which remain weak.
Rampant police corruption compromises the rule of law in Liberia and violates the rights of ordinary Liberians. Police harassment and extortion result in threats to life, liberty, and the security of the person. It also denies the poor equal protection of the law and hinders their ability to provide for their families, obtain an education and health care, and reap the benefits of Liberia’s much-needed economic development.
Mob Violence and Vigilante Groups
Many Liberians told Human Rights Watch that people distrust the police’s ability to properly investigate crimes or protect them from violence, which encourages popular support for vigilante groups and mob violence to achieve “justice.” Liberian newspapers frequently display photographs of mutilated faces and bodies after a vigilante or mob attack. A county magistrate summarized, “The way police handle matters, it makes people want to take matters into their own hands.”
Poverty Reduction Strategy and Vision 2030
The UNDP progress report on Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy states that, “Security is a central component to recovery … underpinning the environment for economic growth and development, good governance and the provision of basic social services.” But the absence of effective institutions of accountability jeopardizes security and development.
As Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy is now being transitioned into “Liberia Rising 2030” or “Vision 2030,” a campaign to make Liberia a middle-income country by 2030, efforts to promote the rule of law are essential. The plan does aim to make government institutions accountable and ensure equal protection under the law. But Vision 2030 is far more focused on economic development and progress than transformation in the security sector.
As long as the Liberian police extort the country’s poor and foster distrust with the broader population, development and respect for human rights in this long-suffering nation, particularly for those most vulnerable, will remain distant goals.