Author: Human Rights Council
Site of the publication: United Nations Human Rights Office
Type of the publication: Report
Date of the publication: April 2023
Liberia is a low-income country that is still recovering from a lengthy and destructive civil war. It relies heavily on foreign assistance and remittances from the diaspora and the exploitation of natural resources. Liberia is endowed with water, mineral resources, forests and a climate favorable to agriculture. Its principal exports are iron ore, rubber, diamonds and gold. Palm oil and cocoa are emerging as new export products. Levels of poverty and inflation are high and decent work is scarce.
It is estimated that more than half of the population lives in extreme poverty, with poverty more than twice as high in rural areas, and around 83 percent of the total population lives on less than $1.25 per day. The country experienced serious economic impacts prior to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic due to the Ebola virus disease crisis. Infrastructure remains extremely poorly developed and only 45 per cent of the population can access an all-season road within 5 km. Access to electricity is estimated at 19.3 per cent at the national level, 32 percent in urban areas and only 1.4 per cent rural areas.
The informal economy is the primary source of employment and income for almost 90 per cent of the population. Seventy-four per cent of all female workers are informal laborers, including 41 per cent of university-educated women compared with 24 per cent of university-educated men. This large informal economy poses significant challenges for the regulation and taxation of businesses. Growing the formal economy and supporting the role of small and medium-sized enterprises will be important for the development of the economy and was a specific request of business associations with which the Working Group met.
The role of such enterprises is critical for addressing businesses-related human rights abuses, including labor exploitation. While the Guiding Principles apply to all business enterprises, the Working Group acknowledges that small and medium-sized enterprises face unique challenges in implementing human rights due diligence processes and establishing effective operational-level grievance mechanisms; governmental leadership in this context will be particularly important. The first step will be to counter a lack of awareness of the Guiding Principles and of the responsibility of all companies, irrespective of their size, to respect human rights.
Since the civil war, the country has not benefited from a full accountability process. The role of businesses and the battle for control of natural resources in fuelling conflict has not been broadly addressed. However, responsible business plays an important role in promoting sustainable peace and the implementation of the Guiding Principles should be understood as particularly important in this context.
Law and policy framework
Liberia has a sound legislative framework related to business and human rights, including labor rights, occupational health and safety and the environment. The Working Group was encouraged by the commitment shown by many ministries and departments to the development of legislation reflecting the international human rights commitments that Liberia has adopted.
The Land Rights Act of 2018 clarifies land tenure, land governance, administration and management. Article 3 guarantees equal access and equal protection with respect to land ownership, use and management, including ensuring that customary land is given protection equal to that for private land. It also sets out that the right to land ownership is provided for all Liberians regardless of identity, custom, ethnicity, tribe, language, gender or otherwise.
Human rights defenders and meaningful participation
The participation of communities in decision-making processes, including provisions for free, prior and informed consent, are included in various legal instruments, such as in the Community Rights Law of 2009 and the Land Rights Act of 2018. There are also provisions for participation in environmental and social impact assessments and in the negotiation of mining development agreements. These are all positive developments.
The Working Group was concerned that protecting the right to the meaningful participation of affected communities remains a serious challenge and a source of potential or actual social conflict. Meaningful consultation with communities is central to human rights due diligence, as set out in the Guiding Principles. Consultation enables the early identification of concerns and grievances so that actors can better understand the potential impacts of a project on local people and the environment.
Human rights defenders and community representatives should be seen not as enemies but as constructive partners who have knowledge of local conditions and can provide businesses with information regarding the local context and the potential impacts of their activities. Media outlets also have an important role to play by refraining from demonizing the legitimate work of human rights defenders and explaining to the public the importance of that work.
Human rights abuses in the agribusiness and extractive industries
The failure of mining and agricultural concessionaires to comply with human rights standards was a major concern for the Working Group. The Working Group learned that land grabbing, forced displacement without adequate compensation, and disputes over land property were prevalent, despite positive reforms in the land-rights regime providing, inter alia, for the participation of communities regarding land-related issues. Groups at Risk
The Working Group was concerned to observe that government buildings were inaccessible to persons with disabilities. As the public sector is a major employer in the country, the exclusion of workers with disabilities from this section of the labor market is problematic. Similarly, the lack of adequate sanitary facilities in public buildings poses challenges to those living with conditions that require access to clean water and those living with vulnerabilities to infection.
The use of child labor was of particular concern to the Working Group. Repeated testimony concerned the use of children in some palm oil and rubber plantations in different parts of the country. It was reported that parents had extremely high daily targets imposed by employers for the collection of produce and needed the support of their children not to lose their daily wages, which meant that the children were providing unpaid labor instead of going to school.
Gender aspects of business and human rights
The Working Group welcomed the initiative by the Government to establish gender units in all ministries. The Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection reported that it was working to mainstream gender-related issues in government initiatives and with the Liberia National Investment Commission and the National Bureau of Concessions to ensure.
Workers’ unions and civil society reported that discrimination in access to the labor market and in the workplace was frequent for women and for sexual and gender minorities, the latter due to stigma and lack of protection in the law. The very few employment opportunities available in the country, particularly in remote areas, places women at great risk of sexual violence and in a situation of occupational blackmail in which women are forced to suffer lest they lose their only source of livelihood.
Differentiated impacts on women and girls, men and boys are still present when it comes to the impacts of business operations. Women carry an additional burden relating to traditional gender roles and girls face numerous obstacles in access to education, particularly when families prioritize the education of boys in contexts of extreme poverty. Girls face risks to their physical integrity in transit to schools, such as those provided by companies, walking long distances on their own, without public transportation or adequate roads in concession areas. The Working Group observed all these challenges when visiting concession areas.
Access to justice and effective remedies
The Working Group found that serious challenges existed in relation to access to justice and effective remedies. The lack of accountability and the ongoing impunity for serious human rights abuses has led to an erosion of confidence in public bodies. The Working Group heard repeatedly from those who suffered from business-related human rights abuses that there were numerous obstacles to seeking and obtaining justice for harms caused.
It heard that this was because of, among other issues, a general lack of information available to individuals and communities about their rights and the remedies available, a lack of free legal aid, very long criminal and civil judicial proceedings and a general lack of public trust in institutions. While some cases have reached successful resolution, many others have remained before the courts, sometimes for years, without a final determination. Solid and well-resourced justice institutions and transparent accountability processes promote sound and sustainable economic growth. Liberia should focus on those areas as part of its work on implementing the Guiding Principles.