Liberia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil liberties suffered dramatically in Liberia in 2002 following the imposition of a state of emergency. The government of President Charles Taylor said it imposed the measure to help counter a rebel incursion by Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) that reached within 50 miles of the capital, Monrovia, in January. Many Liberians suspected authorities were using the state of emergency as a pretext to crack down on Taylor's opponents. Several journalists, as well as human rights advocates and members of civil society, were arrested during the year. Several political prisoners remained in detention at the end of the year. The state of emergency, which also barred large public gatherings and political rallies, was lifted in September. Exiled opposition leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia in November 2002, apparently to prepare for presidential elections scheduled for October 2003. Opposition political parties pledged to rally behind one presidential candidate for the election, but there were no indications at year's end that the polls would be free and fair.

Liberia was settled in 1821 by freed slaves from the United States and became an independent republic in 1847. Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves, dominated the country until 1980 when army Sergeant Samuel Doe led a bloody coup and murdered President William Tolbert. Doe's regime concentrated power among members of his Kranh ethnic group and suppressed others. Forces led by Charles Taylor, a former government minister, and backed by Gio and Mano ethnic groups that had been subject to severe repression, launched a guerrilla war from neighboring Cote d'Ivoire against the Doe regime on Christmas Eve 1989. In 1990, Nigeria, under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led an armed intervention force, preventing Taylor from seizing the capital but failing to protect Doe from being captured and tortured to death by a splinter rebel group. The war claimed more than 150,000 lives and forced approximately half of Liberia's population to flee their homes before a 14th peace accord proved successful in 1996.

The United Nations in November 2002 extended sanctions against Liberia for another six months. Although peace was consolidated in neighboring Sierra Leone during the year, the international community still considers Taylor a threat to regional stability. The sanctions, which were initially imposed in May 2001, include an international travel ban on senior Liberian officials and their families, an arms embargo, and a moratorium on diamond exports. International human rights groups have called for a moratorium on timber exports as well. Taylor allegedly has used diamond and timber profits in the past to fund former Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone. Tens of thousands of Liberians have been displaced by fighting in the northwest. Unrest in neighboring Cote d'Ivoire in 2002 sent many Liberian refugees fleeing back over the border into Liberia.

Corruption is a major obstacle to economic growth. Diamond smuggling allegedly has provided income for Taylor, although he denies this. Liberia's infrastructure has deteriorated substantially in the past decade.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Charles Taylor and his party assumed power after the 1997 elections, which were generally free and fair. The votes for the presidency and the National Assembly, on the basis of proportional representation, were held under provisions of the 1986 constitution. The polls constituted Liberia's most genuine electoral exercise in decades but were conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation. Taylor's victory reflected more of a vote for peace than for a particular personality, as many people believed that the only way to stop the war was to make him president.

The EU in 2001 said considerable changes on the political, legal, and economic fronts were needed to guarantee free and fair elections in 2003. The government hosted a "national conference" in July 2002, but none of the country's main opposition leaders attended; many live in exile.

Liberia's judiciary is subject to executive influence, corruption, and intimidation by security forces. Human rights groups say security forces often ignore summonses to appear in court to explain disappearances, and operate with impunity.

International human rights groups say that civilians have become the main targets in the conflict in the northwest by government troops, their allied militias, and the rebel LURD. Abuses include torture of captives while in incommunicado detention, rape of women and girls, forced labor, forced military recruitment of men and boys, and extrajudicial killing. New York-based Human Rights Watch in April 2002, accused the Liberian government of war crimes and atrocities against civilians. London-based Amnesty International accused security forces of torturing dissidents. Numerous civil society groups, including human rights organizations, operate in the country, but their employees are subject to repeated harassment by security forces. Several human rights activists were detained in 2002. Aloysius Toe, executive director of the Movement for the Defenders of Human Rights, was charged with treason in December. Human rights workers have been allowed access to prisons, where conditions are harsh and torture is used to extract confessions. The government in March 2002 granted clemency to 21 government officials and military officers detained in 1998 and found guilty of high treason. They had been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Liberia's independent media have survived despite years of war, assaults, and harassment at the cost of extensive self-censorship. Charles Taylor owns KISS-FM, the only countrywide FM radio station. State television and one private station broadcast only irregularly. Some members of the print media have received death threats and are under persistent surveillance. Independent radio stations broadcast religious programming, but the Roman Catholic radio station, Veritas, has had programming on human rights issues. Several independent journalists were detained in 2002. The most prominent, Hassan Bility, was arrested in June and released in December following intervention from the United States. Bility, editor of the independent daily The Analyst, was held incommunicado without charge or trial. Authorities contended he led a LURD cell and was a "terrorist involved in an Islamic fundamentalist war." Detained journalists Ansumana Kamara and Mohammad Kamara were described by Taylor as "dissidents" and were to be tried by a military court.

Academic freedom is guaranteed, but student activists can face the same harassment and intimidation as the general population. Security forces stormed the University of Liberia in 2001 and beat several students during a protest.

Societal ethnic discrimination is rife, and the government discriminates against indigenous ethnic groups that opposed Taylor during the civil war, especially the Mandingo and Krahn ethnic groups. Religious freedom is respected in practice, but Muslims have been targeted because many Mandingos follow Islam. Treatment of women varies by ethnic group, religion, and social status. Many women continue to suffer from physical abuse and traditional societal discrimination, despite constitutionally guaranteed equality.

The right to strike, organize, and bargain collectively is permitted by law, but there is little union activity because of the lack of economic activity. Two umbrella unions cover some 60,000 workers, but most of them are unemployed. There is forced labor in rural areas, and child labor is widespread.