Liberia and Human Rights

Samuel Kofi Woods II is an attorney who has been actively involved in human rights activities in Liberia since the mid-1980’s. He is the recipient of several awards, including the Benemerenti medal awarded by Pope John Paul II in 1999 and a human rights award from Reebok in 1994. He is also one of the activists profiled in the recent book by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, Speak the Truth to Power. He can be reached at George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America, interviewed him while he was visiting the New York City office of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.

When and why did you leave Liberia?


I left Liberia in December of 1998 because my life was threatened by the security forces of President Charles Taylor. I had been a youth activist and student leader working for human rights, and in 1986 and 1987 president of the University of Liberia Student Union. Because of my human rights work among the students, I was arrested in 1987, after my graduation from the university with a degree in economics and management. I was then banned from employment and travel. That led to my decision to study law: it seemed the best way to try to transform my own agony over the government’s flagrant human rights abuses into a means of helping others who were suffering because of them, especially after the civil war broke out in 1989.

As a result of my involvement in human rights issues, the Liberian Catholic bishops invited me in the early 1990’s to help establish the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission. From 1991 until I left the country in 1998, I was its national director. The challenge for the commission was to develop ways of responding to the needs of the people in a time of war, when the state was in a virtual state of collapsewhich it still is, even though the war ended in 1997.

What were some of the activities you developed with the commission?

We began to document abuses committed by the various armed groups that were fighting. We wrote up reports and publicized them locallyand abroad too, to build international support for the plight of our people during that time of chaos. A group of us who were attorneys also visited the jails and prisons to assist with free legal representation people who were being detained illegally and denied due process. Many of these people spent long periods behind bars without being brought to trial. Some were journalists who were arrested and held because of what they had written.

There were also cases of people who disappeared. One who stands out in my mind was a former ally of Taylor, Samuel Dokie, who turned against Taylor and became one of his critics. He and his wife and two relatives were arrested, vanished and later were found dismembered and burned. The government denied any knowledge of what might have happened to them, but we filed a writ of habeas corpus, and finally it became clear that government security forces were implicated in their murders.

Another approach we took was to run programs on the Catholic radio station in which people who had suffered abuse told their own stories about what had happened to them.

What was the response to these activities that challenged the government?

Human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch began to criticize the government’s human rights abuses, and Western European governments gave support to our programs. They knew that the lives of some of us were in danger. The then-director of the Liberian security forces sent me letters accusing me of slandering the government, and President Taylor made public statements claiming that I wanted to destroy the country.

The situation became so threatening to my personal safety that when armed conflict broke out in Monrovia in 1996, the U.S. Marines evacuated me. I had almost been killed when armed men went looking for me in my hiding place. Fortunately, I was not there. As to my family, I had already moved them to another location apart from where I was hiding.

How did President Taylor react to the international attention the commission’s work was receiving?

Because of that growing international pressure stemming from the work we continued to do after the war ended, Taylor decided to set up the government’s own national human rights commissionbut it was only a facade, an effort to deflect the criticism of the international community. His commission has done nothing to address human rights abuses. I was in a neighboring country at the time, and during my absence he named me to serve on it, but I publicly rejected his nomination. In his eyes this almost amounted to a crime, so on my return he called me in. I asked Archbishop Michael K. Francis to come with me as a credible witnesshe is my immediate boss. We spent three hours with President Taylor, and they were difficult hours. At the beginning he tried to intimidate me, saying that if I didn’t respect him, I should respect the presidency. We disagreed on most of the points that he raised; but at least by the end of this long meeting, it was clear that there had to be a greater level of tolerance for dissent in Liberia, for the sake of peace and stability. We ended on that note. There were other subsequent conversations, but with the same kinds of disagreement.

How did you come to leave Liberia for The Netherlands?

With international attention growing and in view of the increasing tension I was experiencing with the Liberian government, the Dutch government invited me to go to The Netherlands with my fiancée and children. I was offered a two-year scholarship to study at the University of Leiden, which awarded me a master’s degree in public international law last year. It is not yet safe for me to return to Liberia; I am still on President Taylor’s hit list. But I do intend to remain with the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and eventually to go back. In the meantime, the bishops of the five English-speaking countries in West AfricaGambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana and, of course, Liberia itselfhave been in touch with me about the possibility of establishing a regional justice and peace commission for that whole area, because the conflict there has transcended specific national borders. I might go to any one of those countries, depending on the wishes of their bishops about where I should be based. They are all concerned about the war in Sierra Leone.

What role does Liberia play in the ongoing civil war in Sierra Leone?

The rebels in Sierra Leone first launched their attacks on its government from Liberian territory in 1991, and they were helped with arms provided by President Taylor, who used diamonds smuggled from Sierra Leone to build his war machine by buying arms from Ukraine and other central European countries. The United Nations Security Council is now considering imposing sanctions on Liberia because of Taylor’s actions fueling the war through the use of these smuggled diamonds. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, has called Taylor the Milosevic of Africa.

What has been the position of the U.S. government toward Taylor?

In spite of concerns raised by human rights groups and Taylor’s lack of commitment to both domestic and international law, for much of the 1990’s the United States government ignored clear evidence of Taylor’s determination to establish a totalitarian regime and destabilize the West African sub-region. It was a kind of benefit-of-the-doubt approach. While it did not provide direct support for him, the U.S. government seems to have been influenced by some of Taylor’s sympathizers at the time, such as former president Jimmy Carter and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Both of these have since withdrawn their personal support, but the impact of their previous position on Liberia remains.

In recent years, Taylor’s involvement in diamond running in Sierra Leoneand his capacity to export violence to other parts of West Africacompelled the U.S. administration to declare him a pariah and to isolate his government. On the eve of Mr. Clinton’s departure from office, his administration imposed a travel ban on Taylor and his officials and embarked on the present effortalong with Great Britainto back the U.N. Security Council’s proposed sanctions, which would impose not only travel restrictions but also a ban on diamond and timber exports, which are paying for arms imported from Eastern Europe. The proposed sanctions are sending a clear message to Taylor, but it has come very late and at a cost.

What should the U.S. government be doing to support democracy and human rights in Liberia?

I hope that the Bush administration will pursue not only a sanctions policy, but also adopt other measures that would help to ensure greater tolerance for dissent and respect for human rights. Besides backing the sanctions, the U.S. government should increase its support for pro-democracy and human rights groups that are articulating an agenda for greater support for human rights and for greater participation by the people in decision making. It should also call on Mr. Taylor to release all political prisoners and journalists and stop his support of the rebels in Sierra Leone and Guinea.

What is the present state of Liberia’s economy?

The Liberian economy is in shambles. It is controlled by a fiefdom of Taylor and his close associates. Little investment is coming in from the outside. Unemployment levels are high, and as a result there is a mass exodus from the country. Families are disintegrating, with women turning to prostitution to survive and boys joining the security forces as their only future. There is no running water or electricity except around the palatial compound of Taylor himself. The John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, which is government operated, is all but closed. The schools are dilapidated, and teachers are not being paid. Yet when Taylor ran for president in 1997, he promised to build up crucial parts of the infrastructure like these.

Religious institutions run by Catholics, Lutherans and others are helping to fill some of the gaps in essential services. The big Catholic hospital in Monrovia and various clinics are assisting with health care needs, and they also operate a number of schools. But they simply do not have the resources to meet needs that are so vast in scale.

What are the greatest challenges facing your country?

The greatest need is to develop political leadership that is accountable and transparent, that genuinely evolves from the will of the people and that could lead to a greater sense of unity and reconciliation. Taylor has two more years in office, and whether there will be truly free elections after his term is up in 2003 is doubtful because of extensive corruption in the present government. When possible contenders for the presidency appear, they are threatened. The security forces continue to commit human rights violations with impunity. Even the judiciary is under government control. There is no real freedom of the press, either. Journalists are harassed, and some have fled. To remain open at all, the newspapers have to practice what might be called self-censorship.

Are there any signs of hope?

There are certainly signs of hope. I am optimistic that good can eventually triumph over evil; my optimism is premised on the perseverance and deep commitment of the Liberian people and the friends of Liberia as the movement for democracy and human rights gains momentum. But to accelerate the process, Liberians will have to unite and discover the common ground for collective action.

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