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Liberia: The Key to Ending Regional Instability


While the international community has made great strides in improving the security situation in Sierra Leone, Liberia remains a wellspring for continued conflict stretching across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Given the regional ambitions of its president, Charles Taylor, and his continued willingness to use proxy militia fighters in neighbouring states, the hard won peace in Sierra Leone remains in jeopardy.

While the armies of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have largely remained confined to their national territories, militias such as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) - effectively Liberian President Charles Taylor's foreign legion - the Sierra Leonean Kamajor "hunter" militias and a range of Liberian dissidents have battled with little regard for national borders.

The remarkable intervention of the international community to end the war in Sierra Leone has helped shift the front line of what is a regional conflict away from the capitals of that country and Guinea to within striking distance of Liberia's capital, Monrovia. Liberia's internal situation has been the dynamic that has provided fuel for the broader war, and no peace in the region will be viable until it is dealt with more forcefully.

That situation has returned to the spotlight as a result of the recent gains made by the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). While limited information is available, the LURD is a serious military force capable of challenging President Taylor's control over much of Liberia. It has received material support from Guinea and Sierra Leone militias and the calculated indifference from Great Britain and the U.S. - all increasingly wary of Taylor's adventurism. However, the LURD is also an organisation in flux, without defined political program or unified leadership.

Open warfare may now be confined to Liberia, but conditions for its spread are ripe. The RUF remain active just across the border from Sierra Leone inside Liberia. President Taylor continues to harbour dissidents bent on invading Guinea. Sierra Leonean "hunter" militia opposed to both Taylor and the RUF are keen to join an advance on Monrovia.

Taylor continues, with Libyan support, to push a grand scheme of political change in West Africa. He has been the key figure in the attempted destabilisation of Guinea and Sierra Leone. His continued violation of UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions and history of using peace agreements to secure tactical military advantage suggest that the current Mano River Union peace process is not the answer to the regional crisis. That process is largely an attempt by President Taylor and his allies to ease LURD pressure, buy time for a counterattack, and produce sanctions on Guinea. It should not divert attention from the primary cause of the crisis: Charles Taylor himself.

Taylor's rule has fuelled much of this regional instability. Operating under a thin veneer of democracy, his Liberia is an increasingly impoverished cauldron of discontent in which any real challenge to the ruling elite is met with at least intimidation. Many opponents have been driven out of the country. However, increasing numbers are eager to return home to challenge Taylor's leadership

With UN sanctions against Liberia due to expire in May unless renewed, the international community faces tough choices. Much of the debate comes down to engagement or containment. Those pressing engagement argue that Taylor should be encouraged to pursue domestic reforms and mend his ways. Advocates of containment counter that he is irredeemable, and argue for weakening his regime through sanctions in the hope that he will eventually be removed from within.

Unfortunately, these seem to be false choices with a potentially high cost for Liberians and the region. Engagement threatens to guarantee Taylor another unfair election victory in 2003 and to risk that the cycle of conflict continues another six years. Containment threatens to produce a protracted civil war or descent into chaos if Taylor is removed without a viable opposition ready to take over.

What is needed is a two-track approach aimed at truly free and fair elections. Both pressure and "principled" engagement should be used to obtain a negotiated solution that ends Liberia's conflict and secures fundamental reforms, including restructuring of the armed forces, return of opposition, and guarantees of freedom of expression and political activity. Taylor must also be pushed to understand that if conditions for free and fair elections are absent at the end of his term next year, the international community will press for power to pass to an impartial interim government, which will rule until necessary reforms have been made.

This type of compromise must be hammered out in a setting which includes all Liberia's principal stakeholders. Success depends on whether the international community can exert enough pressure on the Taylor regime, primarily through sanctions, to make it willing to strike a deal, and on whether the opposition and civil society can unify. Because of the influence it exerts on Taylor, Libyan cooperation with the international effort would be important.

As noted, a peace agreement itself will not bring sustainable change to Liberia. The time before the end of Taylor's term must be used to promote "change from within". Although the opposition is divided and civil society is weak and largely co-opted by Taylor, there are courageous exceptions that can serve as a foundation. The international community should commit itself to diplomatically encouraging the development of responsible alternatives to Taylor's regime, and give significant financial assistance to civil society to help it serve as a viable alternative. Unless it is willing to address the underpinning of the violence in Liberia, the region can expect mostly more misery, death and destruction. Long-term attention is not always the international community's forte, but the situation in Liberia demands just such an approach.



  1. Form a "Contact Group" to align positions on Liberia and help create a peace process including all Liberia's principal stakeholders. One or more Contact Group members should take the lead in consulting with the Libyan government.

  2. Pressure the LURD, its sponsor Guinea and the Liberian government to negotiate a ceasefire and to convene substantive peace negotiations including civil society and opposition.

  3. Demand that the Liberian government implement a program of comprehensive institutional reform, including security sector reform and re-establishment of rule of law to pave the way for free and fair elections.

  4. Make clear to President Taylor that if he does not meet conditions for holding free and fair elections by the end of his term, the international community will press for power to pass to an impartial interim government.


  5. Support the peace process in Liberia, in particular by:

    • maintaining the arms embargo on Liberia until the conflict is fully resolved, and lifting diamond and travel sanctions only if the Liberian government agrees to an acceptable negotiated solution;

    • developing a more vigorous mechanism to monitor the enforcement of sanctions effectively, vigorously pursuing prosecution of key businesspeople assisting the Liberian governing in violating those sanctions, and ensuring that the travel ban applies to all these associates; and

    • imposing maritime and timber sanctions on Liberia if it does not make acceptable concessions in a negotiated settlement, or if it does not fulfil its commitments in that settlement;


  6. Ensure the impartiality of staff working at the UN Peace-Building Office in Liberia to avoid a pro-government bias.

  7. Strengthen the role of the UN Peace-Building Office in Liberia by revamping its human rights component to monitor effectively and report on the security of civil society and opposition groups.

  8. Instruct the UN Peace-Building Office in Liberia and UN and international humanitarian organisations operating in the region to engage in a limited fashion with the LURD to encourage it to respect the human rights of civilians under international humanitarian law and otherwise to pursue a moderate political agenda.


  9. Fund a comprehensive program of institutional reform if the Liberian government agrees to an acceptable negotiated solution.

  10. Initiate immediately a substantial program for funding independent Liberian civil society and media institutions, focusing on public information, advocacy, civic education and mobilisation, and rural outreach, including support for establishment of independent short wave radio stations in Liberia and surrounding countries and of FM radio antennas throughout Liberia.

  11. Provide international guarantees and monitoring to ensure the security of vulnerable opposition and activist figures.

  12. Support opposition leaders and parties in the event they, and international observers, concur that the opportunity for full and free participation in the electoral process has been denied, and refuse to recognise a government resulting from those elections.


  13. Convene a forum of opposition parties and civil society groups not co-opted by the Taylor government to develop common positions.

Freetown/Brussels, 24 April 2002


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