By Mark Huband 

Legal protection played absolutely no part in the Liberian conflict. No side considered establishing camps for holding prisoners of war. Instead, all perceived enemies, soldiers and civilians alike, were executed—many after having been tortured. Indeed, from the point of view of simple morality, not to mention international humanitarian law, the Liberian civil war of 1990–1997 was a horror story pure and simple, a conflict in which the law was ignored and every possible act of brutality was committed.

Still, however anarchic events in Liberia seemed to outsiders and however barbarous they were, the country’s collapse into civil war during the early months of 1990 was not an unavoidable event, the man-made equivalent of a natural disaster. Instead, it was the culmination of years of political crisis. For, in reality, Liberia had lost its way long before the rebels led by Charles Taylor launched the war that left their nation in ruins.

Outside actors, particularly the United States, played a central role in the Liberian catastrophe. For the Americans, Liberia had had an historic relationship with them and had been a useful Cold War ally, and they were unwilling to oppose any regime that came to power in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. The decision of the United States to support the 1980 coup of an obscure Liberian army master sergeant, Samuel K. Doe, and, subsequently, to bolster Doe’s corrupt and chaotic dictatorship for the decade that it lasted, led ineluctably to the disaster of the civil war. For if the war to overthrow Doe soon became a grotesque story of horror, greed, and atrocity in which every tenet of humanitarian law was broken on a daily basis by all sides, the seeds had been sown in the period of Doe’s rule.

Once the fighting began in earnest, though, it was clear that the factions had no intention of even paying lip service to the laws of war, nor to the laws governing the protection of civilians during wartime. All the factions acted with a sense of complete impunity, and they were not wrong in sensing that the outside world cared little about what was going on in Liberia and certainly would do nothing to prevent the atrocities that were taking place there. At no time, for example, was there any talk, as in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, of setting up an international tribunal to try the worst offenders. And this impunity gave the slaughter a further momentum.

But the collapse of Liberia’s State structures was at the root of the descent into savagery. As the government forces lost territory to the approaching rebel force led by Charles Taylor, its administrative authority rapidly collapsed. The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) effectively took over, imposing military rule. But by this time the military itself could no longer be considered a national institution. Doe’s tribal allies within the army hierarchy first isolated and then began killing troops from other tribes, whom they assumed to be sympathetic to Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).

Before very long, a combination of the AFL’s inherent indiscipline and ineffectiveness as a fighting force, and the failure of the government to rally tribes other than Doe’s Krahn to its side, transformed the government army into just one more warring faction. This loss of legitimacy was itself a major factor in furthering the violence, since AFL soldiers came to regard the war as a fight for personal survival. The burning of villages and the slaughter of their inhabitants came to characterize the AFL’s strategy. And as rebel forces drew closer to Monrovia, the AFL unleashed a reign of terror on the capital. Civilian disappearances became commonplace, and bodies began to pile up in the streets.

Predictably, it was civilians from tribes associated with the NPFL who were the most vulnerable. One of the worst of these massacres occurred in Monrovia’s St. Peter’s Church on July 29, 1990. A survivor recounted what had happened: “The soldiers shot the door open, and took all the food they could see inside, and they killed the woman who had the key to the [church's] warehouse, after raping her. Guards stood at the gate and we stayed inside. Nobody could leave, and then it got dark, and the soldiers came back the same night… There were around 200 [AFL] soldiers who came in. And they began cutting a boy with a knife, and they cut and cut everybody with their knives and machetes.”

The night of terror left six hundred people dead. Neither senior AFL officers nor government officials ever denied responsibility. The church was unprotected and had a large Red Cross flag on its gate. The leader of the massacre, Michael Tilly, had committed numerous acts of grotesque violence before and enjoyed the protection of individuals within the AFL and the government.

Obviously, such attacks on civilians by troops under the command of a government are totally prohibited by international law. Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions imposes on military units the obligation to protect civilians, and to distinguish in their operations between combatants and civilians. Noncombatants are protected persons in civil wars as they are in wars between States.

This does not mean there was no purpose to massacres like the one perpetrated at St. Peter’s Church. The AFL’s victimization and murders of civilians was ostensibly meant to discourage recruitment to the NPFL. But pressure of this kind is also illegal under international humanitarian law. The AFL’s attacks on what it perceived as “enemy tribes” might be regarded as attempted genocide as defined by the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. For although genocide was not the declared aim of the AFL, their attacks on the Gio and Mano tribes arguably amounted to an attempt at extermination of all or part of those peoples.

Predictably, AFL atrocities were matched by those of the NPFL led by Charles Taylor, whose election as president of Liberia in 1997 marked an end to the war, as well as by those of the breakaway Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), led by Prince Johnson. The direct testimony of countless rebel fighters attests to this. As an NPFL soldier named Elijah McCarthy told me, “I wear a ring and two fetishes on rope around my neck. If you are my enemy, the ring will burn me. If somebody is my enemy I will take him on one side. People beg. They say: ‘Please don’t kill me.’ But I don’t trust them. I have killed fifty people. I cut off their heads or shot them. They begged for their lives. But I didn’t trust them.”

As life in Monrovia became intolerable, and refugees fled into NPFL-controlled territory, the sight of fleeing government officials being executed at NPFL checkpoints became almost routine. And it was not only government officials. Numerous NPFL fighters, most of them teenagers, admitted to routinely killing civilians to whom they took a dislike. To talk about the protections afforded by the Geneva Conventions may seem almost bizarre in the circumstances, but the 1949 Conventions demand protection for civilians and aliens. Yet foreigners, in particular Nigerians, were routinely killed, in part as a message to the Nigerian government that it should not send a peacekeeping force to end the conflict. The 1992 murder of five American nuns living in rebel territory may also have been intended as a warning.

At one point, Prince Johnson ordered his INPFL fighters to hold forty-eight foreigners hostage, apparently in an effort to draw the world’s attention to Liberia. Such hostage taking is specifically prohibited by Article 4 of the 1977 Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions. But then, that violation was perhaps the least of Johnson’s offenses against international law. It was Johnson who captured and tortured Doe to death in 1990. He had the deposed president’s ears cut off and then ate them while the entire event was captured on film. Paradoxically, Johnson’s troops were probably less guilty of violence against civilians than the other belligerents.

Such acts of physical mutilation, however, were a hallmark of the Liberian conflict, and ritualistic killings were committed by all sides. That they are prohibited by Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions, of Additional Protocol II, and further contravened the customary principles stated in the the articles of the Brussels Conference of 1874, the Hague Conventions on land warfare of 1899 and 1907, and the Geneva Convention of 1929 governing the treatment of prisoners of war, was always obvious, and, alas, totally irrelevant. Perhaps, if there had been, as in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide of 1994, the expectation of a tribunal to try the worst offenders the situation might have been different. But there was not. The result is that, just as they were during the war, the criminals who survived are still very much on the loose, and one of them now occupies the presidential palace in Monrovia.

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