A U.S. Congressional panel Tuesday reviewed American policy toward civil-war torn Liberia. Lawmakers heard evidence the Liberian government continues to obtain weapons, despite a United Nations embargo.
For months, forces loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor have been fighting a rebel group called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, known by the acronym LURD. The fighting has sent tens of thousands of Liberian refugees to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, threatening to destabilize the region.
A panel of experts briefed a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the situation. Binaifer Nowrojee of the New York-based Human Rights Watch Africa Division, said despite a U.N. embargo on Liberia, the government is obtaining weapons illicitly. "There is a documented network of arms brokers and transport companies that are providing false documents and relying on lax controls in places like Slovakia and Moldova, Ukraine, Kyrgystan, to arrange these illegal weapons purchases," she said. "Other countries are providing cover. For instance in 1999 and 2000, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast provided false cover for arms shipments destined for Liberia."
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Walter Kansteiner, says President Taylor found a way around U.N. sanctions to get funding for illicit weapons, lend support to rebels in Sierra Leone, and arm his security forces. "Charles Taylor created new sources of revenue, primarily through trading illicit diamonds. He provided the conduit in the past through which the [Sierra Leonean rebels] RUF got their diamonds out and by which they were marketed," says Mr. Kansteiner. "Mr. Taylor also contracted with the Oriental Timber Company and with other foreign logging firms that exploit the indigenous forests of Liberia."
Mr. Kansteiner and Ms. Nowrojee of Human Rights Watch described the Taylor government as repressive and corrupt, lacking in respect for human rights and the rule of law.
The panel's chairman, Democratic Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, agreed. "I think the current President of Liberia is a war criminal, and I hope to see him held accountable for his actions in a court of law," he says. "I strongly support our continued efforts to isolate and pressure the Taylor regime."
But Benedict Sannoh, a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, says the U.S. policy of isolation is a policy of abandonment. He called on the United States to take an active role in helping Liberia move toward peace and democracy. "You seem to have abandoned us. Today the United States is a world leader, and Liberia remains in chaos and instability."
Mr. Sannoh called on the United States to help form a contact group of nations that would work to facilitate a cease-fire and help supervise elections, scheduled for next year. He also called for greater U.S. efforts to strengthen independent media in Liberia and condemn human rights abuses being committed by both Liberian and LURD rebel forces.
Ms. Nowrojee of Human Rights Watch agreed with the recommendations, and added that Washington should also seek to strengthen U.N.-mandated controls on the flow of weapons into Liberia.
Assistant Secretary Kansteiner said the United States is doing its part. He spoke of U.S. efforts to help bolster the Liberian political opposition, and is training journalists to help strengthen the independent media.
Mr. Kansteiner said he would support a global ban on sales of timber from Liberia as a way to crackdown on illicit weapons purchases.
U.S. aid to Liberia amounted to $6.5 million this year, including $1.6 million in humanitarian assistance.