Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee
Chairman, Committee on International Policy
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
May 29, 2003
The cruel conflict in Liberia continues to intensify as forces loyal to President Charles Taylor combat two rebel groups, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). This conflict threatens the peace and stability of Liberia's neighbors, particularly Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Since 1999, the people of Liberia have suffered the grave consequences of a civil war that has cost the lives of thousands of innocent civilians. More than one million people have been forcibly displaced while another half a million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Government and rebel forces have been accused of committing egregious human rights abuses, including the sexual abuse of women and young girls and the conscription of minors for military service, massive looting, ethnic massacres, and other atrocities. Health and educational infrastructures, already in tatters from the first civil conflict in 1989-94, have been devastated by the war. Unemployment hovers at over 85% and most legal economic activities are at a standstill.
In the midst of an intractable civil war, the Catholic Church and other religious organizations serve as the last remaining structures capable of providing essential social services, particularly health and education, in the absence of a viable state. Despite efforts by the Catholic Church and other religious institutions to promote peace and reconciliation, government and rebel forces continue to choose violence over dialogue, and the pursuit of selfish political and economic gains at the expense of the civilian population. Church representatives and workers are subjected to systematic harassment and abuse by government security forces and are further traumatized by attacking rebel groups. Churches, hospitals, and other buildings belonging to the religious communities of Liberia have been pillaged and destroyed by rebel groups and by forces loyal to President Taylor. Despite these many setbacks, the Catholic Church pursues its mission to serve those who are most affected by the war.
The government of Liberia has long been suspected of involvement in stoking conflict in the neighboring states of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, through illegal arms transfers in exchange for diamonds and other economic benefits, and aid to armed insurgents. President Taylor's government, in turn, has accused the neighboring governments of Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Sierra Leone of supporting and arming the two rebel movements, LURD and MODEL. Peace and stability can only come to Liberia if all governments in the region end all support for insurgent forces, bring an end to the arms trafficking, and build a consensus on a well-coordinated and implemented program of national and regional reconciliation. This will require greater assistance from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations' International Contact Group on Liberia, and the United States in particular.
Together with the Catholic Church in Liberia, we remain convinced that there can be no military solution to the civil war in Liberia. We support the recent decision of the U.N. to extend an embargo on arms sales, targeted travel restrictions on members of President Taylor's government and military establishment, and the embargo on diamonds originating from Liberia. We support the call of the Catholic Church and the Interreligious Council of Liberia for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, and for negotiations leading to the creation of a government of national unity. Such a government must include not only the parties to the conflict, but also representatives from civil society in Liberia and the diaspora, the Catholic Church and other religious groups, and legitimate opposition parties. This government would be responsible for seeking to promote reconciliation among all peoples, and to prepare for future presidential elections. We urge the international community, particularly the members of the International Contact Group on Liberia, to prepare for the deployment of an international military stabilization force which will be necessary in order to guarantee security for the citizens of Liberia. Finally, we urge all parties to the conflict to provide safe corridors to allow for urgently needed emergency relief assistance for Liberians, refugees from neighboring countries, and third country nationals.
We call upon people of faith to reflect upon the needs of the people of Liberia and to pray for a deep and lasting peace. Our prayers will help to sustain them as they deal with a legacy of violence and as they pursue justice, truth, and reconciliation. In the words of Archbishop Michael Francis, "peace in Liberia is possible only if people commit their lives to the pursuit of justice and truth."