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One Big Prison Yard

Two weeks ago, after 14 years of intermittent civil war, a rebel army composed of teenagers with outdated rifles attacked Monrovia, Liberia’s seaside capital and have since taken control of a large portion of the country. The battles have killed hundreds of civilians, filled refugee camps and led to an outbreak of disease. As an indication of the international’s community’s concerns about events there, on Friday, the UN Security Council voted during an emergency session to send a multinational force to calm the fighting while a new government is formed.

Despite various “cease-fires” and ongoing peace talks in neighboring Ghana, Liberia seems to be descending into chaos with no relief in sight. The main rebel group behind the attacks, Liberians United for Reconstruction and Democracy (LURD), has stated that it will fight any interfering peacekeeping force.

Of even more concern, the insurgents initial attacks seemed to be concentrated on the U.S. embassy, where thousands of terrified civilians gathered. Frenzied Liberians piled mutilated corpses in front of the embassy’s shuttered gates.

Many have called upon the U.S. to intervene, citing its “special relationship” with Liberia–which was founded primarily by freed U.S. slaves who left to create their own nation. Few accounts have detailed, however, precisely what the nature of this “special relationship” has been and why, from a moral perspective, it imposes obligations on the U.S..

In the following pages, I will use a legal concept drawn from contract law to explain the basis for the U.S.’s responsibility toward Liberia. The concept is “detrimental reliance.” A contract is an exchange of promises. When one party breaks its promises, and the other has relied on that promise and suffers as a consequence, the latter party is said to have “detrimentally relied.”

Liberia detrimentally relied on a number of promises and representations–explicit and implicit–made by the U.S. over the past century and a half. Historically, the United States has acted in such a way as to represent that it will provide for Liberia’s economic well-being and security. But over history, it has let Liberia down–at no time more conspicuously than now.

In a contract case in which detrimental reliance was shown, the remedy would be damages. In this human rights crisis, the proper remedy is aid; humanitarian intervention; and the U.S.’s sending troops immediately to stabilize Liberia and protect innocent persons there from further atrocities.

The “Special Relationship” Between Liberia and the U.S. : Lengthy and Deep

As a review of Liberian-U.S. ties will show, America’s special relationship is based on its using Liberia’s resources to advance its security interests, and for economic gain.

In the early 19th century, Paul Cuffe, a wealthy African-American merchant from Massachusetts, became convinced that the only way that American blacks could become self-governing was to emigrate to Africa. To this end, he helped create a transportation company called the American Colonization Society. With the U.S. government’s approval, the Society began to resettle free American blacks in Liberia.

Those pioneers were the original Americo-Liberians. In the small tropical nation, they quickly became the ruling group, assuming all positions of power and influence. Soon they constituted a U.S.-friendly elite. (It was also an elite whose skin color was typically lighter than that of the original Liberians. Sadly, then, the Americo-Liberians created a hierarchy that, in this respect mirrored the racial hierarchy they had endured in the U.S..)

In the 1920’s–in large part because of the presence of this friendly elite, and that of a considerable U.S. naval fleet just offshore–the U.S.-based Firestone Tire and Rubber Company founded the largest rubber plantation in the world in Liberia. The company installed Americo-Liberians in positions of power, and the small elite rose to economic prominence.

Subsequently, Liberia’s president, William Tubman–who ruled from 1944 to 1971–allowed the CIA to build the largest spy station in all of Africa within his borders. During the Cold War, the U.S. sank billions of dollars into developing surveillance equipment in Liberia. Liberia also functioned as a U.S. outpost from which the U.S. sought to undermine national liberation movements throughout the continent.

After Tubman’s death, his successor, President William Tolbert, angered the U.S. by courting favor with China and Cuba. Tolbert also angered most Liberians by showering privileges on his fellow Americo-Liberians. The ethnic and class conflicts between the Americo-Liberians and the darker Liberians grew.

In 1980, Tolbert was murdered by Samuel Doe–an illiterate warlord trained by the U.S. Green Berets. Doe became the first “true” Liberian to rule the country. Doe assassinated most of the former cabinet members as well as his fellow insurgents, and unleashed a wave of ethnic-based terror. Doe also exploited America’s Cold War fears concerning Africa. Famously, President Reagan–who handed Liberia more than $5 billion during the early 1980s–invited Doe to the White House, addressing him as “Chairman Moe.”

Charles Taylor’s Ascension to the Presidency

Around the same time, Charles Taylor–an Americo-Liberian who had graduated from Bentley College in Massachusetts, and was in prison there on charges of embezzling part of the Liberian national budget–escaped, and returned to Liberia.

Taylor quickly became Doe’s main adversary. He led a ragtag group of boy soldiers who for years hounded Doe’s army and the civilian population from their countryside hideouts. By the mid-1990s, that protracted civil war had claimed more than 200,000 lives. In 1997–as a result of national presidential elections that international observers concluded were essentially open and fair–Taylor won, garnering more than 75% of the vote of the war-weary population.

Taylor used his new power to foment instability in neighboring Sierra Leone, in large part so he could mine diamonds there to fund other regional military insurgencies. Indeed, over the past decade, Liberia has been at the center of a complex web of regional battles in West Africa ­one that has also consumed Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Nigeria–that has involved not only such diamonds, but also illegal arms sales, massive refugee flows, the use of child soldiers and unspeakable human rights abuses.

When the world became savvy to the problems of “conflict diamonds”–illegally mined and traded diamonds that could fund arms trade and terrorism–Taylor diversified his business interests, in ominous ways.

Recently, the Center for Investigative Reporting detailed the links between illegal harvesting of Liberia’s tropical rain forests and illegal arms smuggling in the area. The report noted that U.S. consumers are buying large volumes of wood products from Liberia–though it has been repeatedly sanctioned by the UN because of these sales. The report also noted that, unlike many other countries, the U.S. has failed to ban the import of Liberian wood, and thus to comply with the UN sanctions.

The Al Qaeda Link: The U.S.’s Continuing Interest in Liberia

Currently, the United States is particularly interested in the arms/wood trade in Liberia because Al Qaeda has been funding many of its activities through income sources such as diamonds and timber. Accordingly, Liberian intelligence may offer some help in tracking the financial dealings of Al Qaeda.

In addition, the U.S. fears that a destabilized Liberia could become a training ground for other terrorist groups. Its porous borders, excellent natural wealth and lack of any sort of government or control make Liberia, in some ways, a perfect base of operations for terrorists.

The Recent Crisis in Liberia Though Liberia has been troubled for a long time, the source of its current crisis is surprisingly recent. Less than two months ago, on June 4, a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone charged Taylor with “bearing the greatest responsibility” for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Shortly thereafter, Taylor promised to leave office.

As a result, a cease-fire among rebel groups was signed, and representatives of the surrounding countries started to plan for a new Liberian government. But when Taylor refused to set a date for his departure, the fighting quickly resumed.

Last month, Taylor accepted an offer of asylum from the President of Nigeria–who said he would shield Taylor from war crimes charges, but only if Taylor stayed out of Liberian politics. On Friday, a group of West Africa negotiators traveled to Liberia to try to arrange Taylor’s departure, yet, ominously, he disappeared shortly before their arrival.

The U.S. has demanded that Taylor leave the country before it will decide on the deployment of even a limited number of troops for a temporary mission, even though they are parked just offshore in several large combat vessels. However, Taylor has refused to leave until peacekeepers arrive–ironically contending that if he did, Liberia would descend into chaos and “total destruction.” The result is a stalemate during which Liberians will continue to die.

Unsurprisingly, without a credible threat that troops will soon arrive, the LURD and other rebel groups are pressing ahead with their attacks. Yet the African regional security body and the UN are hesitant to respond–and again, the main culprit is the U.S.’s mixed signals.

For all these reasons, it seems plain that the bombs will continue to fall in Monrovia. It also seems plain that the U.S. is in large part to blame for that fact.

Liberia’s Detrimental Reliance on U.S. Support

The sources of the U.S.’s responsibility to intervene in Liberia are twofold.

First, throughout Liberia’s history, its enduring relationship with the U.S. has brought Liberians to count on the United States for financial support and security. And that is only fair; the U.S. has not only interfered in Liberian politics, but has enhanced its own finances and security greatly as a result of its relationship with Liberia.

Under similar circumstances, France and Britain stepped in and established peace when their former colonies Ivory, Coast and Sierra Leone, were in turmoil. The U.S. should do the same.

Second, right now Liberians–as well as other West African nations, and the UN itself–are relying, to their detriment on the U.S.’s specific promises to send troops–promises that have yet to be fulfilled. Every day this reliance creates greater damage–damage measured in human lives.

It is high time for the U.S. to more fully intervene to help a country that has so long relied on its reciprocal relationship with the U.S., and on U.S. promises. If the U.S. fails to do so, especially when it could do so quite easily compared to other military involvements, the rapidly growing chaos in Liberia may well develop into a regional disaster. And that disaster could itself develop into a human rights catastrophe.

It’s important to recall that it was only a decade ago, in Rwanda, that civil unrest led to one of the worse human rights disasters of this century. The darker-skinned, subordinate Hutus suddenly, brutally slaughtered the light skinned minority Tutsis with machetes and other weapons. The U.S. not only failed to intervene at an early stage when it could have stopped the fighting–it also gave mixed signals to the U.N. and Africa security bodies, further delaying any possible intervention. That conflict left half a million dead and scattered a million refugees across the continent. The U.S. owes it to Liberia to prevent a similar outcome there.

As I noted above, a basic principle of U.S. contract law holds that if one makes a promise to someone who is hurt by relying on it, one must account for the damage one has caused. This simple legal ­and moral–principle explains why the U.S. is responsible for stopping the Liberian crisis before it becomes even worse.

NOAH LEAVITT, an attorney, practiced refugee law in Cape Town, South Africa. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Findlaw.com. He can be contacted at nsleavitt@hotmail.com.