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What's Driving the Liberian Bloodbath Is the US Obligated to Intervene?
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Two weeks ago, after 14 years of intermittent civil war, a rebel army composed of teenagers with outdated rifles attacked Monrovia, Liberia’s seaside capital and have since taken control of a large portion of the country.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 He can be contacted at

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The Meaning of George Jackson One Big Prison Yard
One Big Prison Yard

"Sometimes it seems that this whole world
is one big prison yard,
Some of us are prisoners
And some of us are guards.

Ballad of George Jackson,
by Bob Dylan

George Jackson was originally convicted of a $70 gas station heist in his late teens and sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of one year to life. Because of his refusal to bend down and crawl on his knees, so to speak, he never again left the California prison system and was murdered by guards in the yard at San Quentin on August 21, 1971. By that time, George was a member of the Black Panther Party and a revolutionary hero to millions around the world. His book Soledad Brother is still in publication and is remarkable not only for its insights into Jackson’s life and thoughts but also for the emotionally charged writing it contains.

A year before his murder, his brother Jonathan was involved in an attempt to help free George and two other men known as the Soledad Brothers. On August 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson entered the Marin County Courthouse armed with a submachine gun. He hoped to force the release of the Soledad Brothers. These were three men — his brother George, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette — who were charged with the murder of two guards at Soledad Prison after a black prisoner who was also a Muslim was killed by guards. Jonathan gave guns to the three prisoners who were present in the court–John McClain, William Christmas, and Ruchell Magee, a jailhouse lawyer who was testifying at the trial of fellow prisoner McClain, whose trial Jonathan interrupted. The three then took the judge, prosecutor and three jurors hostage.

They left the courthouse and placed the hostages in a county van. Before the armed men and their hostages left the courthouse, the Marin County sheriff ordered his men not to shoot. Despite this order, the van was hit by a hail of gunfire from San Quentin prison guards and other law enforcement personnel immediately after it left the court building’s garage. Jackson, Judge Haley, McClain and Christmas were all killed. Magee remains in prison to this day, the sole survivor of this episode in US history.

Today, young black men are incarcerated at a greater rate than twenty years ago when Jackson died. In fact, the US prison system holds a higher percentage of its black population in jail than apartheid South Africa did during its heyday. According to a Justice Department report released on July 28, 2003, that over 10 per cent of black men between the ages of 20 and 39 were incarcerated in 2002. This figure contrasts with 1.2 per cent of non-Latino white males and 2.4 per cent of the Latino male population. Even more revealing are these numbers: the 586,700 black men in prison outnumber both the 436,800 white males and 235,000 Hispanic males. Furthermore, many of our country’s inner city areas where many of these young people live in are under what amounts to a state of siege. Using the excuse of a war on drugs, heavily armed police can arrest virtually anyone they wish and, if they deem it necessary, the police do not hesitate to kill. After all, if they do kill a suspect, chances are they will walk no matter what kind of outcry there is from the public.

Drugs, which when consumed by the current president in his younger days were but youthful indiscretions, continue to be the primary reason people are in custody. One would think that with the percentage of people in the seats of power today who tried marijuana in their youth, there would be a greater tolerance for those people who smoke it today. Yet, when today’s youth consume marijuana in a world much bleaker than that of twenty years ago, calls go out to jail them. In fact, in today’s climate, even those who use pot for medical reasons face the possibility of prison. According to the aforementioned Justice Department report, over half of the current federal prisoners are in prison on drug offenses. This is primarily due to sentencing guidelines that require mandatory minimums on sentences and an accompanying trend among state and county prosecutors to hand many drug cases over to federal prosecutors, usually under pressure from the feds. Indeed, a friend of mine just recently finished serving a ten-year sentence for LSD possession with intent to distribute (1st offense) because she was tried in federal court instead of by the state of California. If similar cases are any indication, she would probably have received some kind of supervised probation if she hadn’t been turned over to the Feds after refusing to turn in her friends. It’s not that drugs are not a problem, mind you, but the greater problem is a government and society whose solution to such problems is to take actions that would be illegal if they were committed by a civilian.

It was George Jackson’s belief that prisons are but the latest form of slavery. The scenario is pretty much the same: primarily poor people of color live in inhuman conditions providing forced labor for the state and private industry. The Nazis did the same thing in their prison camps, which is why Jackson often finished his letters to friends and family with the farewell, "From Dachau, with love." It is not enough for us on the outside to merely protest the imprisonment of prisoners in other countries, we must also examine the role we play in maintaining the so-called justice system at home.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.

He can be reached at: