Good morning! First, a big thank you to Naymote and its executive director, Eddie Jarwolo, for the invitation to be here, as well as for the excellent work that the organization does throughout the year to advance accountability and good governance in Liberia. For years, Naymote has been – and continues to be – a trusted partner of the entire U.S. Mission, and a good steward of grant funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. We’re also proud to count Eddie as a State Department exchange alumnus. Thank you, Eddie.
It’s an honor to speak to you at the 12th iteration of the Carl Gershman Democracy Lecture Forum, not least because Ambassador Gershman has been a lifelong champion for democracy, including as President of the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States, from 1984 until 2021.
But also because the subject of democracy is a very timely one here in Liberia. This is an auspicious year for the country, as 2022 marks both the bicentennial of the arrival of the first Black American immigrants under the banner of the American Colonization Society (in 1822) and the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Republic 25 years later (1847). As these dates indicate, our shared history with Liberia goes back to the early days of the United States.
Democratic governance was always a core value that we shared with Liberia, whose constitution – modeled after our own – clearly aspired for Liberia to be a strong democracy, with democratic representative government, democratic institutions, and democratic separation of powers.
As we begin the third century of this unique bilateral relationship, it is fitting to take stock of where Liberia is in this 175-year democratic journey. I’ve been asked to speak to two specific elements of this democratic stocktaking: the U.S. Government’s annual Human Rights Report, and Liberia’s participation in the Biden Administration’s “Summit for Democracy” and that Summit’s “Year of Action.”
The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices are submitted annually by the U.S. Department of State to the U.S. Congress in compliance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The law requires that these reports cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That Declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December, 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. It set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages. The Universal Declaration is widely recognized as having inspired, and paved the way for, the adoption of more than seventy human rights treaties.
I mention the Universal Declaration on Human Rights for a very important reason: Liberia was one of the founding signatories to the Universal Declaration at that 1948 General Assembly in Paris. This means that when the Department of State reports on Liberia’s human rights record, it is not holding Liberia to our idea of human rights standards, but to Liberia’s own commitments to meet international human rights standards.
As with other countries, the human rights report on Liberia, which was released in April, reports both the good and the bad. It notes, for instance, Liberia’s successful and peaceful elections in 2017 and 2020. It notes that opposition and independent candidates are allowed to compete on equal footing with ruling party candidates, and defeat ruling party candidates, as happened in 12 of the 15 Senate seats contested in December 2020. It notes that civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over Liberia’s security forces. Liberia should be proud of these achievements.
But the report also notes that there were credible reports of several types of human rights violations in Liberia over the last year, including serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on freedom of the press including threats against journalists; lack of investigation and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons; some prisons with harsh and life-threatening conditions; child labor, and others. The report also notes that many of these human rights abuses go unpunished.
We view the annual human rights report not as a means to punish Liberia, but as an opportunity for Liberia to take stock of the current state of human rights in the country and identify ways it can make improvements and reaffirm itself to its own human rights commitments. That is the spirit with which it is written, and that is the spirit in which we hope it is received.
In fact, the Human Rights Report also included cases in which abusers of human rights were brought to justice. For example, the Report details examples in which law enforcement officers from the Liberia National Police and Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency were dismissed and even arrested for violating human rights. Although the goal is always to prevent bad actions before they happen, it is also a sign of genuine democratic progress when governments respond seriously when misconduct and ethical violations do take place. Rare is the country with zero misconduct and ethical violations, and the United States certainly cannot make that claim.
The overarching goal of the United States here is to support Liberia’s progress toward becoming a post-civil war, democratic and economic success story. We seek to do this by supporting efforts to combat corruption and official impunity, strengthening government, media, and civil society institutions through targeted assistance, investing in future leaders through bilateral exchanges, driving inclusive economic growth to reduce poverty, and advocating for steps that would create a stable environment inhospitable to transnational crime and other security threats.
These objectives are actively shared by our Liberian government partners. However, sharing objectives is not the same as fulfilling them. It will require a new level of commitment from Liberia’s government leaders to achieve these objectives.
The civil war devastated Liberia’s economy, and the Ebola outbreak, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, further hurt growth. However, nineteen years after the war ended, it is not these historical factors, but rather corruption and misgovernance that are most responsible for Liberia’s continued ranking as one of the poorest, most underdeveloped countries in the world. This, despite decades of massive donor efforts to help rebuild its post-war economy and democratic institutions.
The United States is the largest bilateral donor to Liberia, with over $5 billion in bilateral assistance since the civil war ended in 2003. On a per capita basis and adjusted for inflation, that assistance is more than double that of the Marshall Plan’s investments in Europe, to say nothing of the additional assistance many other international donors have provided to Liberia. While some Liberians have asked whether the United States will provide a Marshall Plan for Liberia, the more accurate and relevant question is: what has Liberia done with the Marshall Plan-sized assistance we have already provided?
In addition to receiving enormous levels of foreign assistance, Liberia is blessed with a favorable climate, reliable rainy season, huge agriculture potential, an incredibly rich mineral endowment, a long coastline with four ports fronting highly productive fishing grounds, and investors ready to develop these natural endowments – not to mention the second-largest vessel registry in the world. Why, then, are private investors not pouring money into Liberia? Why does Liberia remain among the ten poorest countries in the world, nearly 20 years after the civil war ended?
I believe a big part of the answer was identified by Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Africa at our National Security Council, Ms. Dana Banks, when she spoke at the national bicentennial celebration at SKD Stadium here in Monrovia on February 14. At that event, she said the following regarding the history of the Republic: “Too many of Liberia’s leaders have chosen their own personal short-term gain over the long-term benefit of their country. The expectation, sometimes, is that the United States and the rest of the international community will step in to solve Liberia’s long-term problems. So let me be clear. The United States is a proud and dedicated partner and friend of Liberia. But ultimately, only the Liberian Government and the Liberian people can tackle corruption, fight for accountability and transparency, and move this country forward.” End quote.
Indeed, we are proud to be Liberia’s primary supporting partner, but without greater ownership by government leaders of their own country’s future, it will continue to be a lopsided partnership that bears meager fruit.
Government corruption is a fact of daily life for Liberians and businesses alike.
Corruption in Liberia robs citizens of access to vital services, including healthcare, public safety, and education. It degrades the business environment for U.S. interests, subverts economic opportunity, and increases inequality. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and former U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Linda Thomas-Greenfield recently stated, speaking about Liberia, quote,
Corruption is an act of robbery, plain and simple. It’s a cancer in our societies. It is government stealing from the people of Liberia, from the mouths of children…. Corruption is a democracy killer, and we cannot have that in a place like Liberia, which we’re counting on as a bulwark for Africa’s democracy.
Perhaps most relevant for today’s event, corruption erodes the integrity and independence of democratic institutions, fuels a growing trust deficit between government and society, feeds political division and unrest, and increases national insecurity.
In other words, corruption plain and simple is the enemy of democracy. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that there are some simple steps that can be taken to push back the tide of corruption. For instance:
- Asset declarations by public officials are required by the Code of Conduct here in Liberia. These are not complicated or difficult. For those public officials who complain that they are wrongly accused of corruption, the first question is, “have you complied with the code of conduct and officially declared your assets? If not, why would we take your word for it?” Declaring assets would also help answer related questions, such as “how are senior government officials reported to have constructed mansions and apartment complexes in Liberia and elsewhere, on government salaries?”
- Judicial and legislative independence are fundamental to the health of a democracy. Why do we regularly see stories in local media, and hear so often from Liberian officials themselves, that the integrity and independence of the judicial and legislative branches of government are routinely compromised by influence and pressure, including from the executive branch? I believe a joint effort by all branches of government could put a quick stop to this.
- Integrity institutions are designed to strengthen the fabric of democracy in Liberia. But they require adequate funding and government support for fulfilling their legal mandate. Instead, we are told repeatedly that Liberia’s integrity institutions suffer from inadequate budgets, cash flow interruptions and lack of government support that in many cases prevents them from meeting their mandate. Some of them even tell us that they are under political pressure to NOT fulfill their mandate. Many Liberians insist that integrity institutions do not prosecute politically connected defendants.
- County governments comprise a fundamental component of Liberia’s democracy. Why don’t counties receive the level of funding due to them under Liberian law?
- The Liberia National Police is severely understaffed and under-funded. Although police corruption may well exist, we have also heard of police officers asking victims or their families for gas money, not because they wish to enrich themselves but because their own government fails to provide the basic operational funding needed to fill a tank of gas to respond to emergencies. Although the Liberian government has announced plans to recruit 1,000 officers, the LNP has not yet received funds to start this desperately needed process. Each day’s delay maintains the status quo of insecurity in Liberia—and raises concerns that in the end, the recruitment process will be rushed and politically influenced, rather than a transparent process designed to train those who truly desire to serve and protect Liberia’s citizens.
In a healthy democracy, citizens are entitled to ask these kinds of questions of their government, and the government is obligated to provide transparent and truthful responses. But what we find too often in Liberia today is that, while the media environment readily permits such questions, those who ask them are treated as political enemies, and comprehensive answers are rarely forthcoming.
This brings me to the second topic I was asked to speak on today – the Biden Administration’s Summit for Democracy.
The first Summit for Democracy took place on December 9, 2021, and there are plans for a second summit in the first half of 2023. Only a select group of countries was invited to attend these summits. This year, 2022, has been designated as the “Year of Action” to advance the summits’ goals, which are to defend against authoritarianism, address and fight corruption, and promote respect for human rights. At the summit, each invited leader, including President Biden and President Weah, announced specific actions and commitments to enact meaningful internal reforms and international initiatives that will take place during this year.
On behalf of the United States, President Biden announced his Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal as our commitment to democratic strengthening in the United States. This initiative expands our efforts to defend, sustain, and grow democratic resilience with likeminded governmental and non-governmental partners. It centers on five areas of work crucial to the functioning of transparent, accountable governance, including supporting free and independent media, fighting corruption, bolstering democratic reformers, advancing technology for democracy, and defending free and fair elections and political processes. The U.S. Department of State also announced a complementary set of initiatives.
President Weah announced the Government of Liberia’s own interventions for the Year of Action, which I think are outstanding examples of specific and meaningful actions that will grow democratic resilience right here in Liberia. Here are the commitments that he made on behalf of the Government of Liberia:
Just as years ago, Liberia committed itself to international standards of human rights, so it has now committed itself to being a stronger democracy. I applaud President Weah for these commitments, and I have encouraged the press and the public – as I encourage all of you today – to keep track of the interventions this year and the government of Liberia’s efforts and progress toward meeting them. As the saying goes, the price of democracy is eternal vigilance.
As Liberia’s enduring partner, we support the commitments that President Weah made for the “Year of Action” and have long invested in programs to realize similar goals. But one thing we cannot do is achieve those commitments for Libera. We can only assist where we are able and commit to holding the leadership of the government of Liberia accountable for achieving them. We would not be good stewards of U.S. taxpayers’ money, nor would we be good partners to Liberia, if we sat quietly and said nothing as misgovernance and corruption continued with impunity. Guided by the new U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption, another Biden Administration initiative, we will support responsible governance, bolster Liberians in the government and private sector who are fighting for accountability and transparency, implement programs that build capacity in this area, and call out those who turn a blind eye or condone corruption and malfeasance. And in all of these efforts we will work with our international partners.
I am committed to beginning the third century of our bilateral relationship with a new chapter based on a continuing strong partnership, genuine accountability, and a renewed hope for a better Liberia to come.