Aloysius Toe - Age 27 (Liberia)
One of Liberia’s leading activists since 1996, Aloysius Toe has taken courageous stances on critical human rights issues, advocated against abuses, and educated Liberians about their rights.
Those rights have been brutally undermined since 1989, when Liberia was engulfed in the first of two civil wars. The first war ended with the election of former warlord Charles Taylor as president, but Taylor’s rule soon became characterized by political killings, arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, and deteriorating social conditions. The second war broke out in 2000 when rebels fought to unseat Taylor. Again, all sides perpetrated egregious human rights violations against civilians, including rape, summary execution, forced recruitment, widespread use of child combatants, displacement, looting, and banditry. With Taylor now exiled, the interim government is trying to rebuild a devastated nation.
Aloysius began his activism as a teenager, when he
found himself surrounded by turmoil. Armed forces
were arresting innocent people, including a sixteen-year-old
girl whose only crime was being from the wrong ethnic
group. Despite the protestation of Aloysius and his
fellow students, the soldiers executed the girl. “It
was like my soul was boiling within me,” Aloysius
says. “I could not stand by and simply watch
what was happening.”
From 1996 to 1999, Aloysius directed the Movement for the Defense of Human Rights, organizing 110 human rights clubs, raising awareness of the abuses of the Taylor government, and promoting human rights education within the Liberian school system. He also organized a network of 245 community-based human rights volunteers in rural communities to monitor and report violations. His leadership helped expose and challenge the practice of forced labor on Taylor’s farms. In 2001, he led non-violent protests against the politically motivated murders of student demonstrators and a prominent community leader. When he spoke out against the atrocities committed by Taylor’s son, he was arrested and imprisoned. After his release, he continued to protest human rights violations.
The most dramatic test of his courage came not long after. He was in hiding when, in an apparent assassination attempt, armed government operatives raided his home in the middle of the night, held a pistol to his wife’s head, tossed her in the back of a pickup, and hauled her off to jail. Although their small children were left alone, neighbors were too afraid to leave their own homes to come to the children’s aid. Rather than flee the country and leave his family vulnerable to retribution, Aloysius turned himself in to authorities. He was charged with treason and imprisoned for eight months. He escaped when Taylor’s regime collapsed.
It was then that Aloysius realized his role as a human rights leader had only just begun. A lack of infrastructure, huge numbers of displaced people, and desperate levels of poverty have together sparked a further crisis for Liberia. The interim government must disarm, retrain, and provide meaningful work for more than 40,000 former combatants, including some 15,000 children. Hundreds of thousands of civilians must be reintegrated into their towns and villages. The army and national police must be revamped and retrained. And the crumbling, looted infrastructure of hospitals, schools, and courts must be rebuilt.
Aloysius realized that most of the Liberian organizations working on human rights were focused on civil and political rights. Little or no work was done on social and economic rights – and the widespread, crushing poverty made the entire country vulnerable. So in 2003 he established the Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy, Liberia’s first nongovernmental organization concerned with social, cultural, and economic justice. He now works on transitional justice issues to ensure that human rights are central to the peace process in postwar Liberia. As part of that mission, he is involved in a campaign to bring former president Taylor to trial in a special court in Sierra Leone.
“I dream of one day being able to sleep in peace in my own home, in my own country,” Aloysius says. “And I dream that one day we’ll be regarded as a dignified people, as a country with direction, as a country with national spirit.”