Struggling to Establish a Culture of Respect for Human Rights in Liberia---a Christian Challenge for the People of Liberia
(A speech delivered by Tiawan Gongloe at the Grace Orthodox Presbyterian, Philadelphia)
October 21, 2002
Rev. George F. Morton, Pastor of the Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church Elders and members of the Grace Orthodox Church, Members of the Liberian Community
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
Cllr Tiawan S. Gongloe
Although, I am grateful for your prayers, and under normal circumstances, I should be beaming with smile in expression of my joy, I cannot do so because as I speak to you, Hassan Bility, a journalist, Sheikh Sackor, a human rights advocate and many innocent Liberians are languishing in police cells and other government detention centers in Liberia for no legally justifiable reason. The Liberian judiciary which should serve as the avenue for relief from such gross abuse of human rights has been made powerless by the Government of Liberia's continuous failure to obey court orders for the release of these innocent Liberians. I believe that the surest way out of the helpless and hopeless condition in which these innocent persons find themselves is through prayer. I therefore call on you my brothers and sisters in Christ to stand up in one moment of silent prayers for their deliverance, in the same way that your prayers delivered me. Let us also
pray that those who govern Liberia today will change from their wicked ways and begin to respect the rights of the Liberian people to live a normal, useful, happy and prosperous life.
It is against this background, dear brothers and sisters that I want to speak to you briefly, on the topic; struggling to establish a culture of respect for human rights in Liberia---a Christian challenge for the people of Liberia. You are probably asking the question what is the importance of the issue of human rights to Liberia, what is the relationship between
Christianity and human rights, and why is there a need to establish a culture of respect for human rights in Liberia?
What is the importance of the issue of respect for human rights to Liberia? Following, the abolition of slavery in the United States, black people, who were formerly slaves, legally became citizens of the United States and pay taxes to the Federal Government. However, they did not, at that time, enjoy the full rights associated with citizenship. American history is replete with accounts of the struggle of the American people in dealing with this problem of inequality. While the struggle for equal rights in America was on, there evolved an alternative view that a home could be created outside the United States for freed black slaves, a place where freed black slaves could enjoy their full rights as human beings. Consistent with this view, an organization called the American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed. The members of the ACS were mainly Christian philanthropist in the United States. In the early 1 800s, the ACS established various colonies in West Africa along the Atlantic Ocean. Hundreds of freed slaves were re-settled in these colonies from the United States and later the Caribbean. Also, slaves recaptured on slave ships from the Congo basin were re-settled in these colonies.
In 1847, these colonies evolved into a nation state. The settlers in these colonies named their new country Liberia, a land of liberty. The first president was Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a freed slave from the United States.
Given this background, Liberia was founded on the dream that it would be a land in which all basic human rights would be respected. This dream is expressed by the motto of Liberia; "The Love of Liberty Brought us Here". Although, Liberia is now 155 years old as an independent republic, the dream upon which it was established remains illusive. Its history is full of incredible accounts of denials of basic human rights.
Responsibility for the abuse of human rights in Liberia has principally been upon the government of Liberia, which at one time or the other has been exclusively controlled by either of the two major segments of the Liberian population: the Americo Liberian segment and the indigenous segment. The Americo-Liberians governed Liberia from 1847 to 1980. This period was characterized by gross abuse of human rights centered largely around the exclusion of the indigenous Liberians by the Americo-Liberians
from participation in the governance of Liberia. In 1980 there was a military coup d'tat led by indigenous Liberian non-commissioned military officers. During the period of this violent change of power, nearly all the leaders of the Americo-Liberian population of Liberia were executed without due process of law. The coup makers formed a leadership structure called the peoples Redemption Council (PRC) and ironically promised to protect the rights of all Liberians and ensure good governance. The ten years the PRC stayed in power were full of yearly accounts of violations of human rights in ways that were not imagined and shattered all hopes for positive change. The story of human rights violations under the PRC is catalogued in the book entitled The Promise Betrayed, written by Bill Berkely.
In 1989 the current president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, lead a military attack, with the support of indigenous Liberians, on a government led by Samuel Doe, the indigenous Liberian who led the coup against Americo-Liberian rule after 133 years in power. The name of the attackers later became known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The attack evolved into a full-scale civil war that lasted for seven years and resulted in the death of over 250,000 Liberians, while others were subjected to diverse forms of human rights abuse.
With the help of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the larger international community, the Liberian civil war ended in 1997 with the holding of general and presidential elections. Charles Taylor, who started the civil war, was elected president of Liberia. At his inauguration, the new president promised to promote democracy, good governance, respect for the rule of law and human rights, particularly, the respect for the right to freedom of expression. However, in five years the current government of Liberia has created a record that shows greater violations of human rights than all previous governments of Liberia. Students, journalists, workers unions, human rights advocates, politicians and lawyers have fallen victim to the on-going abuse of rights in Liberia. This government too, like governments before it has failed to make the Liberian dream of making Liberia a land of liberty a reality. As a result, thousand of Liberians are in exile in the United States, Europe and various African countries. It is against this background that some of us have dedicated our lives to the promotion of human rights in Liberia as a manifestation of our commitment to our Christian faith.
Perhaps the question that is lingering in the minds of some of you, dear Christian brothers and sisters is what is the relationship between human rights and Christianity. In my view, there is a close and perhaps, an inseparable relationship between Christianity and the promotion of human rights. As recorded in the book of Exodus, among the ten commandments given to Moses by God at mount Sinai are "You shall not murder" Exodus 20:13 and "You shall not steal", Exodus 20:15. The commandment "you shall not murder" is clearly in recognition of the sanctity of life. This law is the origin
of the concept of the right to life and all rights associated with life, including liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Similarly, the commandment, "you shall not steal" is the origin of the concept of the right to own property. The right to property is also covered by the commandment "you shall not covet your neighbor's house " Exodus 20:17. Additionally the need to respect human rights was summarized by our Lord Jesus Christ in one sentence, "Do to others as you would have them do to you" Luke 6:31. Since every person enjoys certain basic God-given rights, and would not want them taken away, no one should take away or deny the rights of others. This is an instruction from our Lord Christ himself. Further, on one occasion when Jesus was asked "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" He replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments" Matthew 22:36-40. If you love your neighbor as you love yourself, you cannot violate his basic rights as a human being. Commitment to the respect for the basic rights of others is a demonstration of our firm belief in our Christian faith.
Love, is the key word, in my mind, that Jesus used to deal with the question of human rights.
In further emphasizing the need to treat our fellow human beings properly, Jesus admonished all Christians that on the last day he will separate the people with one group on his right and the other on his left. To those on his right he will say "Come you who are blessed by my father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." Then the righteous will ask Him the question when did they see Him and do all these things to Him and God will say, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Mathew 25:31-40. This admonition from our lord about the need to show love and care for our fellow human beings is the foundation for the respect for the dignity of the human person and our Christian faith, for we cannot hate and mistreat our fellow human beings and claim to love God whom we do not see and consider ourselves Christians.
What can be done by Christians to ensure respect for human rights in Liberia? I believe that the only way forward for Liberians of the Christian faith is to manifest their commitment to Christianity by very closely living according to the teachings of Christ about how we should threat other human beings. It is a contradiction that, in spite of the clear teachings of the Bible regarding how Christians should treat other human beings, Liberia, whose president, chief justice, speaker of the house, and cabinet ministers, particularly its ministers of justice, defense and national security are all Christians is currently listed amongst the countries in the world with the worst human rights records. We therefore, appeal to all Christians, here and other parts of the United States to pray for the Christians of Liberia to rededicate themselves to the Christian faith. I appeal to you my brothers and sisters that you will pray for Liberians, particularly the leaders of Liberia to humble themselves, pray to God, turn from their wicked ways of violating the rights of the people, so that God can forgive them and heal Liberia as God said in II Chron.7:14. I appeal to you my brothers and sisters to join the Liberian people in praying for peace and transformation in Liberia. I appeal to you to join Liberians in praying for making Liberia live up to its dream of becoming a land of liberty.
Liberia stands in great need of deliverance from a reign of terror and wickedness to a period of peace and love, from a reign of death and destruction to a period of respect for life and reconstruction of basic infrastructure and from a reign of extreme poverty, ignorance and disease to a period of sustained economic growth, prosperity, good health programs and the building of a just and humane social order. Liberia needs your help.
I thank you.