25 April 2019

Liberia: Avoid Selective Human Rights Posture

The departure of former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf which led to the ushering in of international soccer legend, George Weah in 2018, as Liberia's 24th president, made many people to look at the administration of president Weah with eagle eye. First, to know whether he would uphold the principles of good governance, respect for rule of law, protection of human rights, protecting investment among others.

But more importantly, to know whether some of his campaign promises, especially, providing protection for foreign investment, which may lead to an influx of new business into the country. Not only to foreign investment, but also to the media, non governmental, international, government and other related institutions.

"To the private sector, I say to you that Liberia is open for business. We want to be known as a business-friendly government. We will do all that is within our power to provide an environment that will be conducive for the conduct of honest and transparent business. We will remove unnecessary regulatory constraints that tend to impede the establishment and operation of business in a profitable and predictable manner," he said.

"As we open our doors to all foreign direct investments, we will not permit Liberian-owned businesses to be marginalized.

Interestingly, president Weah's predecessor set the pace that led to huge foreign Direct Investment -FDI inflow in the country. It is understandable, at times that taking over from the administration of a world class politician and keeping it high was not going to be an easy task for him.

According to government's records, about US$16b from FDI came during the administration of president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Most of them came in the hydro carbon, oil palm, renewable energy, iron ore and other sectors.

She set a good foundation that attracted international businesses. The level of human rights, rule of law, establishment of integrity instructions were some of the areas she was commended for. They were not all rosy at some level; for instance, there were concerns and issues raised by mainly local NGOs and CSOs that the level of corruption was on the increase.

Despite all that the administration might have gone through, it helped the country's economy to grow at some level taking its GDP growth rate to 8.9% in 2013. Again, due to its performance, the country met the requirement of the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) which led to waiving of its debts of $3.2 billion. Soon, the Ebola deadly virus erupted and the economy had to shrink to its lower ebb.

So, realizing his huge challenge as the country's new leader, president Weah's administration is facing some daunting challenges. Abiding by his inaugural speech seems not to be working effectively. This has prompted some local and international NGOs, Civil society as well as the media to speak out.

Protection For All

Realistically, some analysts have said that the situation does not seem to be progressing in the way that, perhaps, the current government of Liberia expects.

Various international companies are expressing series of concerns ranging from high taxation to selective human rights abuse in their employ 'threats' from law makers, etc.

For example, at the operation of Arcelor Mittal, one of the world's leading iron ore giants' facilities were vandalized by some citizens which resulted into millions of worth of properties damaged. The perpetrators were arrested and after sometime, they were set free by the court following intervention from their lawyers. Today, Arcelor Mittal is struggling to recover.

Then came MNG Gold, a Turkish company facilities were marred by threats and violent activities by some citizens calling for, among other things, equal rights. That was followed by EPO-(Equatorial Palm Oil), LAC-(Liberia Agriculture Company), Golden Veroleum and Sime Darby.

After these disturbances and attacks, it was expected that CSOs and INGOs would conduct an investigation to know the circumstances that precipitated this. Instead, they lashed at these companies. They accused the companies that the rights of locals were violated.

That was not the case unfortunately. Statements from environmental watch dog groups which are supposed to be seen as an independent and impartial bodies, have been described by many as a one sided approach, aimed at meeting the dictate of their international donors. Instead of seeking the welfare of companies employees and the protection of these investments, they play blind eyes to them.

"We think that many of these NGOS, INGOS and CSO are not doing good for this country. They only seek the interest of one group without looking at the interest of the companies and its employees. Just as others are entitle to decent living and equal protection, so it is for others," Roland Kpakio, student of political science at a private University.

"Take for instance, Arcelor Mittal properties and some of their employees were affected. The same with LAC. Even Firestone, the rubber company experienced the same 'onslaught'. These so-called groups condemned and criticized the companies, he added. They left the perpetrators and decided to lash at the companies.

Then came to Sime Darby, the Malaysian palm oil giant. It signed a 63-year concession agreement with the government in 2009 to clear 220,00 hectors of land. From the onset, it faced series of problems ranging from land acquisition to planting, attacks on its employees, stealing of its palm.

The company has been able to develop only 10,500 hector of the land. Criminals have carried series of attacks on their security personals, wounding them. There was no condemnation from any CSOs, NGOs or INGOs. The fact here is these actions do not send good signal outside. All it does is, it sends a gloomy picture of Liberia's unstable and unfriendly business environment. That scares away potential business people.

So, it is even unthinkable that those charged with the responsibility to glow the pedigree and kudos of human rights and the rights of every legitimate establishment and institution to find themselves in a 'mute' position. Not mute, but intentional action.

Instead of sounding the merit of rights, they are often caught between the scissors chasing; shadows after knowingly shifting the goal poles to suit the toxin of injustice at the detriment of overly suppressed justice.

Not only that, but also they affect the country and can be equated to national security threat. Already, the government has given assurances to investors to protect and provide conductive environment to investors. Yet on the ground, the story keeps changing.

Arcelor Mittal damaged truck

No investment would love to come under attack and keeps losing revenue by the year. This, perhaps has resulted to Firestone laying off about 200 employees. Sime Darby is expected to follow suite. China Union has done similar thing. Remember the rights of everyone, be it at industrial levels need to be protected just as those outside. Besides that, government needs to uphold the tenants of protectionism as enshrined in its vision for transforming the economy.

One area of concern in Liberia is the lawmakers; many of whom use their powers to intimidate business people.

Over the past year, they have 'invited' GVL, Firestone, Sime Darby, MNG and others threating to review their concession agreement ahead of the stipulated time.

"I think the lawmakers are not helping this country. They need to ensure that protection is given to all companies and their employees. But they are one sided in their dealing. See the case with Sime Darby. They have not been able to give the necessary land to the company. Their palm have been stolen by citizens in the counties yet they keep quite. They shoot their security officers when they try to arrest criminals. No lawmaker condemns it. Let alone the CSO, NGOS and INGOs," Cynthia Sambola, a resident in SDPl concession area said.

The level at which human rights issues are being discussed in Liberia do not seem to be done from a holistic stand point.

In recent times, at Sime Darby, several of its security officers have been shot at and sustained serious injuries. They had gone to effect arrest of criminals who were taking away the oil palm. With these, no human rights, INGOs, NGO and CSO group condemned these actions. Those who were shot at, are not part of human race? Don't they have right to live and work and be protected too? Certainly if one is to uphold what is defined as Human Rights by the UN, then, there should be no silence on these things.

The complete silence from these groups to condemn these acts also in LAC is trying to lead to some conclusion that impartiality is done even at these entities levels. What would have happened if the security officers at these institutions been the ones that inflicted wounds on the criminals? Surely, there would have been an avalanche of condemnations.

The government itself is not taking the lead as expected. Due to these constant unresolved problems, some companies are forced to slow down operations.

Certainly, they do not help the country in anyway. Rather it sends out a negative signal to the outside world that Liberian government is not up for real business. With such news, it serves as an undermining factor and leads to threat. When the level of unemployment grows at an uncontrollable level, it leads to instability. Remember government can not employ everyone. That is why, people often say that the private sector is the engine of growth.

While the government has a pivotal role to play, it is also important for institutions seen as human right campaigners to take an impartial posture.

It is usually good as human rights defenders and promoters to always be impartial and not being fooled into vaguely thinking that truth crushed to the ground will not rise again.

While it is a glaring reality that nowhere is problem-free, and that there will always be obstacles and some difficult situations established organizations with vested interest in mitigating, there should be way to discard and disarm every ounce of one-sidedness and venture into such matter with a 'twin-mother's posture'.

Remember that Liberia is undergoing series of challenges. The reduction of staff at many of these institutions have adverse effect on the economy.

From all indications, as things stand, it is time that human rights issues be discussed by all. Those people that have been wounded by criminals at these companies institutions are not entitled to life?

Let those NGOS, INGOs and CSO rise up to speak at all levels where human rights abuses are taking place. There is no need for impartiality at this time. For ignoring the plights of those people would mean also violating their fundamental human rights as well.

By and large, injustice one place is indeed a threat to justice everywhere. In time like these, when the whole world has been transformed into a global village, let those championing the cause of justice born out of safeguarding human rights conduct themselves without caving in to any imperialist influence, nor succumb to the whims and caprices of any higher bidder of imposed injustice.

Therefore, render to Caesar the things of Caesar and to God the things of God. Referees, take the speck of injustice from your eyes and allow the rights for all to be respected, protected and acknowledged in your findings from investigations presided over as capsuled in your respective reports without fear or favor- And thereafter, let your work so shine before men that they will see its goodness and extol your uncompromised principles and modus operandi. Glad tidings.

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