Religion, law and human rights in post-conflict Liberia

This article was published in AHRLJ Volume 8 No 2 2008. Liberia has had a turbulent recent history, and today deals with extreme poverty, high crime, ethnic tensions, widespread impunity and corruption. In addition to this, there is a complex and contradictory relationship between law and religion, which further complicates the ongoing efforts towards peace building and reconstruction. This paper aims to highlight the fundamental question of whether certain laws and human rights — in this case, religious or cultural freedom — can or should be actively promoted by the state and by society in such a unique scenario as fragile, post-conflict Liberia. The paper first addresses this question with respect to the country's contradictory dual-justice system, highlighting the problems that arise when the weak state struggles to enforce statutory and human rights law, while much of the population still sees legitimate justice to be rooted in traditional mechanisms, such as trials by ordeal, which oppose these laws. The second section of the paper considers the extent to which all Liberians enjoy religious freedom. It is shown that, while Liberia is de facto a secular state, it is essentially de jure a Christian country. Although there are historically and presently few indications of unrest based strictly on religion, it is argued that there is underlying religious tension that makes it dangerous for the state or society to suggest any major integration of Islam into public life. Some of this tension can be attributed to the growing number of Pentecostal and charismatic churches, which are especially vocal about the encroachment of non-Christians. However, because of Liberia's fragility, it might be the case that promoting religious equality and actively eliminating the Christian bias might cause more harm than good in Liberia today.

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