Liberia’s Conflicting Laws on Marriage, Polygamy Highlighted at UN Rights Summit

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Temple of Justice Building photo credit: Nwelt A. Mathies

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has concluded the review of the initial report of Liberia on its implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in the country.

Presenting the report, Juah Nancy Cassell, Deputy Minister for Administration and Public Safety at the Ministry of Justice of Liberia, reminded that 2017 had marked a significant milestone for Liberia as a post-conflict country.  First, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) had successfully concluded its 14-year-old mandate, restoring the rule of law and re-establishing a constitutional democratic order, she said.

“Second, there was a smooth constitutional transfer of authority from the administration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to President George Manneh Weah. Although very young, the new Government was committed to review and make necessary reforms, namely those relating to the citizenship and land ownership laws.  Additionally, the Government had made progress in protecting freedom of speech and expression, and it was working to address rampant abuses against women and children in the aftermath of the civil war.”

In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts expressed concerns about the discrepancies between customary and statutory law, namely that under customary law the age of marriage was 16, and that polygamy was permissible.

They also inquired about multiple discrimination against persons with albinism, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, the prevalence of sexual violence against women and girls, domestic violence against women, criminalization of abortion, accountability for conflict-related crimes, counter-terrorism legislation, gender equality in the political process, and the nationality law.

Committee Experts also asked about the difference between “customary marriage” and “statutory marriage,” and about witchcraft and ritual killings, female genital mutilation, the status of the death penalty, use of force by the police, forced and child labour, sexual slavery, prison overcrowding and pre-trial detention, corruption in the judiciary, corporal punishment, birth registration, freedom of expression and assembly, refugees, and the status of customary lands.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Cassell noted that Liberia faced several challenges in honouring its international human rights obligations.  Those mostly pertained to the ratification of international human rights instruments when they were in conflict with traditional laws and norms.

On his part, Mauro Politi, Committee Vice-Chairperson, appreciated the fact that the Government of Liberia recognized challenges in fulfilling its obligations under the Covenant.

Those challenges included past human rights violations, implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the need to fight impunity and to ensure the right to justice, blanket amnesty, female genital mutilation, difficulties in changing cultural traditions, prison overcrowding, and voluntary termination of pregnancy.

The delegation of Liberia consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Permanent Mission of Liberia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.