What do you see as Liberia's greatest challenge?
From my own vantage point, I think our major challenge is prosecutorial; it is one of the biggest problems that we have. In October, we had an 'expression of concern' by inmates at the prison. They felt that matters were not being handled as speedily as they should be, and this has caused a tremendous growth in the prison population. And of course, the consequence is additional expense for the government: more people to feed, you have to start looking at the congestion, thinking about expanding the facilities; so yes, prosecution is the key area that we're looking at. It's a major challenge for us.
What is your hope for Liberia?
Frankly, I would like to see Liberia at the apex of the continent, on top. I believe very strongly and very sincerely that in spite of what we've been through-the devastation and degradation and all of the other negatives that we can think of-we still have the propensity to rise highly and rigorously. With the commitment that we've seen of this government I think we will achieve a lot. I think we will excel. I can see that if things continue to develop as they are, we will certainly surpass a lot of the other countries in Africa. I can see, and I feel strongly about that. So we just have to keep making the effort, and with the level of support that we're getting we think that we certainly will get there. I am hopeful. Normally, it is difficult to get me to put my all in hope, but this is one period when I have a lot of hope for this country. I think we will get there. Yes, I think we will very shortly-in the next few years-and I'm speaking candidly, we will be the envy of a lot of our sister countries on the continent.
How important is the new Sex Crimes and Domestic Violence Unit, with staff support from The Carter Center, for the work of the Ministry of Justice?
We think it is very important because we've seen an increase in gender violence in the country. It is probably even more important now that there is an attempt to give some statistics---something which we didn't have before. So it may not be that it wasn't there, but they were not being recorded before. Now they're being recorded, so we know the extent to which that is affecting the society and the extent to which a group-a great deal of our female citizens-are being subjected to those acts. So, with that knowledge and with the concern that we have, we believe very, very strongly that there is a need to have that gender unit in the Ministry to expedite the prosecution of persons involved and to send a message out there---perhaps one of deterrence---that we will be prosecuting and we will be prosecuting expeditiously, so that people will not believe that they can go ahead and commit those kinds of offenses and rely on the past inability of the Ministry or the courts to deal with those issues.
How do new Liberian laws benefit women?
The new laws are providing for them much better protection than they ever had. In the past, the question of gender violence was almost a taboo. People didn't talk much about it, and if it occurred, it was a secret. The female didn't want to reveal it because of various consequences, the parents might be persuaded to accept some kind of remuneration, and so they were disposed to not disclose these things. But we think that the new educational thrust of having people fully informed of it, and not to look down on such situations, will be highly beneficial. We are happy that these kinds of exposures are occurring. It encourages females who have been violated to come forth more readily than has happened in the past.
How has the involvement of The Carter Center, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, impacted Liberia?
I would like to say to President Carter, 'Thank you for the attention you've given this country.' I was part of the interim government in the early '90s, when President Carter made a good number of his visits, and many times I had the opportunity to meet with him when he visited. We appreciated the attention that he gave at the time. Unfortunately, though, at that time, we also had Mr. Taylor, who was a very persuasive orator, as it were. And sometimes, he distorted things without people fully knowing of the distortions that he made. But we are happy that this did not discourage President Carter in his desire to see that peace and sanity were restored here. We have peace. We're still trying to restore sanity, but we're getting there. It's coming. And certainly, the involvement of The Carter Center in some of the activities that we are undertaking is highly appreciated. Those are the kinds of things that encourage us in our own pursuits. I am one who has had the position that if you want for other people to be encouraged to help you, you have to take some of the initiative yourself.
Photo Credit: Carter Center/ C. Nelson
Philip A.Z. Banks
Liberian Minister of Justice