Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy
Interview by Cate Malek
An interview with Aloysius Toe is also available.
One of Liberia's leading human rights activists, Aloysius Toe, remembers watching soldiers shoot a sixteen-year-old girl because she was a member of the wrong ethnic group.
Toe told the Reebok Human Rights Award Committee, "It was as if my soul was boiling within me. I could not stand by and simply watch what was happening." ("Aloysius Toe," Reebok Human Rights Award Program, Can be found at: http://www.reebok.com/Static/global/initiatives/rights/pdf/Aloysius-Toe.doc)
He became an activist as a teenager, working to universalize human rights in Liberia. It was a difficult task. Charles Taylor was elected president after Liberia's first civil war in 1989. However, Taylor's regime was soon marked by arbitrary arrests, politically motivated torture and killings, and desperate poverty. In 2000, Liberia was once again engulfed in civil war as rebels fought to unseat Taylor. All sides committed atrocities including rape, summary executions and recruitment of child soldiers. The war finally ended when Taylor was exiled. An interim government is currently trying to piece Liberia back together.
During the civil war, Toe led the Movement for the Defense of Human Rights. He started over 100 human rights clubs, called attention to human rights abuses and promoted human rights education in Liberian schools. He also organized a network of 245 volunteers in rural communities to monitor and report human rights abuses. In 2001, he led non-violent protests against the politically-motivated murders of Liberian activists.
Aloysius Toe has been jailed twice. The first time was after he spoke out against atrocities committed by Taylor's son. After he was released, Toe went into hiding. However, soon after, soldiers raided his house and kidnapped his wife at gunpoint, leaving his small children alone in the house. Toe chose to turn himself in to protect his family. He was in jail for eight months before Taylor's regime collapsed and he was freed.
Despite the dangers he has faced, Toe has remained focused on his goals. He told Reebok, "I dream of one day being able to sleep in peace in my own home, in my own country," he says. "And I dream that one day we'll be regarded as a dignified people, as a country with direction, as a country with national spirit."(ibid. Reebok)
Toe became an activist after admiring the work of other courageous men for years. He is inspired by international leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi and Henry David Thoreau. But, he also looks up to Liberian activists including vice-presidential candidate Alaric Tokpa, renowned activist Samuel Kofi Woods and human rights lawyer, Tiawan Gongloe.
Now that Charles Taylor is gone, Toe has more work to do than ever. Liberia is at a critical point. While they are moving towards peace and democracy, old wounds could still lead to more war. Toe now directs an organization called the Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy (FOHRD). While most Liberian human rights organizations focus on civil liberties and freedoms, FOHRD focuses on social and economic rights. Some of their current projects are researching poverty and labor rights in Liberia. They also monitor corruption in Liberia's government by publishing "corruption journals" that expose corrupt politicians and practicing street theater, where members of FOHRD act out the consequences of corruption on crowded sidewalks. Finally, FOHRD is involved in peacebuilding projects in rural areas.
Liberia's problems are complex and the country is a long way from establishing a stable peace. Lack of infrastructure, a large refugee population and extreme poverty could easily spark another violent conflict. However, despite these challenges, Toe remains focused and committed to his work.
He says, "I came into this not for personal gains, but out of the conviction that it is a chosen mission, and that through my and others' efforts, tens of thousands of hopeless people can regain hope in life."