Hon. J. Alex Tyler
Speaker of the House of Representatives
Capitol Hill, Monrovia
Dear Speaker Tyler:
The Civil Society in Liberia writes to express its deepest concerns of a letter addressed to the Legislature from the President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf seeking extra-constitutional powers to respond to the ebola outbreak in Liberia.
We are of the opinion that no one has the power or authority to suspend Article 1 of the Liberian Constitution regardless of the circumstances. When the framers of the Constitution fashioned Article 1 in the way they framed it, they were making clear that Constitutional power lies only in the people of the country:
“All power is inherent in the people. All free governments are instituted by their authority and for their benefit and they have the right to alter and reform the same when their safety and happiness so require.”
We fear that a move like this has the propensity to set a dangerous precedence for future governance of the country as unscrupulous persons can easily abuse it and plunge the country into chaos. Even now, there is a possibility of such a power being abused by the president.
In regards to Article 12, Civil Society argues that The President does not need extra powers over this provision of the Constitution, and we are quite sure that Liberians do not have to be made slaves in order to end the scourge of the Ebola Virus Disease in the country.
While we accept the necessity of restricting the movement of people in and out of the country on legitimate public health grounds, the power to do this should rest with the courts and not solely in the hands of the President. As before, concentrating such a power in the hands of one person can lead to the wanton abuse of the rights of the people of this country.
Honorable Speaker, Article 14 is one of the bedrocks of our democracy and system of government. The Constitution has already indicated at this article how religious freedoms can be curtailed and the process through which it may be done. There is nowhere in this provision or anywhere else in the Constitution that any one individual is given the right to place restrictions on religion. That power is the sole preserve of the Liberian Legislature and the article clearly says that, “All persons shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment thereof except as may be required by law to protect public safety, order, health. or morals or in the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
On the President's request to continue exercising powers restricting Article 15 rights, it is once more our considered opinion that such powers are best exercised through the Judiciary or the Legislature. There are already statutes which stop people from exercising this right irresponsibly. Even the Constitution provides safeguards. We agree that no one should be allowed to cause a state of panic in the country regardless of the reason. What we do not agree with is the power to restrict Article 15 rights should be left to one person's discretion.
As regards Article 17, it is well understood that public assemblies of large groups may not be a wise thing to do in the current health crisis especially as it relates to a disease like Ebola which spreads through close bodily contact. In spite of that fact, we still do not think that the power to restrict this right should be held by any one person. The government already exercises the people to stop people from demonstrating on grounds of a statute. The restriction on this right may continue to be enjoined in this manner.
Mr. Speaker, we think it is an absolute violation of the Constitution to allow the President the right to continue exercising the powers she has requested you to endorse under Article 24. The Constitution, at this article, has already given the government the right to expropriate private property in a situation like this. What the Constitution has clearly not allowed is for such expropriation to be done without just compensation as the President has asked. The Constitution also does not give the President the power to remove the right of any such property owner except through a recourse to the courts.
Finally Mr. Speaker and Honorable Members of the House of Representatives, the Emergency Powers provisions of the Constitution have been misconstrued in many corners of this country. Clearly Article 86b states that “A state of emergency may be declared only where there is a threat or outbreak of war or where there is civil unrest affecting the existence, security or wellbeing of the Republic amounting to a clear and present danger.” While the EVD presents a danger to Liberia, it does not meet the critical legal test (threat or outbreak of war or…civil unrest) to serve as the basis for declaring a state of emergency.
Further, Articles 86a and 87 clearly state restrictions on the exercise of legislative powers. Article 88 makes it clear that at the time you voted to impose the state of emergency, included in your joint resolution with the Liberian Senate, there should have been all the justifications and restrictions necessary and justified for making the declarations. The constitution is clear when it says “…The Legislature shall within seventy two hours, by joint resolution voted by two thirds of the membership of each house, decide whether the proclamation of a state of emergency is justified or whether the measures taken thereunder are appropriate.”
Mr. Speaker and Honorable Members of the House of Representatives, In addition to the acknowledged facts that the letter seeks to limit basic freedoms, the Civil Society the following reasons for which the request should not be accepted.
The circumstance in our country is now more in terms of health services, and the issues being proposed could not provide any more response to the ebola situation now in the country than the health services being provided.
In addition, the proposal suggests the suspension of rights provided for under the state of emergency, but the time frame provided by the constitution has been exhausted, so we request that these measures be ignored.
In conclusion, Civil Society like to note that the issues raised by the president do not seem to be considerate of the due respect for the constitution. It is our expectation that you would take the prudent decision of rejecting this request of President Sirleaf and remain on the path of promoting democracy in our country.
Civil Society in Liberia
Lancedell J. Matthews
On Behalf of the Organizations