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Liberia: Abortion Law, AML, Others Top Legislature’s Extraordinary Sitting

The 54th Legislature, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate, is expected to deliberate and act upon matters of emergency and concern, according to President George Weah, who has called upon the lawmakers to extend their stay on Capitol Hill.

For the next two weeks, beginning Tuesday, August 22, to Tuesday, September 5, the Lawmakers will be locked up in an extraordinary session, addressing pertinent issues that border on the economy, and social issues.

The Daily Observer has reliably gathered that, The Abortion Law, The third amendment of the US$800 million Mineral Development Agreement of ArcelorMittal, as well as the APM Terminals Deal, may top the agenda. It is also reported that the Grand Cape Mount County based Bea Mountain also wants its oil, gas, and mining contracts to be ratified. Bea Mountain already has a gold mining concession with the Liberian government.

There are reports that the donor community, headed by Sweden, is pushing for the passage of the Abortion Bill in Liberia; while steel giant ArcelorMittal and marine operations group APM Terminals are opting for their respective deals to be passed before the 54th Legislature folds.

Over the weekend, President George Manneh Weah issued a Proclamation calling on the 54th Legislature to extend its Sixth Regular Session for a period of two (2) weeks beginning August 22, 2023, to September 5, 2023 to discuss or act upon matters of national emergency and concern.

According to a Foreign Ministry release, the Proclamation mentioned that Article 32(b) of the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia provides that the President shall, on his own initiative or upon receipt of a certificate signed by at least one-fourth of the total membership of each House, and by proclamation, extend a regular session of the Legislature beyond the date for adjournment or call a special or extraordinary session of that body to discuss or act upon matters of national emergency and concern.

The Proclamation furthered that, in accordance with the aforementioned Article 32 (b) of the Constitution of this Republic, a Certificate signed by at least one-fourth of the total membership of each House has been laid before the President on August 15, 2023 for the extension of the Sixth Regular Session of the 54th Legislature for a period of two (2) weeks; beginning August 22, 2023 and ending September 5, 2023, to allow the Legislature the opportunity to discuss and act upon several legislations of time-sensitive nature and others centered on national development, integrity, transparency, and accountability.

Abortion Law

It may be recalled, the regular session of the 54th Legislature adjourned on Friday, the 21st day of July, 2023 and, during that same week, the Government of Sweden disclosed that it remains steadfast in supporting pro-choice activists and funding campaigns that advocate for the legalization of abortion in Liberia even though it “respects the views of religious leaders” who oppose abortion.

The Swedish position, which was made known by Ambassador Urban Sjöström, comes a few days after members of Liberia’s Religious Council strongly criticized the Swedish Embassy in Liberia for funding campaigns that push for the legalization of abortion in Liberia.

“Yes, Sweden supports decriminalization of abortion, as recommended in WHO’s 2022 Abortion Care Guideline, which recommends the full decriminalization of abortion,” Sjöström said in response to an email from the Daily Observer, seeking comments.

“Sweden recognizes that this is a complex issue in Liberia and in many countries and respects the views of the leaders of faith based organizations in Liberia. But the ongoing process to revise Liberia’s public health law is a domestic endeavor that follows the integrity and independence of Liberia’s law making process. Sweden applauds the initiative and supports CSO’s who stand behind the bill and will continue to support them in their important work.

Abortion is illegal in Liberia as per the current law and, on the moral front, is considered a sin by the majority of Liberians who identify as Christians and Muslims. By law, it is prohibited in all forms, with a few exceptional cases such as when the life or health of the mother is at risk. The law affirms the views of many religious leaders and is reflective of the predominant ethnic and cultural values within the country.

However, abortion rights advocates, including the Amplifying Rights Network, argue that legalization is necessary for women’s reproductive rights and to reduce maternal mortality rates in the country. They believe that criminalizing abortion puts women’s lives at risk as the practice never gets stopped.

The Amplifying Rights Network’s claims are supported by a recent report by the Clinton Health Access Initiative and partners, in which it was revealed that more than 38,000 illegal abortions were performed in 2021 alone.

The number, according to the report that was authored by organizations that advocate for abortion rights, would be higher as more cases of abortion in Liberia go unreported.

Yet, religious leaders and critics disagree and argue that legalizing abortion undermines the sanctity of life and contradicts religious and moral teachings. A key concern for many religious leaders is the focus solely on the perceived benefits without fully considering the social and moral implications.

The religious community, which consists mainly of Christians and Muslims, commands a huge portion of the country’s population.

“It is widely known that the government of Sweden, for example, has been a major player in this push for abortion to be legalized here, but we are Liberians, not Swedish,” said Rev. Gabriel Jubwe, an influential member of the Council during a Senate hearing on the abortion amendment to the public health law.

“Legalizing abortion is an attack on mothers, unborn children, and society as a whole. We, therefore, call for the complete withdrawal of the abortion provision in public health,” the religious group agitated.

The Swedish Embassy, along with several international organizations, has been actively promoting the legalization of abortion by supporting local pro-choice activists and funding campaigns that aim to change the existing laws on abortion in Liberia.

Their actions, according to the Council which represents various religious denominations in the country, are a direct attack on the deeply-rooted cultural and religious values of the country. The religious body characterizes the support for making abortion legal as an imposition of Western values.

US$800M AML Deal

The third amendment to the ArcelorMittal Mineral Development Agreement (MDA), which was signed between the company and the Republic of Liberia in 2021, was rejected by the 54th Legislature.

The House of Representatives rejected the third amendment of the US$800 million mineral development agreement between the country and steel giant ArcelorMittal. This rejection sends the agreement back to President George Weah, who now has to renegotiate the agreement with the company.

ArcelorMittal’s operations in Liberia focus on mining, railing and shipping iron ore. The company is the single largest private investor in the country since the end of the second civil war in Liberia in 2003.

Initially, the Senate had ratified the agreement and wrote to the House of Representatives asking for a conference on the ArcelorMittal Liberia (AML) deal to harmonize their position on the agreement for transmission to the executive. But both Houses have agreed to the rejection.

APM Terminals

The Government of Liberia through the National Port Authority (NPA) signed a new five-year agreement with APM Terminals in June 2018.

The deal with APM Terminals, through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which focuses on both the marine services operation and weigh bridge operation at the National Port Authority (NPA), at the Free Port of Monrovia, will last for five years and may be renewed in keeping with the terms and conditions of the agreement.

The renewal of the marine services operations and weigh operation should have been since 2022 but was rejected by the Legislature owing to the “understanding” of the agreement that APM Terminals would pay to the Government only fifteen percent (15%) royalty on total annual revenue generated from the marine services operation as well as the alleged unsettling of debts in the amount of about US$40 million.

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