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Liberia: Security Challenges


Whether Liberia takes advantage of its best chance for peace in years and West Africa regains stability depends on bold action by the UN, which needs to shape a comprehensive regional security strategy while rapidly building its peacekeeping force up to strength.

The forced departure of former president Charles Taylor on 11 August 2003 after six years of tyranny offers Liberians a chance to reconstruct their country. The arrival of a United Nations force with a robust mandate, which will soon develop into the international body’s biggest peacekeeping operation, is welcome by all who want to see peace in West Africa. But creating that peace will not be easy. Liberia is a broken state whose key infrastructure, physical and social, has been destroyed by years of fighting and self-interested political leadership and turmoil that goes far beyond the person of Charles Taylor. A generation under the age of eighteen has become all too familiar with survival through the gun, and problems in neighbouring countries, particularly Côte d’Ivoire, mean that the drive to create peace is taking place in an environment of insecurity.

Pressing questions concern the forces that were deployed in Liberia’s most recent round of war, in mid-2003. While Taylor’s troops are in disarray, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) remain in offensive mode. They were armed and organised with considerable assistance from Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire respectively. Many in the region wonder what their future will be in the new circumstances.

Another important question concerns the U.S., which has long historical ties to Liberia and gave tacit backing to the forces deployed against Charles Taylor in mid-2003 to force him from power. Continuing U.S. attention is necessary not only if Liberia is to have a chance of rebuilding, but also to prevent previously proxy forces from causing new problems either there or in other parts of the region.

The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) will struggle throughout the remainder of 2003 to organise itself on the ground. Until its military and police forces reach full strength, it will be vulnerable to pressure from a variety of sources inside Liberia, including both former insurgent groups, as well as members of the new National Transitional Government, many of whom have strong connections with the warring factions. This report analyses the immediate security threats UNMIL faces and recommends steps that should be taken by various parties. A subsequent study will examine longer-term issues concerned with the rebuilding of Liberia.

Liberia is at the heart of an unstable region. One neighbour, Sierra Leone, continues a rather uncertain peace process following eleven years of war, and the common border remains a concern. Another neighbour, Côte d’Ivoire, has settled into a situation of neither war nor peace but there are worrisome signs of a resumption of the fighting. Guinea is on the brink of political instability as the career of President Lansana Conté moves towards a close without any clear provision for succession, notwithstanding presidential elections on 21 December 2003. West Africa contains large numbers of small arms and is home to a floating population of veterans from multiple conflicts who are available to fight for anyone who will pay and give a licence to loot.

With three peacekeeping missions along the coast (Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and now Liberia), the UN has a considerable opportunity to drive events. The starting point must be the disarmament of fighters in Liberia but the UN should develop an integrated approach with its three West Africa missions aimed at capturing the weapons of many fighters in Liberia – both foreigners and nationals – and tracking the movement of others in the region, especially those who escape the initial disarmament. Its peacekeepers in Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire should properly monitor and be ready to disarm combatants who cross from Liberia. Regional stability depends largely on stopping the flow of marauding fighters who migrate from conflict to conflict but in the very near term there may be need for coordinated international action to persuade President Gbagbo against returning to war in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria to prevent Charles Taylor from resuming his mischief in Liberia and elsewhere in the region.

Recommendations: To the UN Security Council:

1. Work to create an integrated structure for administering the UN mandates in the neighbouring countries of Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

2. Design and implement a plan for regional disarmament applicable to all three countries.

3. In pursuit of its previously expressed ”readiness to consider, if necessary, ways of promoting compliance” with its demands that all states in the region end their military support to armed groups in Liberia, impose targeted sanctions on the leaders of those states found not in compliance.

4. Create a timetable for the phased lifting of sanctions on Liberia, ensuring at the same time that there is proper management of key government revenue generators like the timber industry, and concurrently strengthen the capabilities of the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia to monitor through forensic auditing the flow of revenue from strategic resources such as timber and the Liberia Ship and Corporate Registry.

To the U.S.:

5. Make clear that it maintains an ‘over the horizon’ military intervention capacity and is willing to deploy it to support the UN mission (UNMIL) in an emergency.

6. Conduct a full-scale training program for the new Liberian armed forces that are to emerge as militias and private armies are disbanded.

To donors:

7. Ensure that UNMIL is fully funded, most particularly its disarmament and reintegration program.

To the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL):

8. Consult with the International Criminal Court in The Hague on the collection and utilisation of evidence on war crimes and crimes against humanity, and make clear to the leaders of the former warring parties that they will face quick retribution if they violate the Accra peace agreement.

To Nigeria:

9. Stress to Charles Taylor that he must strictly adhere to the conditions of his asylum and avoid all further involvement in the affairs of Liberia and that if he does not, Nigeria will extradite him to Sierra Leone to face the war crimes indictment issued against him by that country’s Special Court.

To the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL):

10. Reinforce security along the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia with a view to preventing the passage of unauthorised persons bearing arms and work with Sierra Leone’s army and police to ensure that combatants who have fought in Liberia are disarmed before entering Sierra Leone.

Freetown/Brussels, 3 November 2003

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