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Liberia: Security Challenges

Freetown/Brussels, 3 November 2003: Liberia faces its best chance for peace in years, but the country’s prospects now depend on bold UN action. With three peacekeeping missions along the coast of West Africa (Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and now Liberia), the UN is in a unique position to drive events.

Liberia: Security Challenges,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, analyses the immediate security threats facing the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) as its force builds up to full strength to become the international body’s biggest peacekeeping operation. The key to meeting those threats is a comprehensive regional security strategy.

“With three UN missions in West Africa, the UN and the wider international community have an opportunity that must not be missed to design and implement a truly regional approach to West Africa’s insecurity”, says Comfort Ero, ICG’s West Africa Project Director.

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 is welcome by all who want to see peace in West Africa.

Creating that peace will not be easy. It will be several months before the UN has enough troops on the ground to go much beyond Monrovia to put an end to the fighting and marauding that has continued. Liberia is a broken state whose key infrastructure, physical and social, has been destroyed by years of fighting and self-interested political leadership that goes far beyond the person of Charles Taylor. While Taylor’s troops may be in disarray, the former insurgents, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), remain in offensive mode. A generation under the age of eighteen has become all too familiar with survival through the gun.

The starting point must be disarmament of fighters in Liberia, but the UN should develop an integrated approach also to monitor and disarm combatants who cross from Liberia to Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire. Regional stability requires stopping the flow of marauding fighters who migrate from conflict to conflict.

In the very near term, there may also 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.

The U.S. needs to make up for the premature departure of its small force of Marines on 1 October, when the UN formally took over in Monrovia, by becoming more engaged. This means, in particular, making clear it maintains an “over the horizon” military intervention capacity to back UNMIL in an emergency and conducting a full-scale training program for the new Liberian armed forces. Visible U.S. support is essential for a successful donors’ conference, now expected to be held in December 2003.

“Liberia is at the heart of an unstable region”, says Stephen Ellis, ICG's Director of Africa Program. “Unless UNMIL is properly supported and the UN missions in West Africa are effectively integrated, the country may well lapse into a permanent state of semi-peace/semi-war that will continue to destabilize the region”.

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