Saturday, February 19, 2011

Liberia: Liberia at ‘critical juncture’ in post-war recovery as elections approach

Special Representative Ellen Margrethe Løj (second right) at a voters’ registration centre in Nimba, Liberia

UN - Liberia has reached “a critical juncture” in its long recovery from civil war as it prepares for its second democratic elections later this year, and considerable work remains to be done before the United Nations can hand over security responsibilities to national authorities, according to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“It is important that the National Elections Commission remains objective, transparent and balanced, and maintains a level playing field, while adhering to the electoral calendar,” he tells the Security Council in a new report.

“Moreover, it is paramount that political personalities take responsibility for their words and actions, which will help ensure a political climate conducive to credible, peaceful elections and the smooth transfer of power.

“This would attest to the tremendous progress the country has made in the last seven years,” he says of the October poll.

The UN has maintained a peacekeeping force in Liberia, known by its acronym UNMIL, since 2003 to bolster a ceasefire agreement ending a decade of war that killed nearly 150,000 people, mostly civilians, and sent 850,000 others fleeing to neighbouring countries. UNMIL has a current strength of 8,100 troops and over 1,325 police officers in the West African country.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who won the presidential poll after the war in 2005, becoming the first elected woman head of State in Africa in what UN officials called a peaceful and transparent vote, is standing for re-election this October. UNMIL has provided logistical support for the delivery of voter registration materials to remote locations and helped the national police develop an integrated security and contingency plan.

Turning to the security and justice sectors, Mr. Ban says concerted efforts are needed to fill critical capacity gaps, along with “vital” generous financial and technical support from key partners such as the UN Peacebuilding Fund and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Justice and Security Trust Fund.

“Accelerated support for the security sector will be an essential aspect of consolidating the fragile peace in Liberia, and considerable work remains to be done in view of the eventual handover of UNMIL security responsibilities to national authorities,” he writes.

The new army is officially scheduled to attain full operational capability by mid-2012. “However, there remain obstacles to meeting this timeline, including delays in endorsing the national defence strategy, raising uncertainties about the army’s future strategic direction and use,” Mr. Ban says. “Challenges are also posed by insufficient budgetary allocations for the army to maintain its infrastructure, logistics and equipment, or procure new assets.”

He notes that the security situation has remained generally stable but fragile, although disputes over access to land and resources, as well as ethnic and communal tensions, continue to present significant challenges.

Maintaining law and order remains a challenge, with frequent reported incidents of rape and armed robbery, as well as drug trafficking and mob violence, with an increasing number of incidents involving firearms, some of them single-barrel shot guns made in neighbouring Guinea.

Mr. Ban also highlights the additional burden imposed on Liberia by the influx of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire where former President Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down despite his UN-certified defeat by opposition leader Alassane Ouattara has led to months of unrest.

He voices deep appreciation to the Liberian Government and people for “graciously hosting” more than 36,000 Ivorian refugees so far, mostly women and children, a number which UN officials have said could reach 100,000 by April, and he calls on donors to respond generously to help the country shoulder the burden.

On the fight against corruption, Mr. Ban voices concern that legal bottlenecks and other constraints have hindered progress. “Increased political will is needed to ensure the effective prosecution of outstanding cases,” he writes, calling on the Government to systemize good governance and uphold the rule of law so that it might overcome its credibility gap with respect to impunity for corruption.

But “economic growth and increased foreign investment in Liberia are encouraging signs that the country is on the right track to economic recovery, including increasing employment and government revenue, vital for effective social and other service delivery,” he adds. At the same time, he cautions the Government to ensure sufficient oversight of concession agreements to mitigate labour and land disputes frequently arising from their development or expansion.