|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
6739th Meeting (AM)
Sierra Leone Must Pass ‘Crucial Test’ of November Elections to Consolidate
Exceptional Success Achieved Since Civil War, Security Council Told
Outgoing Head Warns of Increased Tensions between Political Parties;
Chair of Peacebuilding Configuration, Minister for Foreign Affairs also Speak
To consolidate the “exceptional successes” that Sierra Leone had made in the ten years since its brutal civil war, it was critical that the international community continue its support, focusing in particular on this year’s all-important elections, the Executive Representative of the Secretary-General told the Security Council this morning.
“Sierra Leone must pass this crucial test in its history without allowing the demons of the past to re-emerge,” Michael von der Schulenburg said in his last briefing in his current position to the 15-member body, which was followed this morning by a briefing by Guillermo Rishchynski of Canada, Chairperson of the Sierra Leone country-specific Configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission, and a statement by Joseph Dauda, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the country.
Introducing the Secretary-General’s latest report (see Background), Mr. von der Schulenburg acknowledged that for the success of this year’s presidential, parliamentary and local council elections, the country’s political elites bore most of the responsibility, including President Ernest Bai Koroma and his main challenger for the presidency, Maada Bio. What Sierra Leone’s political class decided to do in the coming months would determine what direction the country would take, he said, adding: “And there will be times when they must put national interest over that of their political parties and over their own political ambitions.”
Against that background, he was greatly concerned by reports that the Government had imported millions of dollars worth of assault weapons in January to equip a recently enlarged paramilitary wing of its police force, known as the Operational Services Division. While Sierra Leone was under no arms embargo, its progress in establishing peace and security throughout its territory, along with its relatively low crimes rate, made it unclear why the police would need such a shipment. “Especially this shipment,” he said, which, according to a leaked bill of lading, appeared to include heavy machine guns and even grenade launchers.
“I would urge the Government to clarify these reports, and if true, explain the intended use of these weapons,” he said, explaining that an enlarged, heavily armed and allegedly ethnically imbalanced Operational Services Division risked undermining the work done by the Sierra Leonean Police to build a modern, independent police force that served all the people of the country. Moreover, because of the country’s painful history, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had suggested that Sierra Leone abandon all paramilitary police groups, and such lessons from the past should be taken seriously, he added.
Among other “worrying signs” he noted the attack in September 2011 on a presidential candidate put forward by the opposition, as well as attacks by opposition party members on property belonging to the governing party, as well as the “questionable” imposition of a three-month ban on all political party rallies. The main opposition, he added, must be aware that it too is entering into the elections with “considerable historical baggage” and should work to allay fears. Both sides must refrain from extreme and unsubstantiated accusations.
Concerned by the “hardening tone of the political rhetoric,” Mr. Von der Schulenburg urged all sides to refrain from extreme and unsubstantiated accusations. Again recalling Sierra Leone’s tragic history, he said that allegations by either side that might mobilize ex-fighters or traditional warriors were serious matters and should not be taken lightly. “True or not, politics is based on perception and such allegations must be laid to rest to prevent [creating] a sense of insecurity,” he warned, adding that both sides might consider organizing a multi-party investigation into such matters.
He reiterated the report’s emphasis on the need for dialogue between the political parties to create an atmosphere for the elections free from intimidation, on the need to implement the Joint Communiqué signed between them, as well as the need to support the electoral management bodies as well as various cross-party initiatives. Such dialogue must aim to reassure the general public that both the Government and the opposition were working together to create an atmosphere in which the elections were not only fair, but in which citizens were able to freely make their own choices without fear of retribution.
“My final advice to Sierra Leone would be to invest in your education; invest in universal primary and secondary education; invest in your technical colleges and invest in your universities,” he said, emphasizing that such a focus would help turn the countries natural and mineral wealth into sustainable development, help lift people out of poverty and held reduce unfair income distribution. “Freetown was once called the Athens of Africa,” he said. “Why not again?”
In conclusion, he stressed the degree to which he would miss Sierra Leone and its people and noted that Member States had invested heavily in the country, and the achievements of that investment must be maintained. “Sierra Leone has the potential to become a success story, but it will need the continued support and vigilance of the Security Council — especially at this time of elections. For the benefit of Sierra Leone, but also in our own interests, we have to see this through,” he said.
In his briefing, Ambassador Rishchynski similarly focused on the upcoming elections, along with regional peacebuilding challenges and transition. Noting that he had travelled to Sierra Leone in late January to take stock of peacebuilding progress, he said that it appeared that the technical and financial preparations for the elections were on track. At the same time, it had also been clear that there was a need to encourage more open dialogue, both between political parties and with national electoral institutions. “Building higher levels of trust that all relevant stakeholders will behave in a professional and responsible manner is crucial,” he said, underscoring the responsibility of political leaders to demonstrate their commitment to free, fair and peaceful political competition.
In all this, the international community had a clear and constructive role to play. Sierra Leone’s partners should respond favourably to the Government’s requests for electoral observers, he said, adding that the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) would also have “unique legitimacy” regarding the creation of an enabling and favourable political environment. That should be the Mission’s immediate priority in the run-up to the elections. The Security Council and the wider United Nations system should stand ready to provide any necessary support to UNIPSIL’s efforts, he said, noting that Mr. von der Schulenburg’s departure had created an “unfortunate vacuum”. The Configuration urged the Secretary-General to fill that position as quickly as possible.
Continuing, he said that while the Configuration welcomed the Council’s recent focus on the impact of transnational threats in Sierra Leone, that 15-nation body could do more. The Government had taken impressive steps to fight transnational crime, yet it was hampered by slower progress elsewhere in the subregion. “Stronger and more outcome-oriented engagement with regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as well as increased support for regional programmes, such as the West Africa Coast Initiative, is needed,” he said, adding that the United Nations Office for West Africa also played a vital role in such matters and, as such, warranted the Council’s strong and continued support.
As for the changes taking place in Sierra Leone, he said that two transitions were under way as the West African nation shifted from end-stage peacebuilding to a focus on longer-term development; while at the same time, the Security Council might want to consider drawing down UNIPSIL following the success of elections later this year. “Both processes need to be handled with care,” he said, stressing that the United Nations, with strong leadership from UNIPSIL, had developed an innovative and integrated approach in Sierra Leone. Therefore, successful mechanisms should be retained and any transition should be designed to produce minimal shocks to existing practices.
Some functions currently performed by the Mission would need to be transferred to the United Nations Country Team, he said, explaining that Sierra Leone would continue to face significant development challenges and some of the underlying causes would linger until longer-term development took hold. “International support must reflect these realities,” he said, adding that the Peacebuilding Commission would shortly begin considering how its own engagement should evolve as part of the transitional progress.
Finally, he agreed that Sierra Leone had made tremendous progress since the end of the civil war; it was one of the success stories of the United Nations. “Yet, the process is not quite finished, as repeated incidents of political violence over the past year demonstrate,” he said, encouraging the Security Council to keep paying close attention to peacebuilding in the country and stand prepared to offer any necessary support.
When Mr. Dauda took the floor, he thanked the two previous speakers for their leadership and efforts to help consolidate peace and security in his country. President Ernest Bai Koroma remained committed to that goal, and had mapped out Sierra Leone’s Agenda for Change, which also addressed sustainable development issues. That Agenda would ensure that the Government stayed on track with efforts to tackle challenges such as youth unemployment, corruption, illicit drug trafficking and organized crime.
He went on to highlight the Government’s strong political will in dealing with political violence whenever it occurred, regardless of party affiliation. National authorities would continue to use legal instruments to bring the perpetrators of such violence to justice, he said, noting as an example how the Government had stepped in when political violence took place in southern Sierra Leone in 2011 involving the presidential candidate representing the main opposition party. He added that the Government was currently considering the report of the Shears Moses Commission of Inquiry and would soon issue a “white paper” on that body’s recommendations.
Citing the presidential, parliamentary and local council elections scheduled for 17 November 2012 as “a crucial test for peace and democratic consolidation” in the country, he said that President Koroma would, in the run-up to those polls, constantly engage all stakeholders, especially the opposition, with a view to enhancing dialogue and to bolstering commitment to peaceful, free, transparent and credible elections. He also said that in its efforts to promote women’s participation in decision-making, the Government was making progress on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission towards drafting of a gender equality bill that would soon be presented to Parliament. Progress was also being made in such related areas as educating girl children and providing free health care for pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children under the age of five.
Sierra Leone was committed to democratic governance and to maintaining the independence of its democratic institutions, including the National Electoral Commission, Political Parties Registration Commission and independent media Commission. The Government’s commitment to civil society groups remained undiminished, he said.
In other areas, he said the Government would soon take necessary steps to establish an independent police complaints committee. He reiterated the Government’s commitment to judicial independence and to ensuring the Media Commission maintained its important role in regulating the conduct of the media. Finally, he said that Sierra Leone was acknowledged as a peacebuilding success, and he renewed his Government’s call on the international community to continue to invest in the country’s achievements in the spirit of the “New Deal” for donors and recipients reached at the Busan Conference on Aid Effectiveness.
The meeting began at 10:08 a.m. and ended at 10:41 a.m., at which time Council members were invited to consultations on Sierra Leone, as previously agreed.
The Security Council had before it the Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (document S/2012/160), covering the six-month period from 1 September 2011 to 29 February 2012. It notes “considerable progress” in consolidating peace and laying a foundation for development, but also a ramp up of political violence and tensions between supporters of the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) and the major opposition party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), in advance of presidential, parliamentary and local council elections planned for this year.
The Secretary-General, therefore, urges those parties to put aside partisan interests in favour of national interests, to engage in dialogue and to abide by the code of conduct. He commends the Government for the non-partisan arrest and prosecution of individuals implicated in incidents of political violence, and looks forward to the release of the long-awaited white paper on the commission of inquiry into the March 2009 disturbances. He encouraged the Government to proceed with the establishment of an Independent Police Complaints Committee, urging international partners to provide support for that purpose.
The media has an important part to play in raising awareness of the electoral process and promoting national unity, he says, adding that it was important for media organizations to emphasize that role and for the media code of conduct to be strengthened. He encourages the Peacebuilding Commission, in addition, to provide timely advice to the Security Council as necessary and to intensify its efforts in support of elections in coordination with other United Nations actors.
Commending the Government and women’s groups on the advancement of legislation to increase the participation of women in governance, the Secretary-General stresses that all stakeholders, with the support of the United Nations, should help prevent violence against women during the electoral period.
According to the report, the overall security situation in Sierra Leone remained relatively calm during the reporting period despite the incidents of election-related violence. It notes that, in September 2011, the President launched a national security exercise and the second security sector review in Freetown. The reporting period also witnessed, he says, some positive socio-economic developments, primarily as a result of the increased exploitation of mineral resources. He welcomes the Government’s pronouncements that anticipated revenues will be utilized for the benefit of the people, as well as efforts to build consensus on long-term development strategies.
He said that the United Nations country team is finalizing a draft transitional joint vision that will cover 2013 and 2014, taking into account the 2012 elections in the country, with a longer-term national strategy expected to be completed in 2013. The transitional joint vision focuses on seven programmatic clusters that are aligned with the draft national strategy, including support to good governance; agriculture and food security; natural resources and disaster management; social protection, child protection, gender and human rights; basic education; health and nutrition; and economic development and employment.
* *** *For information media • not an official record