|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
PRESS CONFERENCE BY LIBERIA ’S PRESIDENT
In her first visit to the United Nations as President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said, at a Headquarters press conference, “The Liberian people are committed to the processes of change. They are committed to peace. They want to see their lives restored to normalcy. They want their country, once again, to be respected. They want to regain their dignity and to be able to pursue their potential in life, in an environment that is safe and responsive to their needs.”
Pressed throughout the briefing on the situation of exiled former Liberian President Charles Taylor, President Johnson-Sirleaf told correspondents that the Liberian people would feel that justice had been served, once the attention of the world media moved from Mr. Taylor to support for Liberia’s return to normalcy, peace and development. She implored journalists to “make the shift from one individual to 3 million people’s quest for a new life”.
Introducing President Johnson-Sirleaf, the Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information, Shashi Tharoor, said she had the unique distinction of being the first woman ever elected President of an African country. Long before becoming President, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf had an illustrious career; as Minister of Finance of Liberia, as President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, as a senior World Bank official, as Vice-President of Citibank’s Africa regional office, and as the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa.
She left UNDP to run in Liberia’s 1997 presidential elections, where she was the runner-up. In the intervening years, she was chairman of an investment company, chairman of the Open Society Institute in West Africa, and was a visiting professor of governance at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration. Then, she won the election for the presidency of Liberia this year and was inaugurated on 16 January, as her country’s twenty-third President.
Reviewing Liberia’s successes and problems, President Johnson-Sirleaf said she was grateful for the support of the United Nations and the country’s bilateral partners in her country’s transition in the last two years, culminating in free and fair elections. Now at the helm, she had begun the process of reform and of putting the country back on the track to peace, stability and development. She had started to secure the peace by composing an inclusive Government, able to work bilaterally and multilaterally. Efforts were under way to restructure the armed forces, but the Government would continue to rely on the United Nations and the peacekeepers for full assurance of peace, until Liberia’s own security forces were fully professional and institutional.
She noted that the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been launched, as had the development process -- both importance stages in the transition from war to peace. While elaborating a long-term development agenda, quick-impact measures were already in play, to positively affect the lives of Liberians and respond to the thousands upon thousands of demobilized youth. Efforts were also under way to rehabilitate the infrastructure, both economic and social. That should all provide the basis for a resumption of normal life and encourage the return of refugees and internally displaced persons. Liberia was seeking to restore its international reputation and working to strengthen its relationships, not only with its neighbours, but throughout Africa and the world.
Her Government had also embarked on negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and was tackling its significant external debt problem, among other things, aimed at enabling it to manage its own resources and respond to the needs of its people, she said. She had thanked the Security Council this morning for the support the country had enjoyed to date.
Turning to the many questions regarding Liberia’s former President Charles Taylor, she said she had consulted with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and the leaders involved with taking Mr. Taylor to exile should now bring the matter to closure, meaning that a decision should be taken to allow Mr. Taylor to have his day in court. He should be given an opportunity for proceedings in an environment that was not hostile and that gave him the full right to self-defence. She had reported that to the Security Council this morning.
“Let me be clear,” the President stressed, “Mr. Taylor was not indicted in a Liberian court… he was indicted in the Special Court of Sierra Leone supported by the United Nations. This is why we say the resolution of this must be in accordance with the United Nations and the international community.” She added that time was of the essence in that regard. Liberia’s peace was fragile. There were many loyalists to Mr. Taylor in Liberia, and he had many business interests there.
“Whatever decision is taken by the African leadership must ensure that the safety of the Liberian people and the stability of our nation is not undermined,” she emphasized.
Another correspondent noted that Nigeria’s President had indicated that President Johnson-Sirleaf had said that she had asked for former President Taylor to be handed over to the Sierra Leone Court, and that President Obasanjo was consulting with the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on that, but that President Johnson-Sirleaf had indicated to the Security Council that she wanted that to be a collective decision of the African leadership. Could she clarify whether Liberia or she, herself, wanted to see Mr. Taylor appear before the Court in Sierra Leone?
As the correspondent might recall, President Johnson-Sirleaf said, President Obasanjo took a position, some time ago, that Mr. Taylor would remain in exile in Nigeria until the elected Government made a request. Liberia’s response to increasing international pressure, her sensitivity to the fact that that matter “continues to hang over our heads, constraining our effort to move our country forward and raise the resources that we need for our development, led us to meet President Obasanjo’s request with the provision, in an agreement between he and myself, that, before this is done, there will be due consultation with the African leadership, recognizing that it is an arrangement, in which they participated, that took Mr. Taylor to exile”.
Asked if she would have been more comfortable if the Nigerian President had handled the matter, she said that, not only would she have been more comfortable, that would have been the right thing to do; the pressure on Liberia had been “unfair”. She had hoped that the international community and the United Nations would have sought to implement a decision of the Security Council, in that regard, long before the new Government took over.
“So, we inherited a problem”, she added. “We are faced with serious pressure. We are a small country. We have no powers that others have. We have no security forces to protect our people and the safety of our nation. So, we are caught in a situation, in which we have to take a major decision that should have been taken long before, giving us an opportunity to pursue our development agenda. But, that is the way it is. So, we have to get this behind us, because our people want to return our country to normalcy and they want to get on with their lives,” she said.
She replied to a related question that the Council members had seemed to thank her for her rather courageous, but risky, decision to try to bring the matter to closure. What else they would do, depended on their own reflection based on what she had said, based on the security and stability of Liberia. Whatever happened, she knew that the Council would ensure that the fundamental rights of people were preserved and that security was protected to the degree possible.
In terms of the role played by Mr. Taylor, his potential influence and interference in the affairs of Liberia, she said she could not quantitatively assess his role, but Mr. Taylor had been in power for many years and he had many loyalists in Liberia. He had run a warring faction with thousands and thousands of young combatants who still felt solidarity with him, and they were still there. Until the new Government was able to respond to their needs and give them an alternative, they still had those ties. She could not judge the extent of the impact of those ties on the country’s stability. She could only hope to manage and contain it. That was why she had appealed to the Security Council to ensure that the peace was maintained, should there be a response.
She said it was important to bring the matter to closure, but she was not in a position to talk about a precise date. The African leadership was being consulted.
She said that Liberia had not met all the requirements for lifting the sanctions on diamonds, but she hoped that at the next review in June, it would be possible for the Council to lift the bans on the diamond and forestry sectors, so that those important resources could “come back” into the country’s own management, in support of its development agenda.
To another question, she said she believed that all African leaders were now embracing democracy and understood that impunity in violation of human rights must come to an end. The decisions being made by African, and all other global leaders, reflected their commitment to that objective.
* *** *For information media • not an official record