|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
PRESS CONFERENCE BY SECRETARY-GENERAL’S SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR LIBERIA
The United Nations envoy to Liberia cautioned today that the West African country’s steady and impressive rebound from decades of civil strife was tempered by the mood of its citizens, who were leery of the Government’s ability or willingness to guarantee the rule of law and often resorted to mob violence to accomplish what fractured judicial and administrative institutions could not.
Speaking at a Headquarters press conference immediately following her first briefing to the Security Council as Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), Ellen Margrethe Løj said that, while the political situation had been stable and major gains had been made towards implementing an “amazing” national poverty-reduction plan with significant civil society input, many of Liberia’s remaining problems boiled down to weaknesses in institutions which should guarantee the rule of law.
The Mission and the United Nations country team were working hard to support peacebuilding programmes on the ground, but the Government’s seriously limited capacity was taking a toll, she said. Slow-moving reform of the legal and judicial systems, and lagging security-sector reform, including restructuring of the police force and measures to enhance security, had left ordinary citizens wary of the overall effort. Those challenges, in addition to significant reconstruction and development concerns such as corruption and high unemployment, had bred mistrust.
“So the situation is […] very fragile,” said Ms. Løj, noting that crime, including armed robbery and rape, was common and that, in some cases, an incident could spark mob violence leading to further attacks. A recent attack by a large crowd had led to the killing of a woman and the burning of a police station. “This is mob justice,” she said, noting that Liberian citizens’ mistrust of the Government, police and other institutions led them to return “all too quickly to a civil war mentality”. Nowhere was that illustrated more clearly than in Liberia that there would be no sustainable security without development and that there would be no development without sustainable security.
Reform of the Liberia National Police was therefore among the major security-sector reform priorities, she went on, noting that, as of 30 June 2007, the quantitative benchmark of providing basic training for 3,500 police officers had been achieved. But even that commendable achievement faced obstacles such as low wages and high corruption, lack of qualified commanders, and too few prisons. The focus -– for the Government as well as international partners -- should be on improving the quality and professionalism of individual officers and providing the police force with the necessary equipment and resources to perform effectively as part of the effort to win back the trust of the citizens.
Especially concerned about rape, she noted that, while her Office received reports of some 15 or so cases of gender-based violence every week, it was more than certain that “this is probably only the tip of the iceberg”. In that regard, much work remained to not only bring those “unacceptable” numbers down but also to change the mindset of the people about the heinousness of sexual violence and rape. At the same time, the bulk of that effort could not and should not be carried out by UNMIL.
Prominent Liberians from local communities must do whatever they could to speak out against rape, she emphasized. While Liberia’s groundbreaking new anti-rape campaign and awareness raising programmes deserved praise, further action was needed. “We’re talking about girls as young as three years old, believe me. Something has to be done about it. It doesn’t help that I’m speaking out. I’m just a white woman from the north. The local community must become more engaged.”
Asked why she spoke so passionately about that subject, the Special Representative said her concern reflected how far Liberia remained from ensuring the respect and dignity of all it’s people. The passion only echoed that of Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was “deeply committed” to rooting out the scourge. The President was also committed to working with the United Nations and the wider international community to ensure that Liberia built on the solid gains of the five years since the end of the country’s civil war.
Responding to several questions about allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers, Ms. Løj said it was “no secret” that such charges had been levelled against UNMIL. The Mission and the United Nations country team were continuing to strengthen efforts to penalize and prevent sexual abuse and exploitation. Preventive measures included extensive training and prompt investigation of cases and implementation of disciplinary measures when allegations had been substantiated. In parallel with that, the Mission was educating new staff. “The United Nations is there to serve Liberia and the Liberian people. Whatever we do, we have to show the utmost respect for the people and their dignity.”
She went on to say that, as UNMIL’s Security Council-mandated drawdown continued apace, she would do her best to continue to report the on-the-ground reality. While it was ultimately “up to the wisdom of the Security Council”, it was honestly to be hoped that the Secretary-General, at least, in his recommendations, would ensure that the drawdown would not be so drastic that the United Nations “threw overboard” the success that had been achieved.
“We do need a real, long-term peacekeeping success story in the United Nations,” she concluded, recalling that there had been several recent well-known examples of the world body withdrawing [a peacekeeping force] too quickly and then having to return at much greater cost.
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