Ahead of elections, UN envoy calls on Sierra Leone’s politicians to put national interests first

Executive Representative of the Secretary-General for Sierra Leone Michael von der Schulenburg. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

22 March 2012 – Ahead of presidential elections later this year and amidst reports of the importation of assault weapons, the outgoing head of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Mission in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) today called on the country’s political establishment to put the country’s national interests ahead of its own political ambitions.

“The forthcoming elections in November will be the major challenge for the country’s nascent democracy,” said the Executive Representative of the Secretary-General and head of UNIPSIL, Michael von der Schulenburg, in a statement to the Security Council. “Sierra Leone must pass this crucial test in its history without allowing the demons of the past to re-emerge.”

While the elections are not due until November, there have been violent incidents between rival political groups over the past months. The elections will be its third since the end of the decade-long war in 2002, and the second since the withdrawal of the peacekeeping operation known as UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) in December 2005 – that mission was replaced by various other UN offices, most recently UNIPSIL, which focuses on political and development activities.

Mr. von der Schulenburg said there had been reports that the Government had imported assault weapons worth millions of dollars in January to equip a recently enlarged paramilitary wing of its police force, known as the Operational Services Division (OSD).

“Sierra Leone is under no arms embargo,” Mr. von der Schulenburg said. However, given Sierra Leone’s progress in establishing peace and security throughout the country and its relatively low crime rate, its it not clear why the police would need such weapons.”

He noted that an enlarged, heavily-armed and allegedly also ethnically imbalanced OSD risks undermining the efforts by the Sierra Leonean Police in creating a modern and operationally independent police force. He also pointed to other worrying signs such as the imposition of a three month ban of all political rallies and the recent break-in into a newspaper critical of the Government.

However, the envoy noted that that the main political opposition has its own “considerable historical baggage” and should “help to dissuade existing mistrust and allay fears that may linger about any ill-perceived intention.”

Mr. von der Schulenburg said the country would benefit from a number of confidence-building measures, such as: continued and open dialogue between the Government and opposition parties on controversial issues which could derail the elections; all parties acting in accordance the Joint Communiqué signed between the two main political parties in 2009; joint support from all political parties for the country’s electoral management bodies; and, support from all political leaders for various cross-party initiatives.

Mr. von der Schulenburg completed his term as the Executive Representative of the Secretary-General and head UNIPSIL in February. He took up the post in 2008.

Sierra Leone, once known more for a vicious civil war in which massacres, the mutilation of victims and recruitment of child soldiers were commonplace, was the first country, together with Burundi, to be put on the agenda of the UN Peacebuilding Commission when it was set up in 2006 to prevent post-conflict countries from relapsing back into bloodshed.

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