By: Bonnie Worstell, UNA-NCA Program Assistant
On Tuesday July 17, the Better World Campaign held a celebration at Rayburn House Office Building called “From Fear to Freedom: Celebrating UN Peacekeeping Successes in West Africa” to applaud the impact of the United Nations’ efforts in West Africa. Although the current U.S. administration has expressed distaste for the UN and has favored a policy of retrenchment, the president’s proposed budget cut of 30% directed towards international affairs was rejected by Congress. The event showcased the many accomplishments of the UN in Liberia, demonstrating that UN peacekeeping is worth investing in.
After 15 long years of building peace in a nation torn apart by two vicious civil wars, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) successfully completed its mandate on March 30, 2018. During its mandate, UNMIL worked alongside the Liberian government to improve and strengthen institutions to establish long-term stability. Some of the efforts initiated included the revamping of the Liberian National Police (LNP), assisting with the conduction of democratic elections, and addressing the Ebola crisis.
A reliable, trustworthy national police force is a key institution, but the LNP were completely dysfunctional at the inception of UNMIL in October 2003. Their success was hindered by the seizure of police stations by rebel groups, rampant corruption stemming from bribery necessitated by a lack of salary from the government, as well as a lack of resources, training, and equipment. UNMIL began by launching the largest UN Peacekeeping disarmament campaign in history, resulting in the disarmament of 100,000 former combatants. Next, UNMIL, alongside the U.S. and Sweden, then successfully re-trained the LNP, ultimately reversing its bad reputation for corruption. Due to budgetary constraints, the force is seriously undermanned. However, as Liberia recovers economically, its capacity to grow the numbers of the LNP will expand.
Another key institution of long-lasting stability is democratic elections. UNMIL assisted Liberia’s government in conducting democratic elections by registering over 1.3 million voters and stationing peacekeepers at election sites to protect voters from election-related violence. The first election in 2005 resulted in the appointment of the first female head of state in the African continent’s history, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In the next elections, occurring in 2011 and 2017, UNMIL was far less involved in efforts to transition the responsibility onto the Liberian government. As a result, in January 2018, the nation saw its first successful transition of peace when George Weah replaced Sirleaf.
In 2014-2015 Ebola swept through western Africa, causing a health crisis that infected 28,000 and killed 11,000. UNMIL played a critical role in the immediate response as other international agencies mobilized, coordinating with the Liberian government to release an awareness campaign, increasing logistical effectiveness for testing and diagnosing victims, obtaining the necessary equipment, and training volunteers. The U.S. also played a vital role: the state established three diagnostic laboratories, The Center for Disease Control (CDC) contributed Ebola prevention kits to be distributed, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) assisted in the necessary task of assisting in safe burials to those who had succumbed to this deadly illness. Despite the tragedy causing numerous deaths and a wave of international panic, the response brought robust investment into Liberia’s public health infrastructure, increasing Liberia’s future capacity to deal with potential future health crises.
Liberia still has many obstacles to overcome including increasing their low human development index score, building much-needed infrastructure, addressing ongoing gender violence and discrimination, and recovering from their general lack of resources. However, making these improvements will be much more possible in a time of peace than a time of conflict. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) will take the lead on assisting the ongoing work in Liberia. They intend to aid the new president’s goals of investing in “agriculture, infrastructure, in human capital, and in technology.” Weah also intends to focus on poverty reduction during his time in office. Despite the difficulties Liberia must yet address, the future is quite promising. Liberia has yielded many “firsts,” and has exceeded expectations in so many vital areas. With aid from the UN agencies such as UNDP and United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), and the promise of sustained peace, there is nothing Liberia cannot accomplish.