Peace, progress and potential: The legacy of UN Peacekeeping in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone

By Jean-Pierre Lacroix

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People in the street in Monrovia, Liberia, say goodbye to U.N. peacekeepers from Nigeria as they depart the country in February 2018 as the peacekeeping mission completes its mandate. UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

With the departure of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in March this year, UN peacekeeping will be absent from the Mano River Basin for the first time in 25 years.

From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, a series of brutal civil wars tore through the Mano River Basin sub-region of West Africa. Starting in Liberia and spreading to Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire, violent conflict ripped societies apart. State authority dissolved, institutions of governance collapsed, millions were forced to flee, and West Africa was threatened with destabilization.

Then something happened: the world engaged. Peacekeepers were deployed, wars ended, despots left and people began to return home. Ex-combatants were disarmed, elections were held, crops were planted, and children went back to school — all with the help of the UN. When Ebola struck in 2014, the region bent but didn’t break.

Today, all three countries are at peace with themselves and their neighbours. The election of George Weah as President of Liberia, the country’s first peaceful, democratic transition in seven decades, reveals a country well on its way to sustained peace and prosperity. Sierra Leone has held three successful elections since the closure of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), consolidating its post-war democracy. In 2017, Cote d’Ivoire’s economy was the second fastest growing economy in Sub-Saharan Africa.

These countries have declared themselves open for foreign investment, and are themselves today supporting global peace efforts, deploying contingents to several of our peacekeeping missions. Countries that needed UN peacekeeping to transition from conflict to peace are today playing an important role in maintaining international stability.

The wheels of justice are in motion in the Mano River region. Liberia’s Charles Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence for aiding and abetting war crimes, and Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo currently faces charges of crimes against humanity at The Hague. At the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva recently, Liberia pledged — for the first time — to issue a public statement on accountability for grave crimes committed during the country’s two civil wars.

There is no doubt that over the past 25 years, UN Peacekeeping has played a central role in helping to keep the peace, protect the vulnerable and facilitate political processes in the Mano River Basin. Although UN Peacekeeping is no longer present in the region, the UN Country Teams are actively engaged in humanitarian, governance & development support.

Of course, Peacekeeping Operations are not a silver bullet. We are but one part of a complex, joint international effort led by the people and governments of the three countries. The region, under the strong leadership of the Economic Community of West African States, led the way in facilitating political processes and providing support to resolve conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire.

Our most important partners, of course, have been the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire. Their determination to recover from the deep wounds of their conflict and make real progress in state-building and economic development inspires us to work harder to support a peaceful future for the millions of vulnerable people living through conflict today.

The international community has also been actively engaged in the region: supporting reconciliation, promoting development and the re-establishment of rule of law and state authority, not to mention conducting major humanitarian operations. US assistance and engagement has been particularly important for consolidating democratic progress and improving governance, as well as supporting economic growth and build infrastructure.

This year UN Peacekeeping marks 70 years since the first peacekeepers deployed as part of the UN Truce Supervision Organization in the Middle East (UNTSO).

The nature of peacekeeping has evolved over seven decades: our peacekeeping operations no longer monitor clear ceasefire lines, instead dealing with armed groups and asymmetrical warfare that has made the endeavour a much more challenging one.

In March, in recognition of the increasingly complex nature of peacekeeping, the Secretary-General launched his Action for Peacekeeping initiative (A4P) to ensure peacekeeping is more focused, our missions are stronger and safer, and we can mobilize support for political solutions and for well-structured, well-equipped, and well-trained forces.

Together with our missions, we are already undertaking important steps to improving Peacekeeping, including focusing on changing mindsets of our troops, improving training and enhancing accountability. We are also reviewing our peacekeeping missions to better tailor their priorities and adjust their configuration to ensure they are fit for purpose.

UN Peacekeeping is a partnership with Member States, Troop- and Police-Contributors, financial contributors, the Security Council, and regional organizations. We need everyone on board to build stronger, more effective operations who are implementing leaner, more focused mandates. We all have a role to play.

We can also draw important lessons from our past missions in the Mano River for operations with clear and achievable mandates. These operations also serve as an example of strong international and regional partnerships in action. When we work together with our stakeholders towards one goal, good things happen.

The transformation of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire from conflict to peace and stability is a remarkable one, and — in a world still learning from its mistakes, a world still plagued by conflict — it is such progress that we ought to celebrate.

The author is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations.

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We help countries navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace.

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