Liberia’s Security Priorities During UNMIL’s Fragile Transition

In a pivotal moment for Liberia, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has successfully completed its mandate after 15 years of assisting and supporting the nation in its transition from violent conflict to long-lasting peace and democracy. With Liberia now looking to secure a stable future, the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, warned the government that while the country has made successful strides in the transition, the road ahead will be difficult.

Liberia has made enormous progress since the country suffered through two civil wars over a 14-year period between 1989 and 2003. The wars left more than 250,000 Liberian dead, an estimated 80 percent of women injured by sexual violence, and nearly one-third of the popular displaced. When UMIL was created in the same year, the mission was faced with a country torn apart by violent conflict, with little hope and a traumatized population. This progress and transformation was commended, with the Deputy Secretary-General noting that the mission had “helped to disarm more than 100,000 combatants, and protected millions of civilians; helped to rebuild the police, the security services and other institutions; facilitated the provision of humanitarian aid; and supported the development of national capacity to promote and protect human rights.” However, the Deputy Secretary-General noted that Liberia still faced challenges, explaining that “development gains will be at risk without sustained peace and respect for human rights.”

The country continues to tackle an economic downturn, in part linked to Ebola, youth unemployment is high, governance is weak, and justice and security challenges remain concerns as they could threaten Liberia’s fragile peace. In addition, the climate of global austerity and international attention on other ongoing conflicts means that there is a growing disconnect between the rhetoric of sustaining this fragile peace and putting in place the necessary policies and procedures. In particular, questions surround the efforts of Liberia’s Security Sector Reform (SSR) in curbing state security forces tendencies towards lawless behaviour. In 2011, security forces killed a Coalition of Democratic Change (CDC) supporter who was protesting the results of the Liberian election. Similarly, during the outbreak of the dangerous Ebola virus, 16-year old, Shaki Kamara, was shot and killed by Liberian military officers working in an overcrowded quarantine area. There are also reports of police being accused of lawless behaviour and violent brutality against journalists and other members of the public. Little is known to have happened to the security forces responsible for this behaviour. As well as this, the most recent Afro-barometer survey found that trust in the Liberian police was extremely low, with only 2 percent of respondents saying that the police were not corrupt.

This combination of ongoing lawless behaviour, continuing to commit atrocities with little to no investigation, and the community’s deep mistrust of the Liberian security forces will bear heavily on the UNMIL transition. When society doesn’t have confidence in the institutions who protect citizens, then violence is more likely to occur as individuals feel they need to take the law into their own hands to ensure their safety. The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and the Liberia National Police (LNP) requires greater institutionalized training processes and stronger accountability. This will require strengthening domestic oversight, international funding, and technical support, as well as stronger engagement with the Liberian public, so they know and trust that the government is ensuring security during this fragile transition period.

Although UNMIL is officially drawing to a close on 31 March 2018, 17 United Nations agencies and funds are remaining in the country to encourage development and strong, stable governance. This support will be incredibly helpful for the Liberian Government in continuing to strengthen their security forces during this fragile transition period. With this in mind, the West African state has a chance at continuing to build a strong and sustainable peace.