News / Africa

UN Wants Security Sector Reform Before Liberian Elections

UN Special Representative Ellen Margarethe Loej speaks in a high level meeting of the Government of Liberia, Monrovia, 08 Oct. 2010
UN Special Representative Ellen Margarethe Loej speaks in a high level meeting of the Government of Liberia, Monrovia, 08 Oct. 2010

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The United Nations says there must be reforms to Liberia's young, post-war security sector to guarantee peaceful elections next year.

Liberian police do not carry weapons because principle responsibility for security still rests with United Nations peacekeepers. But Liberian police do control checkpoints, where motorists say they are often made to pay bribes.

Taxi driver Seydu Diallho says it is a costly problem.

"Every day they pester taxi drivers," Diallho said. "Anywhere you park they will say no parking, even if there isn't a 'no parking' sign. Anytime they see you they will stop you and will want money from you."

There is nothing new about police extorting money from motorists, especially in a country where patrolmen earn about 80 dollars a month.  But, in a country still recovering from civil war and years of abuse by both local authorities and rebels, corruption further undermines public confidence in the rule of law.

Peter Chapman works for the Carter Center in Liberia.

"I think certainly in rural areas there's a mistrust of, the justice sector, but I think that's largely due to the fact that their, I mean their interaction with it is either them or people they know paying bribes, either to magistrates or to police," Chapman said.

Recognizing those shortfalls, the United Nations is keeping its peacekeeping force at current levels through next year's election. Margrethe Loej is the U.N. special representative for Liberia.

"The population does not trust the rule-of-law sector, and they very often take the law into their own hands, and we are very conscious of the potential of having election-related violence," said Loej.

Loej says international support for security sector reform is crucial to safeguarding a young Liberian democracy.

"I don't think money can buy peace if the political will is not there," Loej added. "But, if the political will is there, money can help achieve peace much quicker. The case in point in Liberia, which was an utterly destroyed country after the civil war – money is needed to build the institutions that ensure peace."

The United States has already spent more than $250 million helping to train a new Liberian army. But the 2,200-strong force will not be ready before 2012. So, until then, Liberia's role in its own security is limited to what Human Rights Watch calls a predatory police force and ineffective courts.

Chapman says reforms will take time.

"If you're shooting for the justice system of the UK or France or something, I mean, you know, it took hundreds of years to get there and it's not like you can get there so quickly after conflict," Chapman said.

Frustrations about the pace of justice sometimes mean smaller disputes grow into bigger conflicts. Earlier this year, U.N. peacekeepers moved in to stop unrest between predominantly-Muslim Mandingo and Christian residents in northern Lofa County.

Jerome Verdier is the chairman of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He says the government has been slow to deal with the corruption and poverty that led to war.

"If those issues are ignored, if those recommendations are ignored, in the next ten years so to speak, I can see Liberia embroiled in another conflict, maybe of a dimension more serious than what we have already experienced,"  Verdier said.

Liberia's new, U.S.-trained army remains the great hope to restoring public confidence in national security services. But the troops are not alone, as human rights groups say there must also be substantial reforms to a justice system that has failed to prosecute members of a transitional government accused of stealing millions of dollars.

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