The shootings in Sierra Leone ended a year ago and more than 50,000 ex-combatants have been disarmed. Now, Presidential and parliamentary elections are set for May 14. That date will mark the end of a long march to peace after 11 years of civil war.
Many international organizations are working towards reaching that goal. One of them, United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL is working with the National Electoral Commission to ensure the process is free and fair.
UNAMSIL’s spokesperson, Margaret Novicki, says her organization has played a big role in trying to assist the people of Sierra Leone to achieve the peace that is been enjoyed today: "We couldn’t do it alone, however. Of course, we’ve had a lot of assistance from Sierra Leoneans themselves, and first and foremost I think the commitment of the parties to the conflict to achieve peace. Without that, it would have been very difficult for UNAMSIL to succeed...before."
Earlier this year, the UN security gave UNAMSIL a mandate to participate in the electoral process. Today, UNAMSIIL’s mandate has changed from a peacekeeping mission to assisting the National Electoral Commission, conduct a fair, and violent free election.
Ms. Novicki says UNAMSIL sees this process as a key element in the peace building process and providing security: "Of course because we have over 17,000 troops on the ground who are deployed all over the country, our assurance of security for elections to be held in a peaceful atmosphere is very, very important. We provide umbrella security across the entire country. Nonetheless, the national authorities, mainly the Sierra Leone Police are responsible for security at indiviidual polling stations and such. But we’re there as a protective umbrella to see to it that everything is held in a peaceful atmosphere. "
UNAMSIL is also providing logistical support to the National Electoral Commission, or NEC. UNAMSIL has spent the last two months moving election materials to all the twelve districts and the Western area. That process will continue until election day when all registered voters have cast their ballots. Ms. Novicki says the mission will also be monitoring the votes: " We have an elections component that was specially set up in UNAMSIL to oversee and assist and advise the National Electoral Commission throughout the entire preparations and lead up to the elections. To point out to where we think certain aspects of the process could go better, how we can adviise them to see to it that the elections are held in a free and fair atmosphere so that at the end of the day, every body is satisfied the results are the correct results."
Ms. Novicki says UNAMSIL, being a an impartial mission, is not assisting political parties with resources or materials. However, it is playing a role which is not endorsed by the UN Security Council, but which part of the general mandate to assist in the area of public information and voter education: "As you know in this country we have an 80% illitracy rate, and conventional means of communications are not always the most effective. So we are sending out performers and theater troops around the country to do voter education. We also give all the candidates an equal level playing field to discuss their platform on our radio station – radio UNAMSIL - and give everybody an equal opprtunity to get their views across."
Exactly a year ago this month, the UN Mission in Sierra Leone was under pressure from Sierra Leoneans to be more pro-active in providing security for them. But Ms. Novicki says people should remember that any peace process in any part of the world takes time -- and trust from all parties to the conflict.