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Many Lingering Conflicts Still Plague West Africa - 2003-05-06

As the U.N. Security Council decides on extending sanctions against Liberia this week, efforts are also being made to find regional solutions to end the many conflicts in West Africa.

The issue of U.N. sanctions against Liberia has implications for several conflicts in the region.

The sanctions were first imposed in 2001 to punish Liberia for supporting rebels in Sierra Leone and exchanging weapons for diamonds. The sanctions prohibit Liberia's government from either selling diamonds or buying weapons, and also bars Liberian officials from traveling outside the country.

But the issue is much broader now. Liberia is accused of sheltering rebel fighters who are wanted by a U.N. backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone.

In addition, Liberian mercenaries have been fighting on both sides of the civil war in Ivory Coast, in an area now known as the Ivorian wild west. Guinea has accused Liberia of backing rebels fighting against its government.

Meanwhile, Liberia accuses both Guinea and Ivory Coast of backing rebels fighting to overthrow its President Charles Taylor. The conflict in Liberia has escalated in recent weeks.

At Human Rights Watch in New York, researcher Leslie Lefkow says the U.N. Security Council should go after not just Liberia, but other West African governments which are known to back rebel factions.

"We would like the Security Council to start looking at mechanisms to condemn and sanction host governments in the region who are supporting Liberian and other rebel groups," she said. "One of the problems has been that the international community has been looking at the region very piecemeal, first looking at Sierra Leone, looking at Liberia, looking at Cote d'Ivoire very separately, when in fact it is increasingly clear that the conflicts are so intertwined that there really needs to be a regional analysis and a regional approach to solving the problem."

The United Nations has already started looking at problems in West Africa on a regional basis. Last week, U.N. agencies said they were tackling the humanitarian crisis in Ivory Coast by increasing programs in all neighboring countries, where civilians have fled.

A U.N. official in Ivory Coast, Besida Tonwe, says this type of solution is getting high marks of approval.

"We developed this appeal with the donors and with the governments concerned and they seem to think that is the way to go," he said. "With displacement of people, whether it is Ivorian refugees crossing into other countries or returnees as we call them, meaning Burkinabes living here who are returning to Burkina Faso, all these have regional implications and the idea is to have flexibility to follow the people with the resources, rather than fix the resources to a certain place."

In mid-May, British Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeremy Greenstock, is scheduled to lead a Security Council Mission to West Africa, aimed at tackling problems on a regional basis.

The mission will look at humanitarian problems and also the impact of arms trafficking and mercenaries in fueling West Africa's conflicts.

Previous regional efforts in West Africa have focused on banning the trade and production of small arms and light weapons. But despite agreements at the leadership level, regional security analyst Prosper Nii Nortey Addo, says the moratorium on weapons circulation has not been effective.

He says a general awareness campaign concerning the weapons issue is needed, like the one that has been done with HIV/AIDS, because, he stresses, its effects are just as devastating.

"I think it needs to be popularized more for all the people in the government to know more about it and even the every man on the street," he said. "Radio programs should be organized to talk about the issue. If genuinely we are all committed to see to it that these small arms, some manufactured locally and some imported, are gotten rid of it can be done. But it needs the will of political leadership and also sensitizing the people."

While that effort continues, activists are calling for the United Nations to take such a regional approach on larger issues, like ending the area's many civil wars.