Until the United Nations intervened in 2003, some 250,000 people lost their lives and as many as one million people were displaced or made refugees as a result of fourteen years of conflict in the small, West African country of Liberia. UN Dispatch recently contacted Jordan Ryan, an American citizen who is one of the top administrators of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). From his office in Monrovia, Mr. Ryan discusses the history of the conflict, reconstruction efforts, and how UN peacekeepers are contributing to the political and physical rehabilitation of a broken country.
Dispatch: Can you give our readers a brief sketch of the conflict and why the United Nations sent peacekeepers to Liberia in 2003?
Jordan Ryan: The Liberian conflict lasted for fourteen years, but many feel it has its roots much deeper in the history of Liberia. During those fourteen years of civil war — there were massive human rights violations. Perhaps as many as a quarter million people died and anywhere up to a million became displaced or refugees in neighbouring countries.
Dispatch: The population of Liberia is not all that tremendous–these numbers probably represent a significant portion of the entire population.
Ryan: The population is only about 3 million. So, with a third displaced, it was a very difficult time for the Liberian people.
The United Nations Security Council determined that the conflict in Liberia, which had spread across the borders to Sierra Leone, was a threat to international peace and security. With that determination, they authorized the presence of a United Nations Peacekeeping mission in Liberia. At its inception, it was the second largest peacekeeping mission in Africa. Today we have got close to 14,000 troops from 50 nations serving in Liberia.
Dispatch: What are the main duties of the troops today and how have their duties evolved since they were first deployed?
Ryan: The duties have always been to maintain peace, security, and law and order. Troops are stationed throughout the nation — with contingents on border areas and in places we call “hot spots.” Initially, the troops were engaged in the disarmament of combatants. Now they are much more involved in the process of maintaining or consolidtaing the peace. They provide both a security blanket, and as we like to say, they provide “time and space” for the duly elected democratic government to actually exercise democratic control. This is a very important element.
Dispatch: Many international observers consider those elections in 2005 to be a turning point for Liberia. Can you describe how UNMIL supported those national elections?
Ryan: The elections were conducted by the National Elections Commission. The United Nations provided considerable technical and logistical support to conduct the elections through UNMIL, through the Elections Division as well as through the United Nations Development Program. We provided advisory services in how to conduct the elections. We made sure that people could get to the polls, and we made sure that the elections were conducted in an open and transparent manner.
The international election observers who were here, the representatives of the Liberian political parties, and many independent observers concluded that the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf–the first democratically elected woman president in all of Africa–were conducted in a free and fair manner. This was a triumph of democracy.
Dispatch: What was the turnout like for the election?
Ryan: I wasn’t here on the day of the first vote, but when I talk to colleagues that were here they tell me that even in the most rural and remote areas people turned out in droves. In many ways, the president was elected by the massive turnout of women voters who wanted a change and wanted to make sure that democracy prevailed. The turnout was high and participation was good. The government has been in place since January 2006.
Dispatch: Can you describe some of the reconstruction efforts that UNMIL has supported for the country?
Ryan: You have to understand how devastated the country was from the long war. Looting, on an unbelievable scale, had taken place across the entire county. Buildings were basically demolished. Lighting fixtures — and even the wiring for the lights — were stripped out of buildings. Roofs were taken off. Bathroom commodes, even bathroom tiles were chipped off and removed. That gives you the background of the reconstruction challenges facing the country.
A massive effort is required. It was only after the first six months of the new presidency that there was any city-supplied electricity in Monrovia. No other city throughout Liberia has any city-supplied electricity. Water is not available in most of the counties. More important are the lives of the people: the basic social services today are primarily provided through NGOs and the United Nations.
Dispatch: Can you be specific on what some of these services are that most touch the lives of Liberians?
Ryan: At least 80% of Liberians live on less than a dollar a day. In some counties there are no doctors. Malnutrition of children in Liberia is widespread. In rural areas, 39% of children under the age of five are stunted. Children have only a one in four chance of making it to their fifth birthday. Liberia has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. So that is the background that the Government of Liberia, with support from the United Nations and donors, are working against.
There is tremendous deprivation. But, quite frankly there is also tremendous opportunity. Liberia is a small country. And it has natural wealth in land and water, timber, diamonds and other minerals.
Dispatch: To that end, I have read that sanctions on the diamond industry have recently been lifted. What mechanisms are in place that might ensure that the wealth derived from Liberia’s natural resources might go back to the people?
Ryan: Liberia has just been admitted to the Kimberly Process, which is a certification scheme for diamonds that helps make sure that resources actually flow into the coffers of Liberia as opposed to the pockets of warlords and criminals. The United Nations and other donors have played a role in supporting a more open and transparent manner of regulating the mining industry. We had to make sure that once the Security Council sanctions were lifted the government has the capacity to regulate the diamond industry, including opening new government diamond offices throughout the country.
The same is true with the sanctions on timber. Not only were there blood diamonds here, there was also what some refer to as ‘blood timber.’ Sanctions on Liberian timber have been lifted and the United Nations, United States and the World Bank have been working closely with the Liberian authorities to develop a regulatory framework as well as mechanisms to help with the sustainable harvest of forests. These resources must benefit the poor in this country – not just an elite.