(Written and published September 2012)
The war was raging. Fighters on both sides were shooting and launching bombs indiscriminately. Stray bullets flew, striking innocent people. Exploding bombs killed civilians and damaged buildings, often the innocent – particularly women and children – disfigured and maimed for life.
Fourteen years of back-to- civil war, from 1989 to 2003, had turned Liberia into a failed state, presenting a humanitarian situation more catastrophic than what the world is watching unfold in Syria. More than a million people, clustered in the country’s ravaged capital, Monrovia – a city built for just 500,000 residents – were losing hope. Some prayed for divine intervention to end the carnage. Many of them, myself included, wondered whether anyone anywhere in the world truly cared about what was taking place in Liberia.
And, at last, a new day brought good news – news of a decision that would put an end to the madness on the ground in the West African country: the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1478 on 6 May 2003, during the Council’s 4,751st meeting.
Some nine years later, I was fortunate enough to visit the very room in which this decision was taken. Never in my life had I thought I would have this opportunity, one which millions of Liberians will never have – thanks to the Reham Al-Ferra Memorial Journalists Fellowship (RAF) Program.
As our tour guide led us – myself and the 10 other 2012 RAF Fellows – and gave us a detailed explanation of how the Security Council works, my memory immediately went back to the bloody days in Liberia and how the UN’s decision helped to save a dying country and its people.
The United Nations Security Council or (UNSC) is one of the principal organs of the UN and is charged with the maintenance of international. Its powers include the establishment of peacekeeping operations, international sanction, and the authorization of military action.
There are 15 members of the Security Council, consisting of five veto-wielding permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—based on the great powers that were the victors of World War II, and 10 elected non-permanent members with two-year terms.
Security Council members must always be present at UN headquarters in New York so that the Security Council can meet at any time. This requirement of the UN Charter was adopted to address a weakness of the League of Nations (which gave birth to the UN) since that organization was often unable to respond quickly to a crisis. Meanwhile, many today argue and criticize that the condition under which these five permanent-member countries were considered “permanent” no longer exist. They have propounded several formulas for a reformed security council, and the debate drags on. Ok, back to the topic.
My fellow RAF colleagues didn’t know what was going on inside me—and they wanted to get all information about the UNSC and the UN in general, the purpose of our program.
Every year the UN, through the Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalists’ Fellowship Program of the Department of Public Information (DPI) invites junior and middle-level media professionals from developing countries to the UN Headquarters in New York to acquaint them with the workings of the world body. Established in 1980 by the UN General Assembly, the Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalist’ Fellowship, formerly the DPI Training Program for Broadcasters and Journalists from Developing Countries, was re-named in memory of Ms. Reham Al-Farra, a young journalist and staff of DPI killed in the August 2003 attack on the UN Headquarters in Baghdad. This year, Liberia is among 11 countries that made it.
Despite the number of years passed so far, the memories are still fresh of the fighting between Government forces and various warring factions (mainly the Liberia United for Reconstruction and Democracy, or LURD and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia). As the conflict intensified, so did the threat of a humanitarian tragedy. In an effort to deal with this, the then-Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, outlined a three-phased deployment of international troops to Liberia, finally leading to a multidimensional United Nations peacekeeping operation.
Then, on 1 August 2003, the Security Council adopted resolution 1497, authorizing the establishment of a multinational force in Liberia and declaring its readiness to establish a follow-on United Nations stabilization force – known as the UN Mission in Liberia, or UNMIL – to be deployed no later than 1 October 2003.
In September, the Security Council welcomed Secretary-General Annan’s recommendation to establish UNMIL, and unanimously adopted resolution 1509 which established UNMIL.
As UNMIL’s website states, “the Secretary-General recommended that the Council, acting under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, authorize the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping operation with a troop strength of up to 15,000, including 250 military observers, 160 staff officers, up to 875 civilian police officers and an additional five armed formed units each comprising 120 officers, and a significant civilian component and necessary support staff.”
UNMIL was to be a multidimensional operation, composed of political, military, civilian police, criminal justice, civil affairs, human rights, gender, child protection, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, public information and support components, as well as an electoral component, in due course.
On 18 August 2003, Liberia’s warring parties signed the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which led to the deployment of the ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL).
However, while tensions subsided somewhat with the deployment of ECOMIL, the situation took another step for the better with the start of operations, on 1 October, of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) – as mandated by the Security Council’s resolution 1509. The vanguard of the ECOMIL forces were re-hatted as UN peacekeepers, with the UN presence subsequently contributing significantly to the building of a brand new Liberia based on strong democratic principles.
The Security Council’s decision brought joy to many Liberians, and this could be seen in their actions when thousands of them first celebrated the arrival of ECOMIL (ECOWAS Mission In Liberia), and then UNMIL – the international forces were instrumental in disarming combatants and helped Liberians hold their first democratic election in more than 25 years.
As my companions and I listened to our guide, I kept imagining what could have happened. Had the Security Council not taken its decision, the world would have likely witnessed another genocide on the African continent, a “Liberian Genocide” this time, as evidenced by the huge cache of ammunition and machine guns that were seized by ECOMIL troops while the weaponry were reportedly being brought into Liberia through Monrovia’s airport.
Inarguably, had the then-President Charles Taylor and his forces been able lay their hands on such armaments the consequences for Liberia could have been catastrophic. Mr. Taylor had already ordered his men to “move from house to house”, looking for suspected opponents, and who knows, maybe I, too, would not have survived to tell this story.
After having extended UNMIL’s mandate repeatedly over the years since 2003, the Security Council, again, on June 17 extended the mission’s mandate to September 2013. This time, I was right here in New York, and I saw it happen. By D. Kaihennneh Sengbeh, 2012 RAF Fellow/ firstname.lastname@example.org/+231886 586 531