A tortuous road to peace: The dynamics of regional, UN and international humanitarian interventions in Liberia


Festus B Aboagye and Alhaji M S Bah, PhD (1)


In Africa, as in most parts of the world, the end of the Cold War was greeted with a great deal of optimism that the resulting peace dividend would translate to sustainable economic development, thereby improving the lives of the peoples of the continent. This expectation was founded on the belief that the removal of the often confrontational Cold War dynamics would usher in a period of peace and security that would help to consolidate modest socio-economic gains in the post-independence period. Africa, perhaps, more than any other region of the world, needed peace, security and stability as fundamental conditions for economic development. The existence of violent conflicts, often aided by one side of the Cold War divide, undermined political and socio-economic development in post-independence Africa. It should be remembered that by the time that most African countries had achieved independence in the 1960s or thereabouts, the Cold War was in full swing. Thus, the newly independent states became pawns in the superpower competition for allies. However, to the disappointment of the people of Africa and elsewhere, the much-anticipated peace dividend remained elusive, as some countries degenerated into violent internal conflicts with colossal loss of life and property. The conflicts engendered considerable humanitarian crises, with dire consequences for the civilian populations. Though considered intra-state, most of the conflicts had region-wide consequences through the massive flow of refugees and small arms and light weapons, among others.

In West Africa the end of the Cold War coincided with the outbreak of civil conflict in Liberia. The United Nations (UN) and the international community were discernibly slow in appreciating the real and potential danger of the conflict to West Africa and the continent as a whole. Appalled by the indifference of the international community, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) took the bold, though controversial decision, to deploy its Ceasefire Monitoring and Observer Group (ECOMOG) to Liberia in August 1990. ECOMOG was meant to forestall the suffering of the civilian population, especially the tens of thousands of West African nationals trapped by the fighting. However, from its inception ECOMOG was dogged by controversy arising from, among others, its lack of Security Council authorisation. To a large extent the UN took a minimalist approach in the deployment of the meagre UN Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) between 1993 and 1997 and its sister UN Observer Mission in Sierra Leone 1993 and 1997 and its sister UN Observer Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL) between 1998 and 1999. In spite of ECOWAS's projection of its mission as one that was designed to safeguard life and property, restore and maintain regional peace, stability and security, it failed to cut the ice with the international community. Perhaps the necessary relief for the regional initiative came in the wake of the NATO intervention in the Balkans, which did not have UN Security Council authorisation either - save for the argument of greater public good and regional security interests - until ex-post facto in June 1991.

The international community's opposition to regional intervention strengthened the resolve of the key warlords Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh and their regional mentors and backers, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Libya. The reluctance to support the ECOWAS initiative served as a green light to the warlords and the countries that supported them to pursue their agenda of destabilising the sub-region. This development, coupled with the hasty US withdrawal of its forces from Somalia, which was subsequently followed by the withdrawal of the UN Humanitarian Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), after several US rangers and Pakistani peacekeepers were killed, led many observers to conclude that the maintenance of peace and security in Africa was not a priority, especially if it meant putting Western troops in harm's way. But while some member states quickly withdrew their forces - lock, stock and barrel - from Somalia, following limited setbacks, some of the same lead nations stuck to their guns in the on-going operations in Afghanistan and Iraq where, they continue to suffer much more serious casualties, with no assured exit strategies in sight.

International peacekeeping efforts in Africa suffered serious setbacks after the Somali debacle. The withdrawal of US troops effectively paved the way for the withdrawal of the multinational UN peacekeeping force, which had been in the country from April 1992 to March 1993 as UNOSOM I. (2) The bitter experiences of Somalia were to have a negative impact on the international community's response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Operating under a weak mandate and small force of about 2,550 troops, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) (3) was forced to watch helplessly as thousands of innocent men, women and children were slaughtered by the Rwandan military and the government-backed Hutu Interahamwe militia. The obvious outcome of the failure of UN peacekeeping in the 1990s, coupled with the indifference of the international community, has been the regionalisation of peace operations. Thus, while ECOWAS and SADC, among others, mounted 'humanitarian missions' to resolve conflicts in their backyards, the OAU/AU was left to find solutions to many other African conflicts - Comoros, Burundi, Sudan (South), etc - that had failed to register on the radar of UN or the larger international community. African-led interventions were undertaken against the backdrop of limited human, financial, and logistical capacities, with little or experience in dealing with complex humanitarian emergencies. The culmination has been the attenuation of regional conflict resolution efforts to the detriment of the hundreds of thousands of civilians who continue to be caught in the maelstrom of these conflicts.

In recognition of the challenges that confronted it in the 1990s, the UN embarked on efforts to strengthen its capacity for preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peacekeeping. These efforts culminated in the publication of the seminal policy document An agenda for peace by Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1992 with a subsequent review in 1995. (4) Essentially, the UN recognised the linkage between conflict, or instability, and economic development, thereby establishing the complementary 'An it recognised and instituted important changes, pursuant to the recommendations of the Brahimi Panel (2000), to enhance its capacity for rapid deployment in theatres of conflict.

Further to this, the UN has since assigned appropriate mandates, with a strong focus on civilian protection, to its new missions in Africa, namely UNAMSIL (Sierra Leone), MONUC (DRC), UNMIL (Liberia), UNOCI (Côte d'Ivoire) and UNOB (Burundi). However, the robustness of the earlier deployments (UNAMSIL and MONUC) initially was not matched by adequacy of resources and corresponding military capacity. As a result, the mandate of UNAMSIL, for instance, had to be shored up by the deployment of British forces operating outside a UN mandate in Freetown, while MONUC had to be salvaged by mandating the deployment of the French-led International Emergency Multinational Force (IEMF) to Bunia (Ituri) from June to September 2003. The same could be said of the role of France's Security Council-mandated 4,000-strong operation LICORNE, operating alongside UNOCI.

While the trend towards what is now commonly referred to as the 'hybridisation' of peace operations has contributed to the implementation of ceasefire and peace agreements, they have raised some concerns. In particular, their operations outside the framework of UN peace operations and the selective nature of their contribution, often along colonial-linguistic lines, as well as their (sometimes limited) duration, have not been altogether helpful. UN and international commitment to the resolution of the continent's conflicts remains moderate when measured against the resources directed at conflicts in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor does the UN requirement that a binding and comprehensive ceasefire must be in place before the often laborious and expensive deployment of blue helmets, offer a realistic response to regional and internal conflicts. In the intervening period, in many cases, protagonists engage with impunity in maiming, slaughter, destruction and genocide.

As in ECOWAS's Burundi Africa was spurred into taking responsibility where the rest of the international community has failed to do so. Determined to bolster its diplomatic initiatives in Burundi, South Africa agreed to deploy troops, eventually taking the lead in the composition, command and control, and operations of the African Mission in Burundi (AMIB), along with Ethiopia and Mozambique. As with previous African-led deployments, the need to deal with the humanitarian crises triggered by the conflict was a strong imperative for the deployment of AMIB.

Thus, one of the primary objectives of the political intervention by the AU/RECs and their deployment of troops for peace-support operations is to address the humanitarian crises resulting from conflicts. Given the UN's slow progress owing to political horse trading, African-led missions are aimed at creating the congenial conditions that are requisite for the deployment of UN peace operations after it has reached consensus. In all cases, the end game of these interventions and actions by either the AU or the RECs is to contain conflicts and seek their resolution and subsequent settlement, thereby contributing to broad arrangements aimed at protecting the civilian population.

Against the backdrop of the establishment of the PSC and efforts at building concrete African regional capacities for peace operations, these objectives are germane to the debate Africa has thus committed itself to the establishment of standby forces as part of the wider continental security architecture that is meant to address the perennial problems relating to the safety and security of civilian populations in armed conflicts. It is therefore more urgent now than ever to expedite the establishment of the ECOWAS Standby Brigade within the policy framework of the ASF.

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