ABIDJAN — After 15 years in operation, the United Nations Mission in Liberia shut its doors on March 30, marking a major milestone as the one of the last peacekeeping missions to leave the West Africa region.
Touted as one of the U.N.’s most successful peacekeeping missions to date, Liberia has not only witnessed a peaceful transfer of power with the free and fair presidential election of George Weah in December 2017, but it has also rebounded from a brutal civil war that left roughly 250,000 dead and an Ebola epidemic that crippled health systems.
Twelve years after Africa elected its first female president, Liberians head to the polls. While the country has made notable strides in developing the country since the 2005 election, experts told Devex long-term support for infrastructure development, governance and transparency, and civic engagement will be paramount in realizing the country's 2030 transformation plans.
From its 2003 opening until now, UNMIL efforts have helped Liberia emerge as a beacon of political stability with a developing economy that continues to rebuild core governmental functions and institutions and rehabilitate its battered infrastructure. The mission had already withdrawn many of its 15,000 troops by mid-2016, signaling the country’s ability to handle its own peace concerns. But in December that year, the U.N. Security Council extended the UNMIL mandate while concurrently reducing its military personnel by two-thirds more.
“The closing of the peacekeeping mission in Liberia is a milestone moment, not only for Liberia but for West Africa more generally, because what it shows is if you invest in a partnership between the government, U.N. peacekeepers, and other bilateral donors, you can create a situation where you have democratic elections and return to some sense of stability,” U.N. Foundation Senior Vice President Peter Yeo told Devex.
Going forward, the U.N. will maintain a “robust presence” in-country, U.N. peacekeeping spokesperson Nick Birnback explained.
“In terms of legacy issues and handover, it’s very important that this is looked at as a continuum,” he said. “Indeed, peacekeeping plays an important role in a certain context, but so does the work of the U.N. development system where we will remain engaged in the region via our specialized funds, programs, and agencies.”
Yeo described this period as a transition: From armed soldiers to aid workers and development experts and other members of the U.N. family, namely the U.N. Development Programme, UNICEF and World Food Programme. To facilitate the current shift, the former special representative to the secretary-general will remain in Liberia as resident and humanitarian coordinator to ensure that the full range of developmental, humanitarian, and infrastructural activities continue.
“The U.N. will still be in Liberia for many years to come, and thank goodness because they can work in partnership with the Liberian people and government to eliminate extreme poverty. They have the expertise, development resources to move Liberia from a post-conflict situation to a situation with greater prosperity and economic livelihoods,” he said.
Characteristics to a successful peacekeeping mission
Claiming a peacekeeping mission to be a “success” extends beyond restoring peace to pulling out and transferring specific security tasks. It involves moving a country fully from a post-conflict situation into a development paradigm, Liberia’s humanitarian coordinator Karin Landgren wrote in a recent op-ed.
But the basics of success matter. Simply put, a core element of a productive U.N. peacekeeping mission means having an adequate number of peacekeepers to provide peace and security. Numbers matter, Yeo said. And Birnback agreed.
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“We need not just a clear and achievable mandate, but they must be adequately resourced,” Birnback told Devex.
In some contexts, he said, peacekeeping missions don’t have the necessary resources to fulfill their mandates. “In Liberia, the mission itself was reasonably well provided for and we had enough people, the right equipment, we therefore [were] able to guarantee the peace, [and] allow breathing room for peace to take hold.”
Birnback also pointed out the fundamental issue of political will, noting that peacekeeping is a political activity that aims to strengthen political systems. “We work in support of a political process, we can’t substitute for one, and with an achievable mandate, resources, and political will, we believe the mission was able to succeed.”
The gradual drawdown of Liberia’s peacekeeping presence over the past year and half has encouraged knowledge sharing and training of local security forces, an element that Yeo noted as another indication of a fruitful peacekeeping mission. He said the Liberian police is now capable of assuming certain security responsibilities they weren’t capable of doing five years ago, thanks to investments in local capacity building.
While Liberia’s long-term recovery will depend on its ability to diversify its economy, develop sound institutions, and provide quality work for youth, the 15-year mission leaves behind a “stable situation with limited risk of backsliding” and a country “at peace within itself and with its neighbors,” Birnback argued.
He said the peaceful transition of power in Liberia and subsequent peacekeeping withdrawal, seen in Côte d’Ivoire last year, offers these West African countries hope following brutal periods in their history. “Things aren’t perfect in West Africa because there still are tensions and [the] core of poverty and inequality that need to be addressed, but the simple fact of the matter is that from a peace and security standpoint, things are better in the subregion than it used to be and [countries] are reasonably stable giving themselves a fighting chance at peace,” Birnback said.