Neither the Government of Liberia nor the LURD Appears Capable of a Military Victory - Says Ambassador Bridgewater

(A Presentation by Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater)

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 5, 2003

The following remarks were made by Ambassador Bridgewater, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa at a Symposium organized by the Movement for Democratic Change in Liberia (MDCL) in collaboration with the Ralph Bunche International Affairs Center of Howard University, and the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA). The conference was held at the Nyumburu Cultural Center of the University of Maryland at College Park, Maryland from Friday, February 28 through Saturday, March 1, 2003.

Your Grace, Archbishop Francis, Senator Reed,Congressman Kennedy, My good friend and colleague Ambassador Perry, Members of the Press Union of Liberia and the Liberian Human Rights Defenders, Members of the organizing and sponsoring committees, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am indeed honored and delighted to participate in this, the third annual conference of The Movement for Democratic Change in Liberia, and thank the organizers for affording me this important opportunity to discuss the International Contact Group and a Way forward for Liberia. We have benefited from a full course of insightful presentations and spirited discussion, and heard from a number of distinguished speakers, about the prospects for the 2003 national elections in Liberia. While the United States does not chair the International Contact Group, nor has the Contact Group yet crystallized an implementation plan for Liberia following its most recent meeting yesterday in New York, I'd like to share with you some perspectives of both the United States and the Contact Group regarding Liberia.

U.S. relations with Liberia are at a crossroads. Liberia is a major key to stability in West Africa, and its people and economy have endured inconceivable hardships over recent years. Neither Liberia, the United States, nor the international community can tolerate continued complacency, fighting, and misery. The current Government cannot afford to squander what may be its last window of opportunity to deliver good governance and justify its tenure in office. As U.S. Ambassador John Blaney stated in his Senate confirmation hearing last summer, the United States "intends to implement an aggressive, practical, and pragmatic policy towards Liberia." In that regard, only the Government of Liberia's full cooperation on a comprehensive approach towards transparency, national reconciliation, human rights, and democracy--in line with the European Union's benchmarks and United Nations Security Council resolutions--can pave the way for free and fair elections, stability, prosperity, and improved bilateral ties. If the Liberian Government does not provide its own people with the services and leadership they deserve, it risks losing all popular support and jeopardizes constructive and significant U.S. engagement.

The UN Security Council and the International Contact Group have agreed with the United States on the need for a comprehensive stabilization strategy for Liberia. Since the underlying causes of the current conflict must be addressed if lasting stability and peace are to be achieved, our mutual simultaneous goals should be to achieve and enforce a cease-fire, and to assure internal reform and good governance in Liberia. Both goals are inextricably linked and essential.

Neither the Government of Liberia nor the LURD appears capable of a military victory. The LURD leadership and the Government of Liberia must be convinced to enter immediately into cease-fire talks without preconditions. Let me reiterate our condemnation of the LURD's "campaign of violence," and our call for all irregular forces to lay down their arms and work peacefully for change, as the LURD promised in the recent Freetown communiqué. We also have told the Governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire repeatedly not to support any insurgencies in the region. We welcome the efforts by the Honorable Archbishop Francis and the Inter-Religious Council of the Mano River Union, as well as by ECOWAS, to facilitate a cease-fire. However, the international community must make clear to President Taylor that no aid to implement a cease-fire will be forthcoming if the cease-fire is not accompanied by comprehensive, fundamental internal reform. The absence of such reform is bound to leave Liberia in the same peril it found itself in 1980, 1984, or 1990.

The elections are a major issue. The LURD and many expatriate opposition groups have insisted that President Taylor leave office and that an interim government assume power, while the President insists on staying in power until the end of his term. Indeed, the Contact Group's challenge is to create a formula, and ensure a formula for compliance, under which the President and his challengers can run for office on a truly level playing field. The Elections Commission announced a timetable for the October 14 elections, under which formal campaigning cannot begin until June. The opportunity to campaign is inadequate for many opposition party members, some of whom already have been harassed and jailed by government or security officials. This must stop now. We praise President Taylor's recent nomination of two new credible additional election commissioners, but the Commission needs greater independence, and it must accept support and guidance from the United Nations in order to receive adequate donor funding and to become properly prepared. The Government also must allow long-delayed voter education and political party training to occur; this training also would be offered to the ruling party and would respect constitutional restrictions against direct funding. Political parties must have access to the media, which cannot be bullied into restricting its coverage of events in Liberia. Politicians and voters also need improved internal security as prerequisites for successful elections. In short, the current atmosphere of intimidation must end.

Even the Government of Liberia recognizes that its security forces are out of control. In its September 2002 "White Paper on a Liberian Way Forward", the Government asked for help in "restructuring and retraining of the country's military and para-military forces, [and the] re-integration of all former combatants...." The ICG is focused on facilitating a cease-fire with the LURD, fostering security guarantees between the Mano River states, and between Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, creating a comprehensive program for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), and restructuring and re-training the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and the national police. However, it is unclear that any current Liberian military commander is up to the task of guiding the transformation of the AFL or the police.

To no one's surprise, the justice system has largely broken down, and the ICG will have its hands full in addressing this problem. Arbitrary detention, extortion by authorities, bribery, and human rights abuse are commonplace. All other progress depends on the Government of Liberia respecting the human rights and dignity of its citizens. We believe that the UN Office in Liberia (UNOL) and the UN Development Program (UNDP) could work with the Justice Ministry while donors work with the Liberian Bar Association, non-government organizations (NGOs), and others to institutionalize the new political mindset. Liberia's Human Rights Commission must be reformed, strengthened and made more autonomous in line with recommendations from UNOL and the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). This will require the full, I repeat, the full cooperation of the Government.

The Liberian economy is in ruins and deep in debt; unemployment and illiteracy rates are reportedly 75-80%. The rate at which Liberia's natural resource base is being exploited threatens not only its environment and traditional ways of life, but also future development potential. In the short run, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO, WFP and other UN agencies must resettle refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), reintegrate child soldiers, reconcile war-related crimes, reduce ethnic tensions, and improve social indicators. Donor support and coordination are critical. In the longer run, infrastructure programs (including food-for-work programs) must be implemented. Trade, tax and other economic policies need reform. Liberia must work with the lenders to develop and implement a sweeping stabilization and reform agenda to assure budgetary transparency, and to promote investment and job creation. Liberia's forests and biodiversity need effective protection. Under the right circumstances, the United States and others could encourage private sector interest in investment projects to improve regional infrastructure and sustainable development. We would also be prepared to work with UN agencies, the IMF, and the World Bank on plans ready to implement in Liberia if, and only if, conditions warrant.

Liberia is still not in compliance with UNSC resolutions 1343 and 1408, both with regard to remnants of the Revolutionary United Front operating in and through Liberia, and to the sanctions program (e.g., travel ban, diamond certification regime, and arms trafficking). These resolutions are an important means of encouraging the peace process and internal reform. They should remain in place, especially the prohibition on arms sales to the Government of Liberia and all other Liberian combatants, especially the LURD. The international community should consider additional sanctions and monitoring if the Government of Liberia refuses to adhere to UN resolutions and cooperate with the Contact Group.

To kick-start this process, we envision Contact Group co-chairs or representatives promoting the peace talks, meeting Government officials to discuss needed domestic reforms, encouraging the UNSC to send a fact-finding delegation to Monrovia; and establishing direct and regular contacts with Liberian civil society, internal and external opposition groups.

Granted, it is easy for the International Contact Group and for all of us to identify Liberia's problems, but it is much tougher to achieve consensus on how best to advise, encourage, or even pressure the Government of Liberia to address them. That is the immediate challenge for the ICG and the international community. Preferably, we would hope that the Government of Liberia seizes the initiative to create the conditions whereby U.S. and foreign assistance and capital investment once again will flow freely - based on our shared democratic values. For the sake of the Liberian people and in its self-interest, the Government of Liberia must take these tough, but we believe, essential steps to restore its image as an African model for peace, prosperity, and democracy, and to ensure its own survival. The United States will not wait much longer. Regardless of who takes the first step or two, we will move forward, we will take action, and we hope you will join us. The cost may be great, but the cost of doing nothing will undoubtedly be even greater for the Government of Liberia, for the Government of the United States, and for the international community, and most importantly, for you the citizens of Liberia who are working ardently for, and richly deserve, democratic change in your beloved country. Thank you.