How to Secure Peace in Liberia

The United States must lead urgent international action to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe spreading across West Africa, argue leading experts from the International Crisis Group

Gareth Evans and Comfort Ero

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 30, 2003

Nobody expects the current pause in the fighting in Liberia to last very long. Unless bold and decisive international action is taken to bring lasting peace to this troubled country, a devastating humanitarian catastrophe is all too likely.

An important signal was given by President George W. Bush's clear call on 26 June for President Taylor to stand down. But this must be followed up. The Security Council Mission now travelling to the region, led by UK Permanent Representative Jeremy Greenstock, has the chance to give substantial momentum to the currently stalled peace negotiations. If it doesn't, and the international community fails to act effectively now, the more intense fighting that has already reached into the heart of Liberia's capital could spiral out into ugly violence right across the region.

Liberia has not known real peace for more than a decade. Its first civil war, from 1989 to 1996, saw at least 200,000 people killed and over half a million displaced. The election victory in 1997 of one of the rebels, Charles Taylor, should have marked the end of fighting but low intensity conflict continued, escalating recently with the formation of the anti-Taylor group LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and then its offshoot, MODEL (Movement for Democracy in Liberia). With Taylor sponsoring insurgents fighting in Sierra Leone's war, and conflict also spilling into Guinea and up from Cote d'Ivoire, his Liberia has already dangerously destabilised much of West Africa, and worse could follow.

On 4 June Liberia's war was catapulted to a new level when the prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone made public the Court's indictment of President Taylor for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone's own devastating conflict. This was a bold move: criticised by some for its timing, but well calculated overall both to maintain the viability of the Sierra Leone peace settlement and to increase the pressure for a settlement in Liberia and the rest of West Africa.

The day Taylor's indictment was published he was in Ghana for the opening of a new round of peace talks brokered by the regional African body ECOWAS. Promising to stand down at the end of his presidency in January 2004, he sped back to Monrovia: given safe passage by Ghana because they had promised him security for the talks. The rebels, perhaps inspired by the indictment, launched a drive on the capital which produced hundreds more deaths before a ceasefire was signed on 17 June between Taylor's government, LURD and MODEL. The parties agreed to develop within a month - by 17 July - a blueprint for a comprehensive peace agreement, and a transitional government that would not include President Taylor.

But that negotiated ceasefire lasted no more than a few days. Taylor quickly backed out of his commitment, calling it a "dream" that he would relinquish power in a month and talking about running for re-election in January. The rebels, continuing to insist on the deal they thought they had cut, made spectacular advances into the capital. Rocket and grenade fire rocked the EU, UN and American Embassy compounds where thousands of refugees have been concentrating. Many were killed in the fighting, and there were terrible reports of murder, rape and looting.

Now both LURD and the Government have unilaterally declared ceasefires, both claiming victory in meeting their immediate objectives. But with none of the underlying issues resolved, the fighting could resume at any time. Government forces have already begun reprisal action - rape, beatings, harassment - in areas of the city they have retaken, and Taylor has made it abundantly clear that he will stop at nothing to hold on to power.

Monrovia, meanwhile, remains a city of desperation. Nothing works. At night the streets are pitch dark. There is no running water. People have rushed into the centre of the city to escape heavy fighting or forced recruitment, and some quarter of a million are sleeping rough there. Though many thousands are desperate for food, water and medical help, aid agencies are extremely limited in what they can do, with 60 per cent of the country completely inaccessible to them.

Now is the time for the international community to step in. First, and immediately, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the International Contact Group on Liberia, of which the United States, Britain and France are all members, must set in train a comprehensive political strategy to reinstate a complete ceasefire and stabilise the country.

The UN Security Council mission should seize the moment. It should invite the heads of state of the Contact Group's regional members (Ghana, Morocco and Nigeria) and high-level representatives of its other members to join it at an Emergency Conference on Liberia in Accra next week to send to Charles Taylor an unequivocal message, mirroring President Bush's, that he must step down immediately as President.

All sides must be told that the war has to end: a complete ceasefire must be restored and negotiations to end the war must be given new impetus; with a strong message given to the rebels, and the leaders of neighbouring countries as well, that they too will face sanctions and possible war crimes prosecution if they fail to do their part to uphold a ceasefire and a negotiated solution to the war.

The key to success, as so often in the contemporary world, is strong leadership from the United States. The Security Council should encourage the U.S., with its special historical relationship to Liberia, to take a prominent part in saving the country. Sir Jeremy Greenstock's statement that America is "the nation that everyone would think would be the natural candidate" is absolutely correct. The ceasefire agreement called for a West African-led stabilisation force to be on the ground in Liberia by mid-August, but it is now clear both that this schedule is too slow and that military resources beyond those of the West Africans may be needed.

The United States must take the lead in establishing a multinational force that can ensure stability in Liberia. It should not only work with the UN and the West Africans to the greatest extent possible, but also be prepared to deploy its own troops - not only to enforce a ceasefire, if one can be made to hold, but to deploy in any event if that is the only way order can be restored. The United Kingdom led in Sierra Leone. France is leading in Cote d'Ivoire. It is time for the United States to step up in Liberia - its former protectorate founded by the slaves it freed. Thousands of people have been demonstrating in Monrovia asking it to do just that.

The aim of the Contact Group and Security Council, prompted by the present mission, should be to keep, and if possible accelerate, the rest of the timetable originally agreed on 17 June. This involves forming a transitional government that includes civil society and other alternative political forces in addition to elements from the government and rebel sides, and negotiation of a comprehensive peace agreement. The latter must include a disarmament and reintegration program, creation of a new national army, strengthening of civil society, and provision for a temporary but strong international security presence. The interim government would then work to develop conditions for free and fair elections: realistically, probably a matter of 18-30 months, but faster if possible.

The UN Security must state clearly that the Special Court indictment stands, and Taylor must submit himself to its jurisdiction. To show it means business, the Council should pass a resolution under Chapter VII of the Charter requiring all UN member states to deliver indicted individuals to the court if they do not voluntarily present themselves. At the same time, the Council should make it clear that while he cannot expect amnesty, Taylor might gain relevant credit with the court if he cooperates with it and contributes constructively to a ceasefire and the peace process.

The Council should also counter Taylor's fabricated claims that the indictment targets his supporters as well as him. His supporters need to be assured that if they cooperate in the peace process, they can take an appropriate part in the country's future. Only then is there any chance of drawing all the parties back to the negotiating table to strike a new deal.

Time is short, and the peacemaking task very large, but vacillation now could all too readily see much of West Africa plunging back into yet another long and brutal war.

Gareth Evans is President of the International Crisis Group and Comfort Ero is West Africa Project Director. Recent ICG reports on Liberia are available here.

Send us your views

You can write to the authors of this piece at icgbrussels@crisisweb.org.