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Peace Mission

August 4, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: For more on the situation in Liberia we get two views. Jacques Paul Klein is the United Nations’ special representative for Liberia. He has been very involved in brokering the introduction of peacekeeping forces into Liberia. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the leader of Liberia’s opposition Unity Party, and has been representing her party at ongoing peace talks in Ghana. She came in second to Charles Taylor in Liberia’s 1997 presidential elections. Welcome to you both.


RAY SUAREZ: We saw jubilation over the arrival of Nigeria troops in the Liberian capital. What is their assignment and what are the rules of engagement?

JACQUES PAUL KLEIN: Well, first of all, we’re greatly encouraged that they are arriving. And I must say, it’s only through the personal good office of the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and President Obasanjo of Nigeria that this actually came about, because what you’re doing here you’re actually taking a Nigerian battalion, which was a U.N. battalion in Sierra Leone, and airlifting it in with U.N. aircraft to Liberia.

We’re also bringing a second battalion from Nigeria itself, so within the next three weeks, you’ll see two battalions arriving, and then subsequently we’re also hoping that Mali and Senegal and Ghana will also be providing troops. The key thing is security; stop the killing, stop the carnage, and allow us to open the port and begin the humanitarian assistance that is so desperately needed in Liberia.

RAY SUAREZ: As has happened so many times, the fighting has gone up, right up until today. There hasn’t been a lull. Is there a peace to keep or will Nigerian forces have to actually fight to make the fighting stop?

JACQUES PAUL KLEIN: I think President Obasanjo and the leadership of ECOWAS made it very clear that when they land should they find opposition, they will deal with the opposition accordingly.

The key thing first of all is to secure Roberts Field. That is the entry point for humanitarian assistance as well as the other aids, and goods and services that we will need to bring in.

But I think if there is resistance… you have to remember, this is not a command and control structure. This is not a professional military operation that we’re dealing with. It’s young children, misled, given false stories, false promises, armed with weapons, shooting at random, killing indiscriminately, so you can’t even say there’s a structured military force that you are dealing with. It’s a hit or miss operation.

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Let me add to this that, indeed, Jack is correct. The first order of business is to secure the entry points into the country — that is the airfield and the seaport — to make sure assistance can come in and to make sure that all the armed groups stop getting arms through those entry points.

But we also would like to see in accordance with the comprehensive peace plan that is now being negotiated in Accra that the peacekeeping forces will see the cease-fire is respected. It has been violated, but we do believe the forces are in there and they have the requisite support from the U.S. troops offshore, that all the parties will respect a cease-fire agreement, and that under a robust Chapter Seven mandate, if they do try to violate it, they’ll be dealt with very seriously.

RAY SUAREZ: You’ve been involved directly in the talks in Ghana. Are the politicians, doing the talking, doing the dealing there, in intimate enough contact with forces in the field so that they can actually make these forces stand down if an agreement is reached around the peace table?

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: We have the political parties represented. We also have representatives from the different belligerent forces, that is, the government and the two rebel groups LURD and MODEL.

They do try to stay in touch with their troops, but some of the main leaders are not necessarily in Accra. They are in other places closer to their troops. There are times when they think communication, particularly as regards of serving the cease-fire that was broken, that communication did break down between what are essentially the political leaders in Accra and the military leaders that are actually on the front line.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Mr. Klein talked about other African countries coming in to join the Nigerians. Why is that necessary? Why is that preferable to having the biggest and strongest country in that region do all the heavy lifting?

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Belief in the Liberian experience, that while we welcome troops from our regional country that we would like to see diversity in those troops. Some of the countries in the sub-region have been involved in one way or another in the conflict, and so we think just making sure that we have people from other places will just enhance the overall capability, neutrality and objectivity of the troops.

But the troops from Nigeria and other places are very welcome. They have saved Liberian lives before, and we expect they’ll do it again. But we also expect that they will be supplemented by forces, not only in Africa, but, you know, there’s a strong call for the U.S. to come in and to come in strongly, not only for the historical relationship we have had, but also because we believe that the stability of West Africa is paramount if the U.S. will continue to enjoy the natural resources from the countries, including Nigeria, that if we do not bring this epic center of Liberia to the conflict to heal and we do not deal with it, that the entire sub-region can remain unstable, and that this has adverse consequences for the United States.

JACQUES PAUL KLEIN: Let me pick up on that. First of all, I think we need to compliment the woman here, who has shown extreme courage under the most difficult circumstances and an opposition leader to Taylor — one of the few strong voices. She was actually jailed for her opposition. So I admire her for that and I look forward to working with her in the future.

JACQUES PAUL KLEIN: But I think Liberia is not well understood in a sense. Let me put it to you this way: Liberia has a capital named after an American president, a seaport named after an American president. It is a country that declared war on the axis powers in 1942 at the United States’ request.

Roberts Field was built so that aircraft flying from the United States to Brazil to Roberts Field to England could fight World War II. Then when the Japanese were over in Southeast Asia and the rubber plantations were gone, it is the rubber plantations in Liberia that supplied them the rubber for the vehicles that we used in Western Europe, that this was a major Voice of America broadcasting site during the 50s, that Liberia has been consistently, when asked by the United States, been extremely forthcoming, as a small country.

Now is the time for us to not turn our back on not only what has been a friend, but an ally, in very critical circumstances in our own history. And I think the French have demonstrated in Cote d’Ivoire and the British in Sierra Leone that quick action by the international community without delay really prevents a much more dangerous situation from evolving.

RAY SUAREZ: Well the United States has stepped forward to perform a logistical role here. They are offshore. They have promised whatever support the troops on the ground need. Can the African force, as you sketched it out earlier in the discussion, do it without a more active United States presence?

JACQUES PAUL KLEIN: I’m not sure they have the logistic capability. In other words, we have to fly them in. We’re providing — the United States, as you said, is providing almost $20 million to assist. Now we’re looking at an…

RAY SUAREZ: When you say we you’re talking about the United Nations.

JACQUES PAUL KLEIN: Exactly. The United States is doing its part. The $20 million; there are assessment teams on the ground trying to help support ECOWAS in what you and I would call the planning process.

But what’s important is we’re only looking at an interim phase here. We’re looking at a multinational phase for a month or two. Then we hope to go in, do an assessment that will actually determine for us what state of health Liberia is in – educational system, the whole panoply of things that need to be done. Then we would go to the Security Council, ask for a Security Council resolution and then set up a U.N. mission sometime in the November timeframe, so this is an interim stage.

What we need now, however, is security, stability to allow the humanitarian aid to flow. Now, if the ECOWAS can secure the city, perhaps we could see the Americans in the port and to use that port as the entry point for humanitarian assistance that is desperately needed.

RAY SUAREZ: This is not the first time the world has been here. ECOWAS troops intervened in 1998. In previous times, why did the peacekeeping not work? Why did things fall apart again?

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Because enough attention was not paid to the political dimension of the settlement of the crisis. And we hope this time it will be different.

While it might be easy with the right number of troops and the right kind of power to bring the military adventurism under control, unless you have a political transition that involves, you know, a group of people that are committed to development of their country, in effect winning the peace after winning the war, unless you have people with credibility and competence to set that nation on course, to reverse its long history of failing to meet the challenges of development, unless we can get that political transition right, we might find the country in trouble again.

Frankly we have been trying to urge the U.S. not only to do something about their military presence, because they have been welcomed by all the parties, but also because we think they know Liberia best. They have been a friend of Liberia best.

They ought to take a much stronger leadership role in the political processes in Accra and those related thereto and see to it that we get people in there to start to address the needs of the country to make sure we get the kind of key stability that will ensure accelerated development.

RAY SUAREZ: So very, very briefly, this time we’re looking at a longer commitment?

JACQUES PAUL KLEIN: First of all, I think the weakness before, and she alluded to it, there was a very weak mandate. We need a strong Chapter 7 mandate. We need to be able to demilitarize, demobilize.

No one has weapons here anymore until we rebuild an army, rebuild a police force that’s credible and democratic — that you have a technocratic government for a while. Liberia has not had a census in over 30 years. We need them to register political parties, build a grassroots process, our political parties, and then have an election in two years.

But the key thing is the very strong mandate because Taylor is the problem. Liberia is the key to West Africa. If we don’t stabilize Liberia, the chances of a spill-over into Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire is very much there, and then all the good work that has been done in the region immediately becomes undermined again.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you both very much.