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PRESS BRIEFING BY REPRESENTATIVE OF SECRETARY-GENERAL IN LIBERIA

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

11 March 1999

Felix Downes-Thomas, Representative of the Secretary-General in Liberia and Head of the United Nations Peace-building Support Office, told correspondents this afternoon that while stability and peace seemed to be holding in Liberia, from a sub-regional perspective, there were enough independent elements for divisiveness in the region.

He said that the focus could usefully be on factors, statements and initiatives that were integrative, diminished tension and created a common ground on which to move forward. That was basically a pitch for support for the resuscitation of the Mano River Union, he noted.

The assistance from the international community to Liberia was not what it should be, he said. It had had a negative impact on efforts to reintegrate ex-combatants. The continued inattention they had received had created a market for them in the business of mercenaries. Those things had to be looked into forthrightly, especially by the international community, so as to move forward in that region in an atmosphere of reconciliation, peace and stability.

The Mano River Union, which was comprised of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, was named after a river the three shared, he said. It had been established much earlier but had gone moribund. Lots of the problems that those three countries were experiencing, in a way, stemmed from shared and interrelated problems -- refugees, internally displaced persons, small arms, excombatants. Those were areas which would improve if a resuscitated mechanism was created at an intergovernmental level. Much of the quarrel would then be done in-house and would be solved through words rather than with guns, which was the case now.

Responding to a question regarding the repatriation of rebel soldiers, he said that the issue was one that President Charles Taylor had addressed to the Security Council. Mr. Downes-Thomas said he had touched on the issue briefly in his discussion with President Taylor and had told him that there was merit in that proposal. If Mr. Downes-Thomas was dealing with it, he would try to sift from it the spirit and some of the principles involved, given the fact that 45 days might appear too short for all the mechanisms to be put in place to engage in the repatriation of excombatants.

What was positive about the proposal was the willingness to say that anybody who was Liberian could come back to Liberia, and if they were scared, then the law in the Liberian books -- where people who took part in foreign wars would have to be prosecuted -- would be suspended. Mr. Downes-Thomas believed that that could be exploited in a subregional manner in the context of what he had just said.

Asked how the United Nations could deal with the people who were paying the mercenaries, he said that the implication of the question was something he had heard before -- that what was happening in that part of the world, and to a certain extent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, was what had been referred to as the "diamond wars". His take on it was to deal with the root causes of some of the problems being faced.

His Office, for instance, was dealing with the demand side of things, through confidence-building measures, he continued. The idea was to curb the demand for arms. There was a need to deal with the flow of arms from the supply side. When the arms problem was compared to that of drugs, the international community had decided, as far as drugs were concerned, to attack it from the supply side. He wished that the same logic would be applied to small arms, and arms in general, in Africa, and particularly in West Africa.

Elaborating on the state of human rights in Liberia today, he said that the basic freedoms of the press, assembly and religion were flourishing in Liberia. The press, especially the print press, was among the most free in West Africa. If he were to assess the Liberian print press, it would range from very free to extremely wild.

However, there had been incidents where media houses had been closed for a brief period because they were not abiding with certain Government regulations, he added. There had been isolated incidences where security personnel had beaten up people from the press and media. In his view, those episodic events -- as grave as they were -- had been used to signify a State- sponsored trend towards gagging the press. That was just not true. The problem in Liberia with human rights violations was traceable to the excesses of security forces. Attempts had been made to curb them. His Office had been engaged in providing training for the police on civil and human rights, and on how to do arrests.

He said that the larger problem had to do with depressed incomes. A Minister in Liberia, and there were 19 of them, made $20 a month. One could imagine what someone made at the entry level. Most of the human rights violations at large, especially when they came from the security forces, were usually people who were trying to extort money, or hijack a truck to sell things, and so forth. There was a larger problem since depressed incomes, human rights violations and corruption were all interrelated.

Responding to a question on the rights of the opposition in Liberia, he said that one of the unusual things about Liberia was that there was, at the moment, only one opposition leader resident in Liberia. The rest were all abroad.

Asked why they were abroad, he replied that that had puzzled him. His feeling, at one point, was that perhaps there was intimidation that he was not aware of. Then when that hypothesis was tested, no evidence for it could be found. Leaders such as Alhaji Kromah and Roosevelt Johnson, among others, had left Liberia before one could speak of intimidation and gagging of the opposition. When looked at analytically and on the basis of facts, it was very difficult to make the argument that they had been run out of town through intimidation.

He added that Roosevelt Johnson was now considered a fugitive and there were moves for his extradition to Liberia. He would be tried in a very free, open and transparent manner with international observers. In the case of Alhaji Kromah, the accusations levelled against him were not as strong as those levelled against Johnson.

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