22 June 2006

Liberia: Ellen's 90-Day Challenge

The Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf-led Government has got the first major attention of the United Nations with the lifting of timber sanction imposed on the country in May 2001. This is something neither Taylor in bitter protest nor Bryant in idle wish, failed to achieve.

It's such a feat and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her cabinet may be beaming with smiles in self-exultations. But instead of seeing it as they see it, observers see it not as a feat to celebrate about, but as a booby trap that everything appropriate must be done to circumvent. But how is that so? The Analyst's Staff Writer has been looking at the irony of the situation.

Tuesday this week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously suspended article 10 of Resolution 1521 (2003) lifting timber sanctions against Liberia.

The lifting of the sanctions is 50% of actually what the Liberian government has hoped for.

In her communication to the UN Security Council (UNSC) recently, President Sirleaf argued that the conditions that necessitated the imposition of sanctions on timber and diamonds in 2003 have been complied with fully and that it was high time the UN responded by lifting the sanctions.

She indicated that timber and diamond revenues are crucial components of her administration's efforts to jumpstart the reconstruction process of post-war Liberia and provide opportunities for its impoverished population.

Her pleas about the level of poverty in Liberia, the threat it poses to security and peace, and the need to address the plights of returning former refugees and IDPs were so consistent with independent reports from human rights and humanitarian organizations that the Council felt uncomfortable standing on the side of expediency against life.

The Council therefore ruled that Liberia could be given the opportunity it has sought the last four years to take charge of its resources the moment it was announced. Restriction was placed on timber and diamond to prevent the income therefrom being used to export violence to destabilize the sub-region or compensate arm-lords.

As of Tuesday this week, Liberia is given the green light to revive its timber industry by first putting into place laws that will guarantee the scrupulous granting of concessionary rights to investors. The laws to be put into place will also ensure that timber revenue accruing to government benefit the people through the provision of jobs and the availing of basic social services to the local population in the areas of operation.

But not surprisingly and here is where observers say problems lurk for the Sirleaf Administration. It has only three months to put into place laws that must come into force perhaps before any log is cut from Liberian forest and export.

The UN would be monitoring the progress made in this direction and with a nod at each step, it would further relax the sanctions until eventually the Sirleaf Administration earns sufficient Security Council confidence to use the timber resource as it sees fit under Liberian laws.

Perhaps the confidence so earned may form the basis for the lifting of diamond sanctions which though requires Liberia to cooperate with the international community in the establishment of a Kimberly Certification Scheme or Certificate of Origin regime.

But the question analysts are asking is, "Can the government conveniently achieve in 90 days what successive administrations failed to achieve in four years, all things assumed equal?" For instance, they said, the United Nations Security Council is not only concerned about the government demonstrating a political will to reform the forestry laws, but it is also emphasizing the challenges remain in completing reintegration, repatriation and restructuring of the security sector, as well as establishing and maintaining stability in Liberia and the subregion.

And instead of taking responsibility for handling that aspect of compliance with the conditions required for the lifting of sanctions by ordering robust engagement of UNMIL, the Council seems contented with shifting the responsibility to Liberia.

In the mind UNSC, unless the Liberian government establishes full authority and control over the timber-producing areas, there is no point in lifting the sanctions on timber.

There also no need lifting the sanctions unless the Liberian government convinces the UN and key members of the international community that government revenues from the Liberian timber industry would not be used to fuel conflict or otherwise in violation of the Council's resolutions but used for legitimate purposes for the benefit of the Liberian people in terms of development.

One reason that advised the UN's insistence on these conditionalities is the belief that the situation in Liberia continues to constitute a threat to international peace and security in the region.

Whether or not that is still obtaining, the UNSC saw it expedient to give a three-month test to the Sirleaf administration to prove how meticulously it can meet the challenge.

"Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, encourages the National Transitional Government of Liberia to intensify its efforts to meet these conditions, in particular by implementing the Liberia Forest Initiative and the necessary reforms in the Forestry Development Authority, and urges all members of the National Transitional Government to commit themselves to this end for the benefit of the Liberian people," the Council contended in Resolution 1579 (2004).

Up to the lifting of timber sanction early this week subject to periodic monitoring with rights reserved for re-imposition, the UN was never convinced that the Liberian government has the capacity to meet the conditions partly because of corruption in high places and the fact that the government neither have a security force of its own nor have commanding authority over the robust 15,000-strong UN Peacekeeping Force mandated to take over security in the country pending the reforming of Liberia's security forces.

It is in light of this tightrope situation that has barely changed that the challenges have been thrown at the feet of the Sirleaf Administration of course at its own behest.

Within three months, the Government of Liberia will put in place mechanisms that ensure that there is no illicit logging; on top of this, it will tighten the timber industry against plunderers.

What this means, observers say, is the government will have to take immediate and complete control over the timber-producing regions in Gbarpolu such as the Belleh Forest, the River Gbeh area in River Gee County, the Sarpo Park in Sinoe County, and most rebel-infested areas in Bong, Lofa, and Nimba counties.

When it does, they believe, it will have to almost immediately strengthen local government administration to ensure peace, security, and the creation of opportunity for the local population to prevent urban migration, and tighten security against rubber plundering in Maryland, Margibi, and Sinoe counties, and the in Bomi and Cape Mount counties where recent reports said criminality abound.

Timber sanction was added to the diamond sanction imposed by the United Nations as a way of stamping illicit logging and blood diamond which were linked to gunning and wars in the sub-region.

Diamond and Timber sanctions were slapped on the Country during the regime of Charles Taylor, now resting in his cell at the Scheveningen maximum detention center in The Hague in The Netherlands.

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