23 October 2006

Liberia: Two Out, One to Go - Liberia Slowly Slides Out of UN's Sanction Claws

It was after the invasion and when it became glaring that the Taylor era had transformed Liberia into a major crossroads for gun running and diamonds smuggling and exporter of violence to neighboring countries that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) decided to impose punitive sanctions as deterrence or control measure.

As conditions dictated, the UNSC imposed, respectively, arms, diamonds, and eventually timber sanctions on Liberia between 1992 and 2003.

The UNSC has since argued that though imposed to pressurize Taylor the sanctions provided opportunities for Liberia to reexamine her mineral, forestry, and concessionary policies and put into place anti-arm proliferation strategies.

The Sirleaf Administration has been out and about taking required actions and negotiating the removal of these bottlenecks. Now the effort is paying off.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), October 20, 2006, announced the relaxation of the trade sanctions it imposed on Liberia's timber sometime in 2003. The Council has also decided to delay the consideration of the sanction on diamond until December 20, 2006 with the expectation that Liberia would meet certain Council requirements and international diamond trade standards for the lifting of sanctions.

The relaxation of the timber sanctions brings to two measures the council took in the last five months to create enabling environments for the Johnson-Sirleaf Administration to begin reconstructing the country. Analysts say the latest action by the council leaves at least one major hurdle on Liberia export trade portfolio, the lifting of sanctions on diamonds, to be surmounted by the Sirleaf Administration.

Earlier in the year, the UNSC announced the partial lifting of the embargo it imposed on arms importation to Liberia sometime in 1992 and indicated that the restriction would be wholly lifted upon the completion of the ongoing security sector reform process.

The Chairperson of the UNSC Sanctions Committee, Danish Ambassador Ellen Loji, told members of the Council yesterday that Liberia has taken appropriate measures to ensure that its timber industry would be appropriately utilized for the benefit of the Liberian people.

The Council feared that unless appropriate legislation were enacted, Liberia's timber industry would fall into the hands of fly-by-night businessmen who would use products from there to fuel instability in the subregion as was the case under Charles Taylor when some US $3m in timber revenue reportedly went into paying arms lords and traffickers.

After Amb. Loji briefing, Security Council President, Ambassador Kenzo Oshima of Japan, told reporters that the Security Council members commended the Liberian legislature for passing within the 90-day deadline set by resolution 1689, which will ensure a transparent, accountable and government-controlled forestry sector.

"This important forestry legislation will ensure that revenues from the timber industry will not again fuel conflict. The members acknowledged that the law was signed by President Johnson Sirleaf on 5 October 2006 and urged the Government of Liberia to bring the law into effect by publishing the required handbills as soon as possible," said a statement read by Mr. Oshima.

According to the UNSC president, members of the Council were encouraged by the steps Liberia has taken towards meeting the requirements for the lifting of the measures on diamonds. They then concluded that there was no basis for reinstating the measures on timber as otherwise stipulated in resolution 1689.

Emphasizing that more needed to be done to establish a Certificate of Origin Regime for export of Liberian rough diamonds, the UNSC members applauded the development of forestry sector reforms by the Government of Liberia and its international partners in the Liberia Forest Initiative, and called on Liberian authorities to ensure the effective implementation of these reforms and enforcement of the new legislation.

The effective implementation of reforms, according to the UNSC statement, includes stronger management and effective verification and accountability mechanisms so that Liberia can join the Kimberley Process soon.

The Kimberley Process is a joint government, international diamond industry, and civil society initiative to stem the flow of conflict diamonds that have financed rebel movement wars against legitimate governments in many African countries such as Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The Kimberley certification scheme imposes extensive requirements on participants to certify that shipments of rough diamonds are freed from so-called "blood diamonds." The process, which currently has 45 participants in its voluntary scheme, including the European Community, account for approximately 99.8% of the global production of rough diamonds.

Members of the UNSC commended the Panel of Experts on Liberia for their work, and looking forward to receiving their final report in December, expressed their wish to lift the ban on diamonds as soon as possible, so that revenues from the diamond sector can benefit the Liberian people.

With just one more hurdle to be met in order to clear Liberia of UN trade restriction, the question many are asking is, "Can the Liberian government make good the legislation it has enacted? Can it endure the law?"

The question, according to one observer, is asked in relation to the age-old practice amongst Liberian government officials to scout for and front for foreign investors for kickbacks thereby making it impossible to apply the law when these investors act inappropriately.

"Even though the bogeyman, Charles Taylor, has left the scene, the practice of fronting is still largely around and kicking," said Wesseh T.P. Kofa, a Liberian currently studying law in Nigeria.

He said indicators that the practice was still around surfaced recently when high-profile officials in the Sirleaf Administration traveled to Asia on the invitation of companies known worldwide to be exploiters of Third World economies.

He did not clarify but noted that with the practice, which includes the very people that made the law still alive, it was unlikely that the Sirleaf Administration will be able to uphold the confidence of the Security Council.

"Instead of allowing so-called investors to go through the National Investment Commission to process their documents, Liberian government officials who have no money to invest often put themselves in the way of the process, pretending to be stakeholders," Kofa said.

He said not only do companies formed this way not willing to meet the full requirements for investment in Liberia, but that they also often use their "godfathers" in the administration to evade taxes, underpay employees and leave them with no means for legal redress, and refuse to meet the demands of locals.

"In the past, concessionary agreements required some logging companies to construct and furnish education and health facilities for the locals. Not only were these facilities not constructed in line with the agreements and jobs not provided for residents of operations areas, but also those employees were not given proper wages.

Labor practices, including the lack of protective gears for timber workers and drivers, were poor," Kofa who said he worked for the Forestry Development Authority as forest ranger for five years prior to the war before returning to school, noted.

Analysts think Kofa has a point; but what they can vouch neither for him nor for the administration, is whether or not things will change now that the nation is under strong UN spotlight through the presence in-country of the UN economic monitoring group, the Governance and Economic Management Action Plan or GEMAP.

With this spotlight though, they say, there is a likelihood that Liberia's action will lean in the direction of the scrupulous adherence to the rule of the game first to reap maximum benefit for the Liberian people and second to win confidence of the donor community.

Donor confidence, they say, remains crucial to the rebuilding of this country after 14 years of destructive warfare and ruinous politics.

But according to them, the test of what lies ahead will be demonstrated by what the government does with the Mittal Steel Company the establishment in Liberia of which Global Witness says will be a "state within a state".

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