Liberia: Global Witness On Liberia's Back

The UK-based organization of international reaches, Global Witness (GW), has implored the UN Security Council (UNSC) not to lift the sanctions on Liberian diamonds and timber until the government has gained full control over these resources.

The imploration was contained in the GW's June 1, 2006 report to the UN in which it catalogued persistent conditions and activities that it insists militated against the early lifting of sanctions notwithstanding whatever policies the Sirleaf Administration has put into place so far.

The report is titled "Cautiously Optimistic: The Case For Maintaining Sanctions In Liberia," demonstrates how Liberia has not yet complied with the UN criteria for lifting sanctions, due for review in June 2006. It stresses that maintaining sanctions should not be seen as a punitive measure but as a way of supporting the new government's reforms.

"Under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the new Liberian government has made significant progress towards reforming the natural resources sector and tackling corruption," the group's press release quoted Natalie Ashworth, Global Witness Campaigner, as saying.

Ashworth reportedly noted further, "However, much more needs to be done before Liberia can be said to have met the criteria for lifting sanctions." She said in the past revenue from both the diamond and timber industries were used to fuel conflict which consumed Liberia and the region.

In view of this, she noted, it was essential that long-term measures were put in place to prevent this from happening again and to ensure that Liberia's natural resources are used for the country's development and reconstruction.

The Global Witness report warns against sacrificing the UN benchmarks for short-term political gains or gestures.

"In the long-term, peace and stability in Liberia will be the first casualties," said Natalie Ashworth

The June 1 GW report further revealed that large areas of resource rich territory remain under the control of ex-combatants who are exploiting rubber and diamonds, generating significant illicit revenues.

Currently, it insisted, the Liberian government and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL) have not developed a strategy to deal with this problem.

Global Witness investigations in Liberia in March-April 2006 confirmed that ex-combatants were in control of two large rubber plantations - Guthrie and Sinoe.

The ex-combatants organized the exploitation of rubber, directed by their former rebel command structures.

Some of them told Global Witness that they had not been through the Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration process organized by UNMIL. The rubber is generating significant unallocated and unrestricted revenue for these ex-combatants, the report said.

"President Sirleaf has recognized the risk presented by the ex-combatants' presence in the rubber plantations, but the new government and security forces do not have the means to restore control without assistance," said Natalie Ashworth. "UNMIL must urgently assist the government to remove the ex-combatants as part of a broader strategy which provides them with alternative sources of employment."

The Sirleaf Administration, though, does not pretend it has control over the so-called rich territory referred to by GW.

But while it relies on UNMIL and persuasion to lure the ex-combatants out of the occupied areas, it remains upbeat that the probe of rubber plantations ordered along with UNMIL early this year plus earlier policy decisions taken indicated its commitment to meeting the expectation of the Security Council and therefore set sufficient bases for the lifting of sanctions.

For instance in February 2006, the government released Executive Order #1 which adopted the recommendations and report of the Forest Concession Review Committee respecting the promotion of transparency, benefit sharing, and public participation in forest and natural resource management in Liberia.

"The President of the Republic of Liberia, based on the findings of the Concession Review Committee and the mandate of the United Nations Security Council, hereby declares all purported forest concessions null and void ab-initio- including "concession agreements", "Management contracts", "Non-concession operator permits", "forest management utilization contracts", and "salvage permits", paragraph 2 of the Order states.

The Order then charged the committee with the responsibility of overseeing monitoring and verifying the formulation, development, and implementation of the measures prescribed as a condition precedent to the resumption of concession grants and allocations.

These measures, according the Executive Order, were sufficient to allow the resumption of timber harvesting in Liberia consistent with international standards and basic principles of accountability, transparency, and sustainability and as contained in the public Procurement and Concession Act of 2005.

Eighteen days later on February 20, 2006, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of UNMIL, Mr. Alan Doss, established a Rubber Plantations Task Force to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the situation in Liberia's major rubber plantations, and to make recommendation for future action.

Three months later in May this year, the taskforce found that there was urgent needs to strengthen security in and around the plantations areas, and clarify the status of concession and management agreements as well as the status, duties, and responsibilities of plantation security forces.

It also found that rubber was being exported illegally to neighboring Ivory Coast by the Cavalla Rubber Plantation in Maryland County and that certain rubber purchasing companies were buying rubber from ex-combatants thereby undermining the DDRR programme.

It then recommended that the government, with UNMIL support, should develop a line of action regarding the removal and/or purchase of rubber from Guthrie and Sinoe, specifying a new policy with respect to aim, methodology, controls, taxation, legalities or illegalities, and penalties.

With this effort under the sleeves of her administration, President Sirleaf has been reaching out to influential members of the international community and the Security Council to end the sanctions so that she will have the free hands to unleash the full force of the nation's economy.

Reports say while in Britain recently, President Sirleaf reportedly enlisted the support of the British Undersecretary of State for International Development, Mr. Hilary Ben, to help influence his government's support for lifting of sanction from Liberia.

Other permanent members of the Security Council, including the People's Republic of China, may have sympathetic ears for the President, according to diplomatic sources.

But Global Witness believes lifting sanctions now on the basis of what the government has done policy and politics-wise fell terribly short of the relevant benchmarks set forth in Security Council Resolution 1521(2003) adopted at the 4890th meeting on December 22, 2003.

"[The Security Council] urges the Government of Liberia to establish its full authority and control over the timber producing areas, and to take all necessary steps to ensure that government revenues from the Liberian timber industry are not used to fuel conflict or otherwise in violation of the Council's resolutions but are used for legitimate purposes for the benefit of the Liberian people, including development," Section B Paragraph 11 of the resolution mandated.

This bench, GW insisted, remains the greatest single obstacle to the lifting of sanctions. This it said, is because the government still does not have 'full authority and control over the timber producing areas.

"In fact, it has very little control of these areas. As described elsewhere in this document, this is not due to a lack of political will but to a lack of logistical capacity. Nevertheless, the risks posed by this situation remain," the report noted.

It said although, with the support of UNMIL, the government is able to control the main road networks and could thereby better monitor timber movements along those roads, the same is not true of the forests.

"For example, Global Witness visited Buchanan in April 2006 and found that illegal and uncontrolled pit sawing by ex-combatants was continuing. Without full government control over timber producing areas, the forests are open to illicit exploitation, whether by anarchic logging operations or, in the future, by holders of legitimate concession agreements," the report noted.

It also quoted Section B, Paragraph 13 of the UN resolution as saying that the UN Security Council "encourages the Government of Liberia to establish Oversight mechanisms for the timber industry that will promote responsible business practices, and to establish transparent accounting and auditing mechanisms to ensure that all government revenues, including those from the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry, are not used to fuel conflict or otherwise in violation of the Council's resolutions but are used for legitimate purposes for the benefit of the Liberian people, including Development." It then noted that while in theory the government, through the LFI, the Forestry Reform Committee and GEMAP is on its way to achieving this condition, the "new, untried and as yet incomplete systems in Monrovia do not equate to a working system that can be applied across the country, particularly in the remote timber producing areas." The Security Council resolution further urged all parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 18 August 2003 to implement fully their commitments and fulfill their responsibilities in the National Transitional Government of Liberia, and not to hinder the restoration of the Government's authority throughout the country, particularly over natural resources.

But GW said notwithstanding this important requirement for the lifting of sanction, former LURD and MODEL rebels were not only actually hampering the process by refusing to take part in the DDRR process, but that they were maintaining their command structures through illicit rubber exploitation and dealing.

"Although LURD is not actively hindering the new government's authority, an intact ex-LURD command structure represents a clear threat to security. The ex-combatants' control extends beyond the plantation itself into the town of Gba, and possibly other areas.

The ex-combatants clearly hold power in this area and local people are afraid to speak openly; the ex-combatants maintain an organized presence in the town and have set up their own welfare committee which has an office near the police/UNMIL checkpoint. Both villagers and ex-combatants stated to Global Witness that no decision relating to the plantation can be taken without the agreement of the commander, ex-LURD General Sumo Dennis. There have been reports of severe human rights abuses committed by ex-combatants, adding to the climate of fear and insecurity," said the report.

According to the report, UNMIL noted that it had been "reported on numerous occasions that the ex-combatants in Guthrie Rubber Plantation are committing serious crimes, including murder, rape and aggravated assault. In the absence of the LNP or judicial services, victims of these crimes have limited or no access to justice." Insisting that the decision to lift timber sanctions should be based on both security and economic factors, the GW report said more than 15,000 ex-combatants are currently in the Guthrie and Sinoe rubber plantations with command structure in tact.

"Global Witness interviews with ex-combatants revealed that the command and control structures of the former rebel groups were still intact and that ex-combatants maintained allegiance to their former commanders. Rubber tapping and control is allocated according to the rank of the ex-combatants.

"Taxes on the rubber are paid to a self-styled NGO, the National Veteran Rehabilitation Project (NVRP), a five-member committee of ex-combatants, controlled by two ex-LURD Generals: Railey Farley who holds the position of Secretary General and Chairman Sumo Dennis. This committee is seemingly in complete control of the plantation and surrounding villages. One rubber tapper interviewed by Global Witness said that a company could only operate there if it worked with General Sumo Dennis," the report revealed.

It revealed further that the tappers pay the committee $100 per large truck load and $50 for smaller ones. According to UNMIL peacekeepers at the checkpoint at the exit of Guthrie rubber plantation, an average of 6-7 trucks, each carrying between 3 and 15 tons of rubber, leave Guthrie every day, generating up to US $18,000 per month for the NVRP, in addition to the already significant sums earned by the ex-combatant tappers.

Furthermore, it said, during a participatory rural appraisal workshop held in Greenville by leading Liberian law firm Green Advocates in February 2006, the Comptroller of the Sinoe Rubber Corporation, Mr. Jackson N Paul Senior, reported: "There are up to ten thousand tappers at SRC (Sinoe Rubber Corporation) as per my records. There are also unspecified numbers of people including aliens tapping outside my record only a monthly due of one-bag of rubber per tapper is collected." Green Advocates estimated that a bag of rubber sold at LD $450 or US $8.00 each, multiplied by 10,000 bags (for 10,000 tappers) comes to US $80,000 a month.

While observers agree with GW that sanction must not be lifted unless the government was in proper control of the situation around the country given the generalized nature of what was going in rubber plantations, they noted that it would be counterproductive to expect the Liberian government to do all.

In their views, the United Nations needed to learn the important lesson that with the security of Liberia in its hands, it is impractical to expect the government go take control of the countryside while UNMIL only occupies urban areas and leaves the mineral-rich areas and rubber plantations with non-demobilized and non-disarmed ex-combatants to occupy.

"The United Nations needs to confront DDRR squarely and stop the application of the failed theory that DDRR has never been completed in any country and therefore can not be completed in Liberia," said Tamba Gizzy of Duala.

He said that based on that theory to assume that the present level of DDRR is acceptable despite Liberia's unique situation will defeat the UN's programme in Liberia and render it a waste of time and resources.

Many think Tamba has a point and called on the UN to further mandate UNMIL to take complete control of security and ensure that it helps work out modalities with the government to effect the immediate takeover of revenue-producing areas including rubber plantations.

Another way UNMIL can help the government, according to observers, is to create enabling environment for government to pursue the recommendation of the joint task force set up by government and UNMIL with the mandate to assess the situation in the rubber plantations around the country.

"The situation in the rubber plantations mirrors what is happening in other sectors of the economy including the timber and mineral resources sectors," claimed Wesseh V. Toe of Camp Johnson Road in Monrovia. "So the situation must be dealt with holistically." Alternative to supplementing military measures with the government's policy measures, according to one analyst, is for the UN to reach an agreement with the government to use GEMAP outfits and UNMIL to ensure compliance with the relevant resolutions.

He said this will also control the application of revenues therefrom to the benefit of the larger society as opposed to keeping the sanction on, ignoring the ineffectiveness of UNMIL on the matter while burying their heads in the sand, and hoping that by keeping the sanctions miracles would be performed in Liberia to meet the terms of the resolutions calling for the removal of all obstacles to the restoration of stability in the subregion.

It is not clear which argument the Security Council will listen to as it begins its debate on the lifting of sanctions from Liberia later this month, but whatever it decides, observers say, must encompass the interest of the larger Liberian society.

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