By Rodney D. Sieh
Source: FrontPage Africa
|Ellen Margrethe Loj|
Since taking up her assignment as the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in Liberia, Ellen Margrethe Loj has been faced with numerous challenges as head of the United Nations Mission in Liberia. Reports of isolated cases of peacekeepers involved in sexual exploitation of Liberian women, the suicide earlier this year of UN worker and last year’s violent activities in Voinjama, Lofa County during which UN peacekeepers faced accusations of taking sides. More importantly, Loj is overseeing a mission tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the peace ahead of the crucial 2011 elections. In this exclusive interview, Loj, also the former head of the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee on Liberia weighs in on her inability to address the ongoing sanctions clouding several former officials of the Charles Taylor era given her role as SRSG, the conduct of UNMIL troop and civilian force and her candid views about sexual exploitation and what she is doing to keep UNMIL troops and workers in check.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: As the United Nations celebrates its 65th anniversary, what strides do you think have been made in Liberia since UNMIL arrived here?
ELLEN MARGARET LOJ: I think the UN has been successful in maintaining the peace in Liberia. I hope we have also been able to by our presence here to give the Liberians the room to – so to speak, get their own house in order and in doing so have defined their forward agenda and goals for the country as well as build capacity So yes, I am happy but the job is not completely done yet.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Security is a big issue ahead of next year’s crucial elections in Liberia. What steps are UNMIL taking to ensure that all goes well?
LOJ: Well, we are trying to monitor everything that is happening on the ground and we believe that the way we are positioned around the country we will be able to respond to any disturbances. As I often say, we cannot guarantee that nothing will happen if the Liberians themselves are not cooperating with one another , themselves and us as well as with the government and with the National Elections Commission and the political parties. If the Liberians want a peaceful elections we can support them but if they chose rather to make disturbances all over the country I cannot issue any guarantees. But I put my trust in Liberians wanting to move forward – I hope it and wish it.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: there has been a lot of speculations regarding the future of the United Nations Mission in Liberia beyond the 2011 elections. Looking ahead, what would say would be UNMIL’s role beyond that point.
LOJ: What we have commenced is a discussion with the government of Liberia and all the Liberian security institutions on what we call transition to acquaint them with and in the smallest detail on what we are doing and in order for them to decide if they wish to continue and need to continue to do those things in the future as well as who is then going to do them on the Liberian side and of course whether the Liberian institutions in place have the capacity to do it or whom on the Liberian side can. The whole purpose of this exercise is to try and build capacity in all details and also to ensure that if the security council one day decide that UNMIL will not be in Liberia any longer that it doesn’t come as a surprise for those who are going to take over the security responsibilities. So we are hoping that it is going to be a gradual and informed process which is why we are carrying out this exercise in transition discussion.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: During a recent interview with Reuters you warned that further cuts in UNMIL troops strength could ignite instability with the prospects of a spill-over in neighboring countries. That was before the vote by the UN Security Council on whether or not to maintain more 9,200 men here ahead of elections. What was your rationale for this and are you happy with the final decision by the UNSC?
LOJ: Yes, I am quite happy with the number they came up with because they followed the Secretary General’s proposal. We have as you know for three years cut the military force from a little under 15,000 to under 8,000 and there are many on the council who say that it is still a very big force
in Liberia but the UN Security General said that we should keep the force at its current number and I think we should keep that force as well until after the elections because that gives UNMIL the possibility of more or less presence in all the counties and you know better than anybody that response time in Liberia is a challenge especially in the rainy season. So I am very happy that the council adopted the Secretary General’s proposal.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: UNMIL has been here for quite some time now and reportedly is spending $500 million a year, 150 million more than the national budget just to keep things in check. How is the UN managing in terms of getting member nations to pay up their dues. Does the lack of payments affect the mission’s work here and in other countries where they’re serving?
LOJ: I want to make one think absolutely clear. It is true that the budget for UNMIL is a little over 500 million. So that is what it costs the international community to run the operations here in Liberia but we are not spending that amount of money here in Liberia. Most of that money is being channeled directly from New York to the various troop contributing countries. But peacekeeping is expensive so that is why many member states are questioning whether the size is right in Liberia as well as in other
countries because it costs a lot of money for the international community and it is member states who have to pay the bill; however, once the council has considered the mission should exist then a budget is drawn up and approved by the member states then it is compulsory for member states to contribute. So those who pay and contribute to the UN are very particular. I don’t know the exact situation now but the paying time varies a little from year to year but it doesn’t affect us in our daily work once
our budget has been adopted then the money is available to us. But when our budget is adopted we don’t always get what we ask for they do cut it in some areas. There won’t be cuts on what it costs to have the soldiers here but the cuts may be on running expenses like fuel and things like that.
Front PageAfrica: Let’s move on to the sanctions issue. Prior to coming to Liberia in this position you were head of the sanctions committee. In recent months there has been a lot of concerns about the freezing of assets and travel of former associates of former President Charles Taylor, there has been a lot of calls for the UN to revisit the move?
LOJ: Well, as the Special Representative and head of UNMIL I have no position on the sanctions list because whatever is happening with the sanctions list, and I know it well enough because I used to be on the other side, is solely in the hands of the fifteen members of the Security Council. I have no influence on it and as I am telling many Liberians who are on the list, I am happy to advise them on the procedure, I am happy to transmit their letters to the sanctions committee but I have no influence on
who is on the list and who is not on the list. And as SRSG, I do not have that influence and don’t want to have that influence because that will make life difficult for me here in Liberia. So if you want to know what I thought about the sanctions you would have to go back to the period when I was on the sanctions committee and when I left the council in my previous capacity.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: But still on this issue, we have seen a lot of appointments to government posts of people listed on the travel and assets freeze list and a few of those on the travel and assets freeze are currently in the government and more recently some have been appointed to government posts. Is the UN following developments and would this in any way impact the future of those on the ban.
LOJ: Again, you’re getting into the territory I cannot speak about. I understand what you’re saying but I don’t have an opinion on that as SRSG because it is really in the hands of the 15-members of the Security Council and they will be feel I am stepping on their toes because I am their civil servant.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Also, others are suggesting that the UN and the GOL work together to put those under restrictions on trial and if they’re guilty, keep them there but if they’re not let them go about their normal lives. What is your view on this?
LOJ: The council in 2006 I believe decided for all sanctions committees to establish a mechanism wherein the individuals themselves could address and plead their case but the council did not go as far as in addressing this.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: UNMIL has a very strict policy regarding curfew for its vehicles and there have been some complaints that UNMIL vehicles have been involved in accidents a lot. What is the mission doing to curb to accident rates of its officers and servicemen and women?
LOJ: I think the curfew is not just about traffic accident I would say the curfew is much more about encouraging staff not to be tempted in this behavior. It is much more a preventive measure to minimize misconduct. We recently lost what was called hazard pay in certain peacekeeping operations around the world. UN staff get hazard pay in places where there are a lot of risks like Afghanistan. We had had that for a long time in Liberia but we don’t’ get it anymore and a lot of staff said to me but “that is bad”. And I said no. That is very good because that indicates that we’re moving forward and the situation is getting better. Some of them are saying why do we then still have curfew and I say to them, “curfew”?
The curfew I have for you all not to misbehave or to be tempted to misbehave and I’ll be quite honest with you, this is in relation to fraternalization and/or sexual exploitation and abuse; issues such as engaging in prostitution, misuse of Liberian men, women and children. Curfew is set up in relations to avoiding drunk driving and thereby lowering the accident rates. Sometimes it is our people’s fault, sometimes it is not. I can only, in each and every case investigate whose fault was it, what was the reason behind it, was it reckless driving? Was it speeding?
We have a very detailed system installed in all our cars which is a car log. And any time some report reports a car in a certain area at a particular time, we can go in and check who drove the car, what was the speed of the car, were they allowed to drive at that time of the night or day? Did they drive during curfew, during work or did they break the curfew. So we’re trying in that way to monitor and then investigate. In the process, I am trying to appeal to my staff to respect the Liberian people and adjust to the Liberian traffic in order to minimize as much as possible the number of accidents that could occur. But you know yourself with the motorbikes and what have you the challenge it is to drive in Liberia and it is not only us involved in traffic accident but I am appealing as much as I can to the UNMIL staff to avoid getting into situations that could cause accidents and to be vigilant and to avoid being situations of misbehavior because it also sends the wrong signal and we have had a couple of negative incidents and sometimes the loss of human lives and many times without the loss of human lives, luckily. But they are traffic accidents and we cannot avoid it totally and we have many cars that are carrying out their operational duties but I can promise you we take it very seriously each time and try to investigate very closely as to what was responsible for it.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Let us look at the exploitation part. One of your staffers killed himself last year. What did that do to the morale of UNMIL? Do you think it tainted your work in Liberia?
LOJ: I will not pronounce myself on any individual case as the investigation is ongoing. I will only say that we do not accept sexual exploitation. The Secretary General has what we call a zero tolerance about it and if you follow me around you will know that I do not attend any function with UN staffers without talking about it, without appealing to them because I basically think that if they are engaging in that kind of conduct, they are undermining the whole process of why we are here because we are here to give space for the Liberians to regain their foothold and move forward and therefore we have to in everything we do should show them respect. As I say whether we are driving down Tubman Boulevard we should adjust because we are here as guest for such a short period of time and It goes in the way you treat Liberians and most often we are talking about women and girls.
The whole issue of misconduct and sexual exploitation and abuse I take very, very seriously but I have to admit it happens. But we try to investigate it as much as possible and we are dependent on the troop contributing countries in following that up and also to put as much responsibility for instance on the military commanders as they say, my motto is “keep the boys busy”, because if the boys are busy they don’t have time to misbehave and I think it is the command’s responsibility. So I look at the force commander and ask him down the rank to ensure that they have tight control and they have activities to keep the men busy. It’s not that I want to keep UN staff away from Liberians but I want to minimize the risks of misconduct.
There are many restaurants and bars in Liberia and particular Monrovia who get really upset when their facilities are on our off-limit list. But the reason we sometime have to do that is because prostitution takes place in the facility or outside the facility and I can’t have my staff going there. I am even questioning at times when I am told there are prostitutes in those areas. I Know that there are so many Liberian women who have very, very poor economic situations and I don’t’ think they want to be prostitutes because sometimes they are so desperate that they would do anything for money and it is very important that we do everything to discourage it. In fact in one of the newspapers either today or yesterday, there was an article, it was not related to the UN at all and I’m sure it exists in the Liberian society, about some young teenage girls that were engaging in those activities and they all said if they could afford not to they would love not to be. And I just don’t want our people tempted to be engaged in such actions, I want to minimize it. I’m not totally successful but I want to promise you that I take it very seriously.
It is very important. It pulls the carpet from under everything we are trying to do here. They need to give you the Liberians the confident in themselves and anybody who is misused it sends an attack against their confidence. So that’s why we have the curfew and that’s why we have restrictions and if you see the reports on medal parades, I talk about it all the time and try to keep the commanders responsible and when it occurs then we investigate it. And we have also established this hotline where Liberians can call anonymously and tell us so we can investigate because we don’t have people all over the country that can monitor what each and every staff member, civilian police or military police is doing. We can’t do it without collaboration from the communities. I can only encourage Liberians to tell us and cooperate with us in the investigation.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Finally, next year is going to be very important. Do you think the outcome of next year’s elections would have any impact on the future presence of UNMIL in Liberia?
LOJ: I think the outcome, maybe not as much as how the elections were conducted but rather if or Did we have violence in relations to elections and so on? I have often said that these elections are really an opportunity for the Liberians to show what road they have chosen for the future. Do they want to continue on the road toward sustainable peace? Or do they want to go back to a lot of internal disputes and fighting? And that is what I think is what is going to be monitored. I also think that the international community feels very strongly and it is as I said a costly operation, feels very strongly that they have given now, seven years of breathing space for the Liberian population, the politicians, members of the legislature, the government to get the Liberian house in order and now it is up for the Liberians to decide whether they want to continue on that road.
I cannot promise you that if the next elections are messed up then the international community will just continue to stay here forever. I can certainly not guarantee you that. Then maybe some will say maybe they do not want peace in Liberia, they don’t’ want to move forward. What can we do? I know you have followed a few quotes I have made to Reuters and others but recently when I was asked about peace and international community support in terms of development and so on, whether money can buy peace, my answer was money cannot buy peace if there is no political will in the broader sense of the word and if there’s political will, money can accelerate the achievement of peace and that is why we spent a lot of time arguing with the international community not only to put money into the elections but certainly also to give assistance to the Liberian security agencies, to the police, to justice so that we can build the capacity in those organization and institutions to take over the responsibilities. So that can accelerate national ownership of peace.