Advancing the Debate on a Culture of Conflict Prevention

Farid Zarif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General, visits the Liberian National Police headquarters, Greenville, Sinoe Country, Liberia with Swedish Ambassador Lena Nordstrom to meet with representatives of the Liberian Security Services. 21 October 2015.

“The best way to prevent societies from descending into crisis is to ensure they are resilient through investment in inclusive sustainable development.” This truth, as stated by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, underpins his recent vision for conflict prevention, in which the maxim of reversing inequalities and strengthening institutions applies to all countries. Putting prevention first is at the forefront of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and it frames the global community’s commitment to “strengthen universal peace in larger freedom”, captured in the preamble of United Nations General Assembly resolution 70/1 that introduced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the world in October 2015. The specific framework for prevention is found in SDG 16, which seeks to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. SDG 16 places political action at the forefront of the peace-security-development nexus by recognizing that governance deficits are largely responsible for poverty and conflict. By virtue of this debate, the SDGs direct the international community to prioritize prevention by removing the causes of conflict through political process and the pursuit of development outcomes, which leaves no one behind.

This paradigm of prevention lies at the core of the sustaining peace agenda, established by the Government of Liberia and the United Nations system, in the Liberia Peacebuilding Plan (2017). The plan was requested by the Security Council in resolution 2333 (2016), and anticipates the departure of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in March 2018. It marks the first time the Council had asked the Secretary-General to produce a detailed plan for how the United Nations would manage the sustaining peace agenda following the departure of a peacekeeping mission. Consequently, Liberia is emerging as a model for the Secretary-General’s conflict prevention vision, where attention is now focused on political, human rights and development instruments to protect the gains of 14 years of peacekeeping to ensure that the trajectory of sustaining peace is consolidated.

The strong prevention instruments in the peacebuilding plan are designed to address the critical level of Liberia’s sociopolitical fragility borne from the unresolved root causes of the country’s 14-year civil war. For example, public institutional reforms in Liberia are urgently required, with an emphasis on the effective implementation of the national legislative agenda. Recent assessments show that land disputes, corruption and boundary disputes continue to be the main triggers of violence. Presidential elections will take place against this background of sociopolitical fragility, and it will be the first time since the end of the war that election security will be under the full control of the Government, following the transfer of security responsibilities from UNMIL to national authorities in June 2016. Although Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic, the 2017 elections will mark the first time in the country’s history that a democratic handover of political and administrative power from one elected administration to another will take place following competitive multiparty elections. The electoral process will not simply be an administrative milestone on the road to post-war recovery in Liberia, its outcome will show whether the model of nation-building, designed by Liberians and international civil servants, has a future. It will test how successful this model has been in helping Liberian society mature politically and move on from societal crisis and breakdown.

Removing structural causes of conflict remains the long-term goal enshrined in the global development agenda. At the same time, preventive diplomacy and political advocacy aimed at deterring sociopolitical tensions otherwise escalating into situations that could undermine peace is an ongoing responsibility. Prompt political interventions give time for actors in society to come to terms with change and think differently about old problems. For example, during the first half of 2016, UNMIL mobilized to diffuse potential conflict between Liberian Christian and Muslim communities which emerged from the country’s constitutional review process promoting a constitutional amendment defining Liberia as a Christian nation.  Muslims perceived this so-called Proposition 24 as a serious provocation which revived memories of decades of religious discrimination. As a result, the National Muslim Council of Liberia suspended their participation in the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia.

Assessing these developments as a serious threat to peace consolidation, national unity and reconciliation, UNMIL engaged with Christian and Muslim leaders through a set of bilateral meetings to ascertain the framework for a constructive interreligious dialogue in an effort to diffuse tensions. This provided opportunities for Christian and Muslim leaders to think about the consequences of pursuing Proposition 24 and allowed both sides to focus on issues such as consolidating the hard-earned peace, addressing the root causes of conflict and the wider development prospects for the country. As a result, the religious leaders articulated a narrative of common interest and placed emphasis on the positive achievements of the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia. It also led to the Liberian Council of Churches and the leadership of the Legislative and the Executive branches of Government to publicly dissociate themselves from Proposition 24—a development which fostered constructive engagement between the Christian and Muslim communities. Constitutional reform and the passage of legislation to provide land rights and decentralize political and administrative powers of government remain the cornerstones for the conflict prevention agenda in Liberia. UNMIL intervention in 2016 deflected confrontation on that occasion, but the potential for fractious intercommunal politics undermining peace remains a risk while the full legislative package is unrealized.

A majority of Liberians believe land and property disputes are the major drivers of conflict in the country;1 today, conflicts between foreign concession companies and local communities are the most pervasive. The United Nations has long been involved in helping the Government and individual communities address both the proximate and underlying causes of land conflict. In recent years, the onus has been placed on establishing effective land governance and administration systems, centred on securing land tenure rights and livelihoods. UNMIL advocacy for land reform in the legislature over the past two years has been accompanied by efforts to strengthen local level mechanisms aimed at preventing disputes, usually involving concession companies and local communities, turning violent.

In recent years, UNMIL conflict prevention strategy regarding concession areas has moved from ad hoc and case-by-case mediation efforts towards facilitating creation of permanent tripartite conflict management and dispute resolution mechanisms, which institutionalize collaborative partnerships between concessionaire companies, local communities and the Government. These efforts have now led to the establishment of more than 12 conflict resolution mechanisms in major concession areas. One of the first tripartite mechanisms was the Sustainable Partnership Initiative (SPI), established by the Sime Darby oil palm plantation in March 2013. It was designed as a multi-stakeholder platform comprising local communities, civil society organizations, government, international organizations and academic institutions, working together to provide guidance on social and environmental issues to the management of the plantation. The SPI has been successful in managing disputes between local communities and the company, and it became a model for UNMIL in establishing multi-stakeholder platforms in four conflict-prone concessions in 2017, with the United Nations Development Programme serving as implementing partner.

Preventing “spoiler” groups from gaining political traction has been a high priority for UNMIL, with particular attention paid to the grievances of ex-combatants. Today, most ex-combatants are unemployed and living under the poverty line. The fear that lack of livelihoods and education opportunities could push many ex-combatants to resort to violence against the state is real. Earlier this year an incident involving former members of Charles Taylor’s erstwhile Anti-Terrorist Unit (ex-ATU) exemplified the potential for confrontation between the state and disgruntled organized groups in society. On this occasion, the Ministry of Defence had ordered eviction of the ex-ATU members and their families from the 72nd Military Barracks in Monrovia to make way for personnel from the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). The ex-ATU members had long-standing grievances with the Government, claiming they had not been properly compensated during the demobilization and reintegration process and not restructured, as provided under the 2003 Accra peace accords. The group of about 3000 people (both ex-combatants and their families) had occupied the contested barracks since 2004, and threatened to resist any attempt by the Government to evict them by force.

Since a forced eviction carried the potential to turn violent, threatening the safety and the security of civilians, UNMIL discharged its Protection of Civilians mandate by initiating a series of preliminary dialogues between the parties to deescalate the mounting tension. We established a crisis management group to coordinate UNMIL facilitation, engagement and monitoring of the situation. While relevant components of UNMIL facilitated dialogue with the leadership of the 72nd Military Barracks occupants and simultaneously urged the AFL to exercise restraint and respect the rule of law, our engagement at the leadership level resulted in the President deciding to suspend the eviction order. This calmed the situation and provided momentum for exploring durable peaceful solutions, which could involve the peaceful departure of the ex-ATU from the barracks with guarantees to support their reintegration into civilian society.

UNMIL experience demonstrates the effectiveness of preventive diplomacy in de-escalating potential conflict situations, but it also shows its limits in the absence of long-term solutions to normative and structural deficits in society. Sustaining peace requires political commitments to delivering development outcomes which are inclusive and sustainable. Both the Liberian communities affected by the operations of concession companies and the ex-combatants lacking livelihoods face developmental challenges which are rooted in the fragile condition of the Liberian economy. The potential for intergroup conflict over rights and access to resources are entrenched in the incomplete restructure of constitutional arrangements and post-war legal frameworks. This is why we are working to establish a Liberia Multi-Partner Trust Fund which will allow the UN Country Team to channel funds to programmes necessary for assuaging the underlying causes of conflict. This needs to be accompanied by a continued capacity for the United Nations to exercise effective political good offices in Liberia after the departure of UNMIL, which engages with political leaders on the critical policy reforms. The logic of a post-UNMIL arrangement which institutionalizes a culture of conflict prevention through good politics and investments in sustainable development is unassailable.

Notes

  1. Edward Mulbah and John R. Dennis, Mapping Opportunities for the Consolidation of Peace in Liberia: Voices from the Countryside (Ministry of Internal Affairs, Liberia Peace Building Office, April 2017). Available from https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/ACCORD-Mapping-Peace-Liberia-Popular.pdf