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Press Briefing By Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict On Recent Visit to West Africa

United Nations

24 July 2003

The rapidly deteriorating situation in Liberia needed the urgent intervention of the United States, and an international force, if further human suffering in that West African country was to be averted, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu told correspondents at a Headquarters briefing today.

Updating correspondents on the situation in the war-torn West African country, following his weeklong mission to the region, Mr. Otunnu echoed previous calls by Secretary-General Kofi Annan for United States participation in efforts to bring peace to embattled Liberia. He hoped that President George Bush's indication that the United States would make a contribution to efforts to stabilize Liberia would come soon.

He said that calls for United States participation, as an important actor in that situation, had been made by the leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Secretary-General, and, above all, the Liberians themselves, including all of the factions. He hoped that the United States would soon make a definitive announcement about the nature of its contribution and that it would proceed as fast as possible to join the West African forces.

The presence of the United States was especially important because it would give political weight and military credibility to the international intervention force, he added. That would also help the countries of West Africa in terms of logistics, equipment, communication, and financing.

Mr. Otunnu said he had visited Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal, in connection with the growing and desperate humanitarian crisis in West Africa, especially the Mano River area, and more specifically, in the dramatically unfolding situation in Liberia. He had attended an important meeting convened by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) under the leadership of Carolyn McAskie, United Nations Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, to coordinate the humanitarian response and to take a regional concerted approach to the situation, instead of a country-specific one.

He said he had also met with: Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Executive Secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); Ould Abdallah, the Secretary-General's top envoy for West Africa; and a number of West African Ministers, who were meeting in Dakar in connection with the possibility of sending an intervention force to Liberia.

He described the situation in Liberia, especially in Monrovia, as "simply horrendous", saying that the fighting groups were holding the population hostage. The spate of killing had increased dramatically, with more than 600 people indiscriminately killed in Monrovia within barely two days. Humanitarian access was now "next to zero", with 70 per cent of the country's population cut off for months now from access to such needs as water, sanitation, food and medical attention.

He said he had information about massive mobilizations of children and women to fight in the war, most of them forcibly mobilized and abducted. Present estimates were now that one out of every 10 children in Liberia was being forced to fight. The situation had deteriorated to the extent that all international staff -- United Nations and non-governmental organizations ?- had had to be evacuated from Monrovia. Developments in Liberia had implications for the entire subregion. Liberians had already been an important factor in the fighting in western Côte d'Ivoire, where a ceasefire was holding, but which now risked being undermined by the developments in Liberia.

Additionally, the rather fragile peace in Guinea could also be greatly undermined by unfolding circumstances in Liberia, he said. "So, it's critical that efforts be immediately put in place to end the fighting in Liberia, and the implications are for the entire subregion", he added.

He made an urgent appeal to the warring parties ?- the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), and the Government of President Charles Taylor -- to immediately stop the fighting, in accordance with the ceasefire agreed in Ghana. Further, he called for the urgent deployment of an international intervention force under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. That meant a force, which would not only be in place to observe the situation on the ground, but one which would act to ensure humanitarian access for the protection of civilians and enforcement of the agreed ceasefire.

In that context, he expressed satisfaction at the response of the ECOWAS countries, which, from the very beginning, had assumed their responsibility as neighbours by committing to send 3,000 troops to Liberia. Yesterday, Nigeria had announced that it would send in two battalions, hopefully, by next week. Mali, Senegal and Ghana were also all committed to sending troops, although they needed some support to make that possible. Hopefully, South Africa, Morocco, and, possibly Ethiopia would also join in. The ECOWAS estimates that some 5,000 troops were needed in Liberia.

On the humanitarian level, it was important to stop the killing right away and to put an end to the mobilization of children and women, he stressed. It must be indicated, in the "clearest terms", that some of those actions were war crimes, under the newly operational International Criminal Court (ICC), and that the perpetrators be held accountable for their actions.

He said his office, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children had agreed to work with the ECOWAS secretariat to send child protection advisers to ECOWAS to accompany the intervention force into Liberia, similar to what was being done in many United Nations peace operations. That would be the first time, however, that a regional peace operation had included child protection advisers in its ranks. Also, his office had reached an agreement with UNICEF's Dakar-based regional office to strengthen the child protection unit within the ECOWAS secretariat.

In the context of the peace negotiations now under way in Ghana, aimed at producing a government of national transition, he said the issue of child protection and rehabilitation had been put on the agenda. He had every hope that the text provided to the negotiators, to the parties to the conflict, and to facilitators and mediators would result in recognition of the importance of devoting attention and resources to rehabilitating children.

In response to a question, Mr. Otunnu praised ECOWAS highly for responding to the crisis immediately once its magnitude had become clear with the announcement of its preparedness to dispatch men and women to protect the Liberian people. "But, we have also got to realize that many of the ECOWAS countries, although they have troops, do not have the wherewithal to project their troops into an operation of the kind that we are describing in Liberia. They'll need equipment, they'll need logistical support, they'll need communication; they'll need financing to make this possible", he said.

The countries of the region had been waiting for the wider international community to provide that support, and in particular, they had asked the United States for support, he went on. In spite of Nigeria's constraints and limitations, that country had been decisive and quite responsible in their response, following discussions between the ECOWAS Ministers of Defence and a United States military assessment team, which had been held in Dakar on Tuesday and Wednesday.

He added that he fervently hoped that the United States would make a definitive announcement "very, very soon" about its participation and contribution, and a timeframe for that.

To another question about the reality of non-West African countries joining the international force, he said that the leadership of ECOWAS had appealed to countries from elsewhere in Africa to contribute. There should be burden sharing, although the thrust of that burden should be borne by the West African countries. After that, they would want to see contributions from extra-African Powers, particularly the United States, given its special historic and ethnic links with Liberia.

Asked to describe the "big picture" for the region, given the rapidly changing situation, he said he was rather optimistic in that regard. The conflicts in that region had, by and large, no deep-rooted elements of polarization or fault lines along ethnic, religious or other lines. In comparison to the situations in the regions of the Great Lakes, the Balkans, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and Chechnya, the roots of conflicts in West Africa were rather shallow.

Noting that "Liberia is not Somalia", he added that there was no basis of comparison between the two because, among other things, all of the fighting factions in Liberia, including the Government, were calling "by name" for United States intervention and participation.

The door was wide open in Liberia, he said, and nobody there was "standing on the ceremony of sovereignty". Secondly, both the United Nations and the United States had a partner with ECOWAS and its Monitoring Observer Group (ECOMOG) because of their ability to make a difference on the ground. In addition, Liberia was a very small country and the factions were relatively weak. "And, I believe that a decisive and timely intervention with a clear signal of intentions will contain the situation rather rapidly", he emphasized.

Asked about the long-term impact on the children, he said there was no question that the conflicts in both Liberia and Sierra Leone would leave traumatic scars on the next generation of children. That was why the conflict in Liberia had to be stopped now, so that the work being done in Sierra Leone could be consolidated. Peace in Côte d'Ivoire could also be maintained, and within Liberia itself, access to the population could be addressed.

Asked about the situation of "street kids" now emerging in Iraq and whose responsibility they were, Mr. Otunnu said that, in general, the Coalition forces had overall responsibility; any aspect of the situation concerning the children there would involve the occupying Powers.


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