With the donning of the blue berets of peace, an exchange of flags and the playing of anthems under the searing Liberian sun, the United Nations embarked today on a major mission to bring stability and democracy to the West African country, torn asunder by nearly 15 years of civil war, brutality, rape, looting and corruption.
Exchanging camouflage berets for the blue UN insignia, 3,500 soldiers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), stationed in Liberia since the government and rebels signed a ceasefire in August, were transformed into the vanguard of what will eventually swell to a 16,000-strong UN peacekeeping operation.
"Today is the start of a process of normalization for a country that has suffered the ravages of nearly a decade and a half of conflict," Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative, Jacques Paul Klein, told the handover ceremony in the capital Monrovia, officially launching the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
"For the Mission to be successful, we count on the support of each and every Liberian. At so critical a juncture in the history of this nation, I wish to appeal to all citizens to put aside their personal or political differences and to unite in support of the peace process now under way," Mr. Klein added. "The United Nations Mission in Liberia stands ready to work in partnership with all of you as we embark on the difficult, but rewarding path to permanent peace for Liberia, and ultimately, for the entire West African sub-region."
At UN Headquarters in New York, in a statement issued by his spokesman, Mr. Annan hailed "this very important development " and saluted the ECOWAS force for establishing the security climate that paved the way for the deployment of UNMIL.
Mr. Klein, too, paid tribute to ECOWAS. “We have been able to achieve a new beginning for Liberia, thanks first and foremost to the untiring diplomatic efforts” of ECOWAS and the urgent dispatch of its multinational force to stabilize the situation at a time of crisis, he said. A Bangladeshi battalion is expected to join UNMIL soon.
The UN Security Council unanimously approved UNMIL less than two weeks ago for an initial 12-month period with 15,000 military personnel and over 1,000 civilian police officers. At the time, Mr. Klein said a force of this strength was vital to bring the country back from "hellish limbo" and end the cycle of brutality and violence. "Give us the mandate and the tools and I assure you we will do what is just and what is right," he told the 15-member body.
UNMIL's mandate includes monitoring the ceasefire, assisting the disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, and repatriation of all armed parties, including child soldiers, providing security at key government installations, in particular ports, airports, and other vital infrastructure, and protecting UN staff, facilities and civilians.
The Mission will also help in the voluntary return of hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons, assist in humanitarian and human rights and support security reform, including the restructuring of the police force and helping the transitional government in the formation of a new and restructured military.
Other tasks include helping the transitional government develop a strategy to consolidate governmental institutions, including a national legal framework and judicial and correctional institutions, and restoring proper administration of natural resources - all with a view to holding free and fair elections by October 2005.