UNITED NATIONS – Liberia's future as a stable democracy hinges on successful presidential and legislative elections in October and broad acceptance that they are free and fair followed by a smooth transfer of power, the U.N. envoy to the West African nation said Tuesday.
Farid Zarif told the Security Council that "no major threats are envisaged beyond possible isolated and sporadic incidents" during the election period and transition of government in January.
But he said "it will be crucial that Liberia's law enforcement agencies are adequately prepared to respond to potential low-level civil unrest and mob violence during this delicate period."
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office in 2006 after winning the country's first election following more than a decade of civil war and was re-elected in 2011, when she was also named a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Sirleaf will be leaving office and Zarif said there are many candidates vying to succeed her.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission known as UNMIL, which was established in 2003 to support implementation of a cease-fire agreement and once had a ceiling of 15,000 peacekeepers, is preparing to wrap up its operations next year. Zarif said it now has 260 police and 230 troops, a significant decrease from the two previous elections when it fielded a country-wide presence.
The U.N. envoy said all political party leaders have committed "to a violence-free electoral process and transfer of power" in a declaration that was formalized during a summit of heads of states from the West African regional group ECOWAS on June 4.
But he cautioned that despite post-war gains, "Liberia continues to face considerable challenges, which weigh heavily on efforts to sustain peace and advance national reconciliation."
"Critical legislative reforms, widely accepted as minimum requirements to address the underlying causes of conflict, most notably the Land Rights Bill and the Local Governance Bill are yet to be enacted," Zarif said. "The decisive steps needed to help bring more security to the lives of women have yet to be taken."
He also urged the Independent National Commission on Human Rights to intensify its efforts to address violations, noting that in a two-week period in late May and early June the U.N. peacekeeping mission counted seven reports to Liberian law enforcement of the individual or gang rape of minors, including girls and boys.
Sweden's U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog, who chairs the U.N. peacebuilding effort in Liberia, said the elections — where 22 political parties are fielding candidates — will see "the first democratic transfer of power in the modern history of the country."
But he said the country is at "a critical juncture" where "indicators of fragility continue to exist."
He pointed to insufficient progress on reconciliation and legislation to address the root causes of conflict, a weak economy and the upcoming election "where the stakes are high."
Skoog, who visited Liberia on June 14-15, said the international community must ensure that the investment over nearly 14 years in peacekeeping is built on to consolidate peace, especially through support for a new peacebuilding plan that will need resources.
Liberia's U.N. Ambassador Lewis Garseedah Brown II told the council that Liberia seems to be getting better with every attempt at institutionalizing democratic change, though many Liberians wish the upcoming election "was about a choice of the best ideas" in building a peaceful future and "flavored by the quality of the political discourse" instead of the quantity of political parties.