About the Authors: Victoria Holt serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, and Annie Pforzheimer serves as Director for UN Peacekeeping in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs.
In countries recovering from war, it is normal to see UN blue helmeted military units -- they're big, obvious, and a reassuring presence.
But in Liberia, where President Johnson-Sirleaf was re-elected to a second term, that reassuring presence should be the uniform of a Liberian police officer -- with a blue helmet backing them up.
A long-term peace, I was reminded during my visit to Liberia in mid-March, doesn't come from soldiers, but rather from a functioning criminal justice system. The Liberian National Police are central to the future of the country's security when the peacekeepers leave. That said, there are obstacles that stand between the security that Liberians need and where it is today. The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has to help address this.
Top UN officials -- civilian, police, and military -- told us of the challenges in supporting the rule of law, from the basic traffic cop to ambitious courts to handling sexual violence. It is a work in progress. A foremost police concern is what is known as the "lost generation" -- those who could not go to school during the two-decade-long civil war. "We should start police training in nursery school," one Western government official told me, because so many people are illiterate.
The police seem to need more of just about everything: recruitment, training, equipment, and education. A wartime culture of impunity and a habit of not obeying rules can extend to those in uniform, so officers must be thoroughly vetted to force out corrupt officers. UNMIL helps them with all of this, as do other donors -- especially the United States.
Furthermore, police must plug into a functioning justice system, which does not yet exist. If those they arrest go free because the courts are unequipped to process them, and the alleged criminal is back on the streets, the police are blamed -- unfairly. Judges and prosecutors are often untrained, understaffed, and in some cases don't show up at all. "The judiciary is the rotten part," a local journalist told me, "clerks, judges all expect a payoff, and they are untouchable."
In other cases, many of those who are arrested and don't go free actually should -- the vast majority of those in Liberian jails have never had a trial. Again, UNMIL is trying to lend expertise.
At the top of the judicial pyramid is Minister of Justice Christiana Tah, a former professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Montgomery College, Maryland, who oversees the jails and prosecutors. Minister Tah does what she can with a small budget and big problems. "I have like 100 priorities," she told us. Chief among them is to make sure all the parts of the legal system talk to each other.
"I was away on a trip and the police chief called me, very proud, to say he'd arrested 130 delinquents. I asked him if he'd made sure there was a grand jury for indictments, prosecutors ready to take the case, and even room in the jail. He hadn't," she continued, "so everyone was released." Beyond these problems of coordination, there is the problem of crime in a post-conflict environment, including a terribly high rate of violence against women and children.
The United Nations has targeted Liberia for help bringing justice to the people. The UN's Peacebuilding Fund supports the building of regional hubs to bring police and judicial services out to the underserved countryside. For the all-female formed police unit from India, its about community work and setting an example. For the U.S. police advisors, it's mentoring and building a cadre of professional police. For the senior team in UNMIL, it's about working with the government to set priorities and build Liberian capacity. And for Liberians, justice and rule of law is needed to fully move on from its former state of war.
Editor's Note: This is the third in a three part series about the authors' recent travel to Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire, where they visited UN operations in both countries.