Supporting Justice and the Rule of Law in Liberia

April 11, 2012
UN Peacekeeping Policewomen from India Arrive in Liberia

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.



New Mexico, USA
April 12, 2012

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ Dep. Sec. Victoria Holt and Annie P. , Direct. of UN Peace Keeping,

I hope the blue helmets, and blue berets have all the gear they need to be effective (including helicopters and airlift logistical support), and I understand why their headgear is blue being universally recognizable as worn by UN personel in conflict zones.

But can you tell me why they are wearing blue camo uniforms? I mean blue I can understand, but a camo pattern in blue seems a paradoxical curiosity, as they arn't trying to hide themselves first of all, and secondly it would be quite impossible to do so wearing camo patterned blue on blue anyway...unless possibly under water...(chuckle).

It's probably not all that important a question, but it's one of those observable little details I wonder about along with the larger issues concerning the UN's overall footprint on the world stage, and its practical effectiveness in some cases.

Would either of you be able to tell me who came up with this particular dress code? And what puropse blue camo uniforms might serve in any real world practical application?

This curious mind would love to know.

Keep up the good work,


April 12, 2012

Ronda writes:

Difficult and dangerous is the work of the police, especially in risk zones as Liberia. As we see the responsibilities are huge, but are happy to have such people who are ready to risk their lives in the name of the peace.

United Kingdom
April 12, 2012

Jenny in the United Kingdom writes:

I did not know these details about Liberia, this was interesting and made me think of the way politicians have structured army there.

John P.
April 12, 2012

John P. in Greece writes:

@ Eric in New Mexico

QUOTE: including helicopters and airlift logistical support…END OF QUOTE.

If I got it, I think you say something important once again…

Do you mean that they cannot have the software without having the right hardware?

New Mexico, USA
April 13, 2012

Eric in New Mexico writes:

I mean simply that if you are going to be putting boots on the ground in peacekeeping opps that they should have rapid reaction capability, recon, offensive search and destroy capability w/ political mandate, when populations are being targeted by terrorists or state sponsors of such terrorism. And as far as hardware , if they wear blue camo body armor as well, so be it.

Although the their "software" uniforms - camo blue- does seem a little paradoxical...(chuckle).




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