Citing Ebola Outbreak’s Profound Toll on Liberia, SRSG Tells Security Council Plague Must be Stopped

10 Sep 2014

Citing Ebola Outbreak’s Profound Toll on Liberia, SRSG Tells Security Council Plague Must be Stopped

The severity of the Ebola outbreak presented Liberia with its gravest threat since the civil war, and the United Nations Mission there had to reorient its activities and its planning to help stem it, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative told the Security Council this morning.

“The speed and scale of the loss of lives and the economic, social, political and security reverberations of the crisis are affecting Liberia profoundly,” said Karin Landgren, who is also the head of United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).  Not only had there been a reported 1,200 deaths in the country from the epidemic, but also extreme testing of the Government’s still-weak institutions, anger and alarm among the public and setbacks in the political process, she stated.


“UNMIL has pledged to provide its full support and continues to review the range of capabilities we can bring to ending this latter-day plague which must be stopped in its tracks,” she said in her briefing.  The meeting on UNMIL, convening just prior to its mandate’s expiration on 30 September, also heard from Mårten Grunditz of Sweden, Chair of the Liberia Configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission and Brownie Samukai, Minister for National Defense of Liberia.


The Secretary-General’s latest report on UNMIL (document S/2014/598), published on 15 August, recommended maintaining the drawdown schedule for the Mission and adding electoral assistance capacity for elections expected in October, which have since been postponed indefinitely.


Taking account of the worsening Ebola crisis, however, in a letter dated 28 August (document S/2014/644), the Secretary-General recommended a technical rollover of the Mission for three months, deferring revision of the mandate until 30 December to monitor the human rights situation and better facilitate humanitarian assistance during the crisis by helping maintain the necessary security conditions.


In her briefing today, Ms. Landgren said that UNMIL had turned its full focus on Ebola since late July and was working in four areas:  security and rule of law, logistics, communications and outreach and coordination at the central and country level.  UNMIL military and police continued to provide operational advice and support to national counterparts by embedding liaison officers within the Liberian security command centre, and it was helping the justice sector to address overcrowding in that country’s prisons, which was an additional concern within the Ebola context.


She noted that the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with the support of the national legislature, had declared a 90-day state of emergency on 6 August, including the isolation of Ebola-affected communities, suspending some rights and instituting a curfew.

The Mission, she said was not directly enforcing the quarantines, but was monitoring all the security operations under the state of emergency.  Problems that had arisen included lapses in pre-arranging food and water for isolated areas as well as insufficient engagement with the communities concerned.


In that vein, Ms. Landgren reported that, when the Government mounted an operation to isolate the West Point area of the capital, Monrovia, prices of essential goods skyrocketed, and in the ensuing protests, a 15-year old boy was fatally wounded by troops.  Following that incident, President Sirleaf made a commitment that there would be no further use of lethal force to maintain the quarantines.  In general, maintenance of checkpoints had been uneven, despite visible coordination among security agencies.


The halting of cross-border trade, restrictions on domestic movement, fear and uncertainty had added to Liberia’s economic problems, with greater national budget gaps expected along with growth projections revised downward to 2.9 per cent from 5.9 per cent, and consequent revisions in national planning.


On the political front, she said that the Ebola crisis had “started to strip away some progress” and revealed institutional weaknesses.  In addition to the postponement of the senatorial elections, the constitutional reform process had also been delayed.  The Government was, by its own admission, “extremely stretched”, with several officials remaining abroad despite contrary warning by the President’s office.  Some Liberians, including some in the diaspora, had reportedly called for an organized transition from the present Government.


On the security sector, she said that, although transition from UNMIL to national actors could have been stalled by the health crisis, so far it had taken place according to agreed timelines.  Since the completion of Phase 2 of the UNMIL military drawdown in June, the Mission no longer had a fixed troop presence in seven of Liberia’s 15 counties and four of those had no presence of UNMIL armed security response capacity.


Despite the Ebola outbreak having halted the joint border operations of UNMIL with the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) and Ivorian authorities, border areas within Liberia had been peaceful this year and the situation in refugee camps remained calm.


In his briefing on the peacebuilding perspective, Mr. Grunditz, calling the Ebola epidemic “unprecedented”, said that well-coordinated support from the international community and regional cooperation was critical to ensure that gains in development and stability be maintained and that Liberia continue “on the path towards long-term peace and prosperity”.


“Our immediate focus should be on supporting Liberia in combating this deadly virus and coping with the humanitarian needs it has created,” he stressed.  Nevertheless, short-term interventions should not be short-sighted.  Efforts must be linked to long-term objectives through a comprehensive approach that addressed the “broad array” of challenges.


Government efforts ensuring rule of law, protection of civilians, public communication and other confidence-building measures should be encouraged and supported, he said.  Further, the capability and mobility gaps of the Liberia national police needed to be addressed.  Continued strong international presence on the ground, including by UNMIL, was important in those efforts. 


When opportunities arose and resources were available, peacebuilding efforts should continue, he said.  Some adjustments might be needed to the peacebuilding programme, but national reconciliation and the strengthening of national institutions, including police, justice and security sectors, should remain key priorities.


The decentralization of services and land reform, and the accountable and transparent management of natural resources were also fundamental to long-term peace and stability, he said.  However, because of the negative impact of the crisis on the Liberian economy, joint efforts were needed to stimulate future growth and development.  Liberia’s admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) would be important in that regard.


While the Government would also need to provide national resources for longer-term peacebuilding priorities, continued support by international partners would be “even more essential” in recovering from the current crisis, he said.  To that end, the Government’s continuing efforts on a “New Deal” compact could promote streamlined and simplified donor frameworks.


Speaking last, Minister Samukai said the disease’s fast spread from Liberia’s remote villages to its urban centres had overwhelmed the country’s already weak health infrastructure, wrecking havoc in many communities.  At present, nine of the 15 counties in Liberia were impacted.


Health and medical personnel on the frontlines of the crisis had been “highly affected”, he said, with several losing their lives.  In addition to the state of emergency and quarantines, the President had established a National Task Force on Ebola and an Incident Management Team.  A one-month compulsory leave for non-essential Government employees had been extended to limit human contact.


In addition, the Government had launched an awareness campaign, supported by UNMIL, the Liberian media, civil society, the business community and other bilateral and international partners, he said.  The national strategy had originally been allotted $5 million by the Government, with a focus on personal protection and safety for health-care workers, providing better medical assistance for Ebola cases, and providing general health care for the populations.


Despite those efforts, denial, traditional practices, religious rituals, fear and community resistance presented obstacles to combating the virus’ spread, he said.  Although the Government was using all available means to overcome those obstacles, the crisis had exceeded the Government’s response capacity.


“To be candid, the response by the international community to the appeal of our Government and partners, in particular [the World Health Organization] and Médecins Sans Frontières was initially less than robust,” he said.  The Secretary-General’s initiative to focus global attention on the virus, including the appointment of a Special Coordinator for Ebola, David Nabarro, was encouraging.


The dispatch of a technical team and additional funding by the African Union was also of great help.  More so was the African Union’s call to its member States to lift all travel bans imposed on countries affected by the outbreak.  “We ask Council members to all use their good offices to support this call,” he said.


Affirming that the Liberian economy had been hard hit, he added that only two international airlines, SN Brussels and Air Maroc were flying to and from the country, adding to the constraints of humanitarian delivery.


To date, no reports of infection among UNMIL staff, national and international, had been reported, he said, while he acknowledged that the stakes were high, with troop- and police-contributing countries concerned for the health and safety of their citizens.  Expressing appreciation to those countries, he appealed for their solidarity by allowing their forces to continue their assignment in Liberia.


The technical rollover of the Mission’s mandate for the next three months was supported by his Government, he said, calling for continued flexibility on the Council’s part as Liberia faced such difficult circumstances.  He voiced hope that ensuing deliberations would take into account that it was imperative to protect the investment and gains Liberia had made over the years for peace and stability.


The meeting began at 10:09 a.m. and ended at 10:42 a.m.