Special Representative of the Secretary-General (2008-2012) | Keeping Liberia stable while building the peace Ellen Margrethe Løj, Under-Secretary-General,
The longest serving and third SRSG in Liberia, Ellen Margrethe Løj had previously been Denmark’s Permanent Representative to the UN, as well as Ambassador to Israel and the Czech Republic when she arrived in Liberia in early 2008.
She recalled her happiest day in Monrovia was 11 October 2011, when the first round of Liberia’s second presidential and legislative elections since the civil war went off without a hitch and with a high voter turnout. Tensions before the second round on 8 November cut the number of voters, but they opted for a second term for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Unlike the first post-war election in 2005, which was largely run by the UN, this time the Mission would be coordinating international assistance, using its “good offices” to support an atmosphere for free and fair elections, and providing logistical and technical support to the Liberians.
On another front, the country’s fragile stability was challenged when weeks earlier, neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire fell into political crisis, spilling 200,000 refugees into Liberia, just as it was preparing for the polls.
“We were on our toes and tried to monitor as best as we could to avoid any disturbances,” Ambassador Løj recalled the following year.
In addition to security worries she also had concerns of a more practical nature: voting forms had to get to polling stations around the country during the rainy season. Many were delivered by UN helicopter, or even by motorbike, canoe and human porters with ballot boxes balanced on their heads. She brought in international actors and observers and used the Mission and her voice of authority to keep tensions at bay when relations between the various Liberian parties grew sharp ahead of the vote.
In fact, keeping the peace over its first nine years was UNMIL’s greatest achievement, she said in an interview. UNMIL had not only disarmed more than 100,000 ex-combatants and helped to return hundreds of thousands of refugees and IDPs, but particularly, during her tenure, peacekeepers practiced a sort of active vigilance, monitoring, talking and acting when threats to the fragile peace arose. “Our mere presence (was) a deterrent for anyone who wanted to destroy the peace.”
At the same time, UNMIL had been actively involved with the Liberian Government and other national actors to “build the peace,” by, for example, revamping the Liberia National Police. (The US Government trained the new armed forces.)
Amb. Løj was a big advocate for the concurrent implementation of peacebuilding along with peacekeeping, and reconciliation:
“If we don’t urgently work on building the peace while we keep the peace, then we will not achieve our ultimate goal, namely sustainable peace and prosperity,” she said.
Amb. Løj left the mission in early 2012. She went on to become SRSG for South Sudan, heading the UN peacekeeping mission there from 2014 to 2016, during some of that country’s’ most chaotic times.
But from a distance, she has continued to follow developments in Liberia, and as the last personnel of UNMIL prepare to leave, Ambassador Løj said that “Liberia and a peaceful future for all Liberians are close to my heart.”