Interview with Ellen Margrethe Løj, Former SRSG for Liberia and Head of UNMIL

In this interview, Ellen Margrethe Løj discusses her experiences as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Liberia and Head of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

Ambassador Løj faced a sudden crisis as SRSG in 2011 as the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire sent fleeing refugees and former mercenaries over the border into Liberia during a crucial election time. “We were on our toes and tried to monitor as best as we could to avoid any disturbances,” she says.

Ambassador Løj also discusses the challenges that remain in a fragile country still recovering from a protracted civil war, such as border security and the further development of security forces, as UNMIL prepares to be reconfigured.

During her tenure as Denmark’s UN ambassador, Ms. Løj played a key role in the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) in 2005-06. “In those days, we were not saying we should only take place in New York,” she says. “The driving force for the PBC is and should be what’s happening on the ground, and the national priorities on the ground.”

“I think I cannot underline strongly enough the importance of peacekeeping and peacebuilding going hand in hand,” she says. “They are two sides of the same coin. 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.”

The interview was conducted by Arthur Boutellis and Vanessa Wyeth of the International Peace Institute on March 13, 2012.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Arthur Boutellis (AB): I would like to start the interview by asking what do you see as the main achievements of the UN Mission in Liberia, first mandated in 2003. The question is about over the last nine years, but maybe more specifically since you took office, took leadership of the position in October 2007.

Ambassador Ellen Løj (EL): In short, I would say the main achievement of the mission in Liberia through nine years have been that we have been able to keep the peace in Liberia. In the beginning of the mission, we were actively involved in disarmament and collecting the weapons that had been used and were still on the ground, enforcing the peace. But as time went by, our role has been to keep the peace, to be vigilant for threats to the peace, to act when incidents occur that could threaten the peace, and then I think our mere presence has been a deterrent for any who wanted to destroy the peace. While keeping the peace we have also been actively involved with the Liberian government and all the national actors in building the peace, especially in building the national security agencies, and United States in the peace agreement took the responsibility to train the new armed forces of Liberia, while the peacekeeping mission focused on building the Liberian police. Training the police officers, showing them how to do police work, and showing them and teaching them how to build a viable police force that could protect the citizens from atrocities.

I think I cannot underline strongly enough the importance of peacekeeping and peacebuilding going hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin. 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.

AB: Last year, in 2011, the Cote d’Ivoire post-election crisis put additional pressure on UNMIL at a time when Liberia itself was preparing for national elections. How were you able to deal with it? What were your biggest concerns in the run-up to the Liberian elections, and how well do you think the UN performed?

EL: The Cote d’Ivoire put two challenges on Liberia and thereby the United Nations in Liberia. The first one being to deal with and care for the many refugees that sought refuge in Liberia. That of course was a role primarily with UNHCR and other agencies in the lead. But the mission tried to support them in getting the camps established quickly and getting the supplies out in the country that was needed for the refugees.

On the security side we had another challenge, namely that many former combatants, be it Liberians or Ivoirians, crossed the border, and they had to be monitored closely as to what their intentions were. Unfortunately, they also brought weapons with them, or hid their weapons around the border. And the border between Ivory Coast and Liberia is very remote, very dense rain forest, so very difficult to monitor and patrol. So, we had a very intense collaboration with the Liberian security agencies, be it the police or the immigration, to try and monitor, and try and find out from the villages and local chiefs and so on what they have heard and what was going on, in order to be able to act before the peace in Liberia was threatened, or before the peace in Cote d’Ivoire was threatened by some of these ex-combatants.

We have also of course monitored closely whether they had any intention in meddling in the Liberian elections. Luckily, they did not do so, but we were on our toes and tried to monitor as best as we could to avoid any disturbances.

As for the elections themselves, we had three elements in the mandate from the Security Council. One was to coordinate international assistance; the second was to provide logistical support to the Liberian election authorities; and the third to use our good offices in creating an atmosphere for free, fair, and conflict-free elections. I think we performed fairly well on all of them, but I am not the one to be the judge on the mission. As for performance during that phase, I am sure that some auditors will look closer into it.

AB: So you finished your term as SRSG last month. ASG Edmont Mulet has led a technical assessment mission recently, and the UN mission is preparing to reconfigure its presence in Liberia with a possible drawdown. What do you think are the main challenges that lie ahead in transferring responsibility for internal security to national Liberian authorities? What is your assessment of their capacities?

EL: The main challenge is definitely to continue our effort to build the national security agencies. Because it is very clear they are not able to function and perform those tasks on their own today. Progress has been made, but we have not reached the goal yet. While the mission is being reconfigured, it is very important that in doing so account is taken for the mission to also be able to react quickly to disturbances around the country if it might occur. At the same time, to continue, especially working with building the police force and maybe the immigration force along the borders to equip them and make them better capable of performing on their own.

I also believe that it will be crucial that the borders of Liberia are monitored closely, first and foremost the border with Ivory Coast but also the border with Guinea.

Vanessa Wyeth (VW): Ambassador, I would like to turn our focus to peacebuilding. As Denmark’s Ambassador to the UN, you played a key role in the birth of the UN Peacebuilding Commission in 2005-06. As SRSG, you have experienced the PBC’s work firsthand when Liberia came onto its agenda in September 2010. What is your assessment of the PBC’s role in supporting peacebuilding in Liberia? What do you see as the PBC’s strengths and weaknesses, and what advice do you have for the PBC going forward in Liberia?

EL: Let me first say that in hindsight, it might have been better both for Liberia and the PBC if Liberia had been on the agenda of the PBC back when PBC was established, because that was the time when Liberian authorities in cooperation with international partners started to do the planning of the priorities for the future, planning of their development activities. I think if PBC had been in at that time, I think it would have been much better. For various reasons that was not the case, so we waited, it was not until 2011 that PBC took Liberia on its agenda.

I think it’s still important, but I think it’s important for PBC to realize that a lot of planning and priority-setting has taken place in Liberia in the years since the war, and it is important that they abide by those priorities and they work within that national framework and continue to develop. I have said in other fora and I have nothing against repeating it, you have to be very careful not to make PBC a too New York-focused exercise. The driving force for the PBC is and should be what’s happening on the ground and the national priorities on the ground. And it was actually the intention when the PBC was set up. In those days we were not saying we should only take place in New York and only be discussed in New York, and it’s especially important when you come to defining priorities, because priorities for peacebuilding cannot be set in Meeting Room 2 without a very, very close knowledge of what is happening on the ground, what activities is already underway, and how to adjust it.

Secondly, I feel a little bit that PBC has forgotten that they were not supposed to be a development actor and cover the whole agenda. They were supposed exactly to focus on crucial peacebuilding activities right after a conflict, and I think the definition that does not exist of peacebuilding ever so often is being used as encompassing everything which I do not think so, that was not the intention. Peacebuilding is those crucial activities that are necessary to bring long-term development forward. And I think that focus is needed and country focus is needed, and I think we need closer involvement, both on the UN side but certainly also of the member states side, closer involvement of the actors on the ground. I think the link, and I have been one myself, between the UN diplomats and their colleagues on the ground, either UN or member states, needs to be much tighter for the PBC to succeed, in a country like Liberia but in any country on the PBC agenda.

VW: As a leader within the g7+ group of fragile states, Liberia played an important role in shaping the “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States” that was endorsed at Busan last December. Liberia has put itself forward as one of the pilot countries for implementation of the New Deal. What, in your opinion, would need to change on the ground to put some of these commitments into practice in Liberia? Do you think the government, donors, and the UN are prepared to make these changes?

EL: Well, my answer would probably be something like that remains to be seen. I have been in this work for many years and we have had many declarations, the Paris Declaration, the Accra Declaration, and so on, on aid effectiveness, and well, we can always discuss the success rate in terms of implementation. I think the Busan Declaration, the New Deal, has a lot of very relevant and pertinent elements but it is very important that both the bilateral and multilateral donors as well as fragile states go home and stick to those priorities. Ever so often in the field, I see partners wanting to go on their own, and I still hope and still urge everybody to work together to ensure sustainability, because it is really, not only in the fragile states’ interests, that is without doubt. It is very complicated for them, the lack of capacity to deal with so many international partners who have their own rules and regulations and priorities and whatever to be implementing. It is a lot of over-utilization of an already scarce capacity that should be used to focus on the challenges in the country. But I cannot understand that partners do not understand that only that way will ensure sustainability of their interventions.

So, my answer is Busan is to be welcomed, it is definitely a step in the right direction but the implementation by all actors is the crucial challenge, and that we do not know yet, but we will have to monitor very closely.

VW: Ambassador, thank you very much for speaking with the Global Observatory today.

EL: You are very welcome.

About the photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe