United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL): A Day in the Life of a UN Military Observer

Lt. William Abbott was driving along a highway southeast of Zwedru when he noticed a woman who had just given birth on the side of the road. She was almost 10km from the nearest clinic and desperately needed assistance. The peacekeeper did not think twice about helping her. For Abbott, a UN Military Observer based in Zwedru, it was all part of a day’s work.

“If you tell me there are problems, we’ll come here and fix them.” That’s what he told one local, and that’s the motto he works by.

Abbott, from the US Navy, is checking out this month after having completed a six-month mission in Zwedru. Read More

y Today, Assistant Secretary Brimmer will meet with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia in Washington

         In 2003, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1509, establishing the UN Mission in Liberia. More about #UNMIL: http://ow.ly/brQ8P

Supporting Justice and the Rule of Law 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.

U.S. Civilian Police Officer Plays Key Role in UN Peacekeeping Mission to Liberia


Annie Pforzheimer serves as Director for UN Peackeeping in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs.

Meet Jack Nielsen, former Police Chief of Albany New York. These days, as Deputy Police Commissioner for the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) he oversees over 1,300 police advisers and officers serving as peacekeepers, from over 40 countries. Jack is from Albany, New York, where he had a law enforcement career that spanned over 30 years. He had seen and done it all.

A specialist in both community policing and the administrative functions of a major police department, Jack is one of those great public servants who have taken their skills overseas. After retiring he offered his talent to UN missions and U.S. assistance projects in Haiti and in Liberia, where he has toiled since 2007.

Jack believes in the good work he is doing but there are frustrations as well. There are only about 4,000 police officers in Liberia, a nation with three and a half million people. Last year he asked for ten more positions to oversee police transition. He received six. Ten months later the first new person will finally arrive.

I actually hired Jack for this Liberia job, back when I directed the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotic and Law Enforcement’s civilian police program. So it was great to see him in action. He gives advice to the leader of the UN mission on how the Liberian police are really doing and how far away they are from managing missions completely on their own.

He traveled with us to the border town of Harper, where the UN police contingent looked a bit nervous to see their boss. He was briefed on the waves of minor crime which can threaten to spiral into larger conflicts.

For all peacekeepers, the challenge is real. I heard from a civilian staffer in UNMIL that one day, on his way to work, he was engulfed by a crowd that was beating a man to death for stealing. He was alone, and unarmed, but couldn’t drive past. He told me, “I would have thought about it every day from then.” So he stopped the car, faced the crowd, and pulled the bleeding man into his back seat. The man lived.

When incidents occur, Jack notes, the Liberian National Police have to be the first responders. The public must get used to dealing with them. But if they are overwhelmed, UN “formed” police units that deal with riot control, and then UN military forces, are available to keep things under control.

Jack is in his early 60’s, with a serious look while on duty and a creased white shirt with a police badge pinned to the front, a U.S. flag on his left sleeve and a UN flag on his right. The transition from a highly military peacekeeping mission to one that is more focused on policing is on his shoulders. Jack says that for now, the UN’s military presence, at least in certain parts of the country, is essential.

Editor’s Note: This entry is the first in a three part series. The author and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Tori Holt recently returned from travel to Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire. In the photograph above, Holt, center, speaks with Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Nielson on board an airplane in Liberia.

"We can start by asking what’s missing from most peace talks and the agreements they produce. One answer to that question is women. In the past 20 years, hundreds of peace treaties have been signed. But a sampling of those treaties shows that less than 8 percent of negotiators were women. Now, there is a clear moral argument – after all, women do represent half of humanity and they have, we have, a fundamental right to participate in the decisions that shape our lives. But the moral argument has so far failed to change behavior on the front lines, where it matters most. So we need to move the discussion off the margins and into the center of the global debate, and we frankly have to appeal to the self-interest of all people, men as well as women. Because including more women in peacemaking is not just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do. This is about our own national security and the security of people everywhere. Tonight I want briefly to examine the growing body of evidence that shows how women contribute to making and keeping peace – and that those contributions lead to better outcomes for entire societies."
- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Keynote Address at the International Crisis Group’s “In Pursuit of Peace” Award Dinner
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