What's In Blue

Posted Mon 8 Sep 2014

Briefing on Ebola Crisis in Liberia and UN Mission Mandate

Tomorrow (9 September), Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) Karin Landgren and Ambassador Mårten Grunditz (Sweden), chair of the Liberia Configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) are expected to brief the Security Council. The briefing will be followed by consultations. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa and its implications for Liberia’s stability are likely to be the main topics of the briefing and consultations, with a particular focus on UNMIL’s upcoming mandate renewal scheduled for 15 September. (UNMIL’s mandate expires on 30 September.)

The Secretary-General’s report on UNMIL of 15 August (S/2014/598) made recommendations for the peacekeeping operation’s mandate renewal but did not fully take into account the Ebola outbreak’s impact on the mission. The report recommended maintaining the drawdown schedule for UNMIL (removing 988 more troops by mid-2015), while adding an electoral assistance component and a good offices role for the Special Representative (the elections previously scheduled for October have since been postponed indefinitely).

Just weeks after the report was published, in a letter dated 28 August (S/2014/644), the Secretary-General instead recommended adopting a technical rollover for three months and for the Council to defer revisions of UNMIL’s mandate until 30 December. The letter stressed that that the presence and continued UNMIL operation in Liberia remained critical. It stated that the mission “has not and will not, enforce the Government-imposed isolation of affected areas”, but added that “UNMIL will continue to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance, including by providing the necessary security conditions”. It furthermore said that “UNMIL must also closely monitor the political and human rights situation during the present crisis in order to mitigate any exactions or abuses that could trigger a reversal of more than a decade of peace in Liberia”. The Council took note of this in a letter dated 2 September (S/2014/645).

The Ebola outbreak has quickly gotten progressively worse. According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 31 August there were 1,698 cases and 871 deaths in Liberia and a total of 3,685 cases and 1,841 deaths in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea (confirmed, probable and suspected) and 14 of Liberia’s 15 counties have reported confirmed cases. On 28 August, WHO released a $490 million, 6-month strategy to combat the outbreak, Ebola Response Roadmap. The document assumes that the actual number of cases could be as high as three to four times current estimates and that the magnitude of the crisis could reach more than 20,000 cases before it is brought under control (which would yield at least 10,000 deaths at current mortality rates).

On 4 September, the troop-contributing-countries (TCCs) for UNMIL held a meeting chaired by Ambassador Samantha Power (US). Landgren briefed via video teleconference and Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous was also present at the podium. The principal topic of the meeting was the measures being taken to protect the health of UNMIL peacekeepers, primarily through limiting their potential exposure to affected populations. Landgren also discussed the activities of UNMIL, including backing up the national security institutions, providing logistical support and assisting the government with planning processes at the Ministry of Health. She also clarified that UNMIL was not enforcing quarantines imposed by the government.

Council members are likely to be interested in hearing more about the concerns of TCCs and whether there are signs that some might want to pull out of UNMIL. Additionally, Council members may wish to discuss how the health safeguards being implemented by UNMIL are affecting the peacekeeping operation’s ability to fulfil its mandate to help maintain stability in Liberia. In this context, members may be concerned about restrictions on the mobility of peacekeepers interfering with their tasks. Some Council members may likely also be interested in the overall role the mission can play containing the epidemic.

The UN and the AU have begun to focus on the regional and sub-regional dimensions of the Ebola outbreak. The Peacebuilding Commission country-configurations for Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone held a joint meeting on 18 August to discuss the implications of the Ebola outbreak for peacebuilding efforts. The following day, in a communiqué, the AU Peace and Security Council authorised “the immediate deployment of an AU-led Military and Civilian Humanitarian Mission, comprising medical doctors, nurses and other medical and paramedical personnel, as well as military personnel”. However, it remains unclear if the AU member countries currently have the necessary human and financial resources for implementing the communiqué on a timely basis. There is a growing interest in having greater involvement from the international community in fighting this health crisis. The US has said that its military will provide equipment and resources to battle the Ebola epidemic and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) has called for countries with biological-disaster response capacity, including civilian and military medical capability, to dispatch assets and personnel to West Africa.

Prior to the Ebola outbreak there were differing views over how quickly to drawdown UNMIL. It remains unclear how the current health crisis will affect the positions of some Council members who had advocated a more gradual drawdown and others – including the Department of Peacekeeping Operations – who had favoured a more rapid drawdown. Overall, it seems probable that the Council will follow the Secretary-General’s latest recommendation for a three-month technical rollover when it adopts a resolution renewing UNMIL’s mandate. The Council likely needs time to further consider the implications of the Ebola outbreak for UNMIL’s operations before revising its mandate, altering its force structure or extending its authorisation for a longer period.

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