Sierra Leone, often cited as a success story in United Nations efforts to consolidate peace in countries that have been ravaged by conflict, faces good opportunities but also major risks from upcoming elections and newly found mineral wealth, a senior UN official said today.
These factors coupled with the situation in neighbouring Guinea “are indeed a source of hope for Sierra Leone [but] they bear also considerable risks for its future that, if not managed carefully, could impact adversely the progress that Sierra Leone has achieved over the last years,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Executive Representative Michael von der Schulenburg told the Security Council at the start of day-long UN deliberations on the small West African country.
He called for increased UN financial resources for development in Sierra Leone, a key factor in the peacebuilding strategy, warning of a “worrying trend” of decline that “will no doubt jeopardize the UN’s work and credibility.”
Citing largely unexploited gold resources, diamonds and rutile, a precursor of titanium, recent contracts for large iron ore exploitation and the potential for off-shore oil and gas, he said Sierra Leone “may be at the verge of turning from a major recipient of foreign to becoming a major exporter of primary mineral and hydrocarbon products.”
But he warned that experience in other parts of the world showed that countries depending on the export of raw materials often suffered social dislocations, huge income disparities and rampant corruption and environmental degradation.
“Therefore it is incumbent for all concerned, in particular for the Government of Sierra Leone, to make all the necessary efforts to ensure that its new emphasis on extractive industries is put on the right track from the very beginning,” he said, calling for due attention to contract transparency, compliance with the laws, and the potential for corruption.
Turning to nationwide elections scheduled for 2012, Mr. von der Schulenburg noted that the parties were already accusing each other of shady intentions, warned of the potential of ethnic and regional divisions and stressed the “critical” need for the electoral bodies be accepted as “being professional, credible and, even more importantly as being impartial” by all sides, calling for all such outstanding issues to be address well in advance of the vote.
“In this context I would like to urge the National Electoral Commission to do more to alleviate fears within the main opposition following the re-appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner,” he said. “At the same time, I call on the main opposition party to show greater flexibility in discussing their electoral concerns without getting entangles in personal conflicts.”
Finally, he turned to neighbouring Guinea, where a democratic transition is in progress. Should this go well, it will make the region more stable, but if it is stalled or reversed it could have serious negative consequences for Sierra Leone, given the ethnic, cultural and geographic links between the two countries, he warned.
Sierra Leone, once known more for a vicious civil war in which massacres, the mutilation of victims and recruitment of child soldiers were commonplace, was the first country, together with Burundi, to be put on the agenda of the UN Peacebuilding Commission when it was set up in 2006 to prevent post-conflict countries from relapsing back into bloodshed, and today it was the focus of a session by the body.
The Security Council was considering Mr. Ban’s latest report in which he said that despite progress in consolidating peace and fostering national reconciliation, Sierra Leone must address high youth unemployment and corruption to ensure that the gains are not reversed.
Sierra Leonean Foreign Minister Zainab Bangura told the Council that as regards elections the Finance Minister had already started “mobilizing support and the necessary resources to set the stage for a credible, free, fair and fully participatory process and we count on the United Nations and international community to respond promptly to his call to action.”
She also pledged openness and transparency in exploiting the mineral resources and noted that after its dark past Sierra Leone is now ranked by the Global Peace Index as the 53rd most peaceful country out of 149, with Iraq at the bottom and the United States ranked at 85. The index is collated by the Institute for Economics and Peace, an Australian-based non-governmental organization (NGO), and considers a list of 23 internal and external peace indicators.
Canadian Ambassador John McNee, chairman of the Sierra Leone section of the Peacebuilding Commission, cited the successes achieved so far as well as the challenges that lie ahead, 10 years after the end of the civil war.
“Sierra Leone remains a multilateral success story for peacebuilding but is at a critical juncture,” he said. “A final investment in peace is necessary to secure the gains that have been made since the end of the civil war.
“The Peacebuilding Commission stands ready to continue assisting Sierra Leone’s efforts to mitigate the major risks to peace, to support preparations for conducting free, fair and peaceful elections in 2012, and to assist in building a durable, comprehensive peace to the benefit of all Sierra Leoneans.”