On March 30, peacekeepers from the United Nations lowered their flag in Liberia, ending a 15-year mission to stabilize the country after its vicious civil war. The end of the United Nations Mission in Liberia is one indication of the positive transitions happening in the West African nation and the real potential for a lasting peace.
The brutal history of Liberia’s power struggle is well-known to the world, and it has become a lesson on resilience. For decades, Liberians have been oppressed by brutal warlords and violent factions within the once-democratic government. Following the Cold War, the country became infamous for its child soldiers and wars that left 250,000 dead and millions of people displaced.
In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first female head of state when she was elected president of Liberia. She was one of three recipients to win the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to further women’s rights and ensure the safety of women.
This past December, the country elected George Weah, a native Liberian and former professional soccer player, as Sirleaf’s successor. The election marked Liberia’s first peaceful and truly democratic transfer of power since 1944 — another sign of its stability and hope for its future.
Keeping the peace
These powerful transitions were made possible by the presence of United Nations peacekeepers and the scores of U.N. agencies that helped stabilize and rebuild a failed state. We know this because we were both there in 2013 to see the work of the U.N. up close, during a time when the future of the United Nations Mission in Liberia was very much unclear. A month after our visit, the first Ebola death in West Africa was reported, sending Liberia and its neighboring countries into a three-year tailspin of devastating death tolls, crippling economies and uncertainty for the future.
Through it all, the United Nations stayed in Liberia, where its presence was perhaps needed more than ever. Working against the odds, the “blue helmets” disarmed more than 100,000 combatants, secured 21,000 weapons, and helped more than 26,000 refugees and displaced persons return home. Working with the United States, the U.N. trained and professionalized the Liberian National Police, which now stands at 5,000 strong. The work done by the U.S. and the U.N., in cooperation with local communities, has allowed Liberia to flourish into a country that can stand on its own and, hopefully with time, help other embattled nations follow its example.
In fact, the United Nations achieved similar success in neighboring countries — just a year earlier in the Ivory Coast and more than a decade before in Sierra Leone, further helping West Africa become a beacon of development and stability for the rest of the continent.
Why it matters
Some might argue that the stability of these small countries has little bearing on America, separated by an ocean and nearly 4,000 miles. But we know that a stable West Africa is paramount to our goals for national and global health security — preventing safe havens for terrorists and transnational criminals to thrive, and stopping diseases from reaching our shores.
It’s also in our economic interest to see stability in West African nations. Earlier this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report that found it was almost eight times cheaper for the U.S. to support a U.N. peacekeeping effort than doing it alone. Research by the well-respected Rand Corporation came to a similar conclusion. It said that U.N. peacekeeping operations were “an effective means of terminating conflicts, insuring against their reoccurrence, and promoting democracy” and “much more cost-effective than using U.S forces.”
Our military leaders have also expressed strong support for the benefits of burden-sharing with the United Nations. Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said U.N. peacekeepers “help promote stability and help reduce the risks that major U.S. military interventions may be required. … Therefore, the success of these operations is very much in our national interest.”
Liberia, a country founded by former American slaves in the 1800s and whose U.S.-inspired red, white and blue flag now flies alone, is ready to resume its walk with democracy and stability. As President Weah said in his New York Times op-ed last month, “enormous tasks” lie ahead “to build a stable and sustainable peace and ensure that [Liberia’s] dire socioeconomic situation does not undermine the hard-fought gains of the past 15 years.” Across the country, gross domestic product per capita, adjusted for purchasing power, was $754 in 2016. In the months and years ahead, Weah’s government will need to attract foreign investment, create jobs, and educate its people if the country is to move forward.
It won’t be easy, but hope and opportunity are the true beacons of freedom and the founding blocks for democracy to flourish. As Americans, we believe in the underdogs, and that humble gratitude, hard work and equality will unite us all in our mission for peace. As members of Congress, we are grateful to the United Nations peacekeepers for giving Liberia this opportunity and we wish them continued success as they strive for peace around the world.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger is a Republican representing Illinois’ 16th District. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Rep. David Cicilline is a Democrat representing Rhode Island’s 1st District. He also serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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