Few people outside of Liberia remember the town of Gbarnga today. It was the base of the rebellion in the 1990s led by Charles Taylor, whom the International Criminal Court convicted last May of aiding and abetting war crimes. In stark contrast to its turbulent past, Gbarnga today symbolises Liberia’s recovery from the ravages of war and of international support for the country’s efforts.
Liberia’s peacebuilding process reached a major milestone this week, when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the country’s president and a Nobel Laureate for Peace, inaugurated in Gbarnga the first of five regional justice and security hubs. Each hub is designed to increase citizens' access to justice and security by co-locating police, courts, and immigration departments – creating, in effect, a "one stop shop" for their services. The hubs will also enhance the government's efforts to extend the provision of these services from the capital to outlying, and previously neglected areas of the country.
The hubs are vitally important components of the government’s peacebuilding and development strategy. Citizens' access to justice and security lies at the heart of the rule of law and is essential to political stability. Decentralisation of public services is key to extending state authority and ensuring that citizens have a stake in the governance of their country. Progress in these areas will strengthen the foundations for economic growth, building confidence within the private sector and in turn creating jobs.
Achieving these goals will not be possible without continued international financial support. Official development assistance to Liberia totalled $765-million in 2011, and accounted for approximately 50% of the country's GDP that year. Most of that assistance was allocated to economic and social infrastructure, humanitarian assistance and productive sectors. Comparatively little support was provided to reforming the security sector and building the rule of law, especially police and prisons. Indeed, most donors preclude the use of their development assistance for security sector reforms.
Those donors and international organisations that can support post-conflict countries in re-building their security and rule of law institutions therefore fill a critical gap. The United Nations has been one such partner of Liberia. Its peacekeeping operation in Liberia, present since 2003 and now gradually drawing down, was mandated in part to build the capacity of Liberia’s national police and to assist the government in reforming and restructuring the justice sector.
The Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), a United Nations intergovernmental body, is helping Liberia to consolidate the progress that it has made in transitioning from war to peace. Three years ago, the government of Liberia asked to be placed on the agenda of the PBC, with the request that the commission supports the country’s efforts in three areas: security sector reforms, rule of law and national reconciliation.
The justice and security hubs were conceived in initial meetings between the government, the PBC, and the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund. This vision was endorsed and encouraged by the Peacebuilding Fund, which recognised the groundbreaking value of the project and committed to partner with the government of Liberia to fund the first regional hub and seek co-funding for the four remaining hubs. Unlike the case with many other externally financed aid projects in developing countries, Liberia provided a seven hectare tract of land for the project and has included the recurrent costs of the first hub in its national budget. This reflects the commitment of the government to the hubs and helps guarantee their sustainability over the long term.
At a time when all of its neighbours are simultaneously struggling with the myriad challenges of post-conflict reconstruction, Liberia’s transformation is a reassuring one. The country has successfully held two rounds of elections since the 2003 peace agreement, demonstrating its commitment to change leaders by the ballot box rather than by the bullet. But as in other post-conflict countries, Liberia’s institutions are still fragile and the risk of relapse into violence remains present. If peace is to endure in Liberia, international support must be directed not only to traditional development sectors but also to ensuring access to justice and security services, strengthening the rule of law and promoting national reconciliation.