Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a Side Event on Improving the Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping Transitions

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
May 26, 2021


Thank you very, very much. And thanks so much to all of the co-hosts today – Ireland, Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, and Kenya – for helping us to convene such a productive and powerful discussion. I would also like to thank Under-Secretary-General Lacroix, for your recommendations, and for all the work that you’re doing to protect civilians.

The Biden-Harris administration is focused on ensuring peacekeeping missions effectively protect civilians, and we’re determined to help you in those efforts. And for that reason, I’d like to thank Director Lukaha for your insights into the situation in DRC. Your work – and the work of civil society across DRC – is vitally important for addressing protection threats and holding bad actors to account. And finally, thank you to Executive Director Landgren for your sharing your perspective, particularly on UNMIL, which I will talk a bit more about in a minute.

I thought I might close out the event by adding to what you shared about how international protection of civilian efforts worked successfully in Liberia, given my own experiences there as the ambassador leading up to the decision to shut down UNMIL. As everyone described today, transitions to sustainable peace is complicated, and they’re hard to get right. But it is possible, and I know it’s possible because we did it in Liberia, and I think Ambassador Kimami noted that, as well.

Interestingly, all that you have discussed today reaffirmed the experiences that I had in Liberia. After 15 years of a deadly civil war, and 15 years with a peacekeeping force, Liberia had free and fair election, and successfully handed over presidential power. And Liberians, today, even contribute its own peacekeepers to MINUSMA. And you might ask, how that was done. And what I’d like to share with you – having played a significant role in that – is that it started with very early, close, and constant coordination. The then-SRSG for Liberia, Ellen Margrethe Løj, and myself, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf started our planning early. We kept in close touch with each other. We coordinated almost on a daily basis. We knew, early on, that UNMIL’s leaving was going to be a challenge, and that it would threaten stability and safety. And it would really shake the confidence of the people of Liberia who saw UNMIL’s presence as, basically a security blanket for them. So, we developed a planned long before it was necessary to make that transition, and we ensured that there weren’t any gaps in the process. We made sure we never disagreed in public – even though we did have disagreements in private. But we wanted to project a unified front and a shared common message to the people in Liberia, as well as to the political entities. And we made our contact with the public a constant contact. We wanted to make sure that everyone stayed committed to the process. And that meant engaging frequently with civil society, with local stakeholders, with the UN country team, with international partners – both diplomatically and in the broader NGO community. And Director Lukaha, your statements about the importance of civil society being part of this process and monitoring the plan, really resonated with me.

Key to our planning was ensuring that the Government of Liberia was also prepared. UNMIL helped to build and reform Liberia’s security and justice sector. It helped to build the institutions that were necessary for the government to continue. We all worked together to professionalize the security services. The U.S. worked with the Liberian Armed Forces, and we worked together as the donor community to support the capacity-building of the Liberian National Police. Again, building confidence in the local security institutions and their services was important. They built capacity – UNMIL – in Liberia’s courts, trained judicial personnel to lead institutions that could effectively protect Liberians. And on top of all of those efforts, Liberian civil society – including religious leaders, women’s groups, journalists – worked to prevent and mitigate conflict on the local level. And we also worked with local officials, as well. They helped monitor the government’s implementation of the peacekeeping plan and observed elections to ensure they were fair and credible.

These best practices – ensuring a strong focus on protecting civilians, communicating early and often, coordinating with government, and bringing in civil society – should be applied in every single peacekeeping transition. They demonstrated how you can enact a people-centered approach. Every step that UNMIL took was directed to keep civilians safe, and to make sure violence wouldn’t go up just because there was a drawdown. That also meant helping the UN country team, the host government, and civil society establish strong and sustainable mechanisms for protecting civilians after the peacekeepers withdrew. We need to apply that people-centered approach to Sudan, where serious gaps in the protection of civilians have been made even worse by the transition from a peacekeeping operation to a special political mission.

As a result, Darfur now is experiencing its highest increase in displaced persons since 2015. Meanwhile, local Sudanese government officials have failed to secure UN team sites, some of which have been looted. UNITAMS can support the Sudanese government’s effort to find durable solutions to Darfur’s long-standing challenges, but they can only do that if the government takes advantage of its capabilities and its expertise.

For our part, as Member States, we need to help UNITAMS and other peacekeeping missions ensure that transitions don’t mean a transition back to violence. In the Security Council, our decisions about peacekeeping transitions must center on people, and give the UN system and host governments ample time to plan for and adapt their own protection capacities. And we also need to make sure the UN mechanisms that step in to bolster civilian protection after peacekeeping missions conclude have sufficient funding and resources. And no matter what stage of the process we’re in, we can prevent conflict by supporting the Peacebuilding Commission, whose vital work links sustainable development and sustainable peace.

As today’s event showed, when peacekeeping missions withdraw, and when we’re considering withdrawing them, we need to prioritize the protection of civilians above all else. And that means early, close, and constant contact – as I described we did in the case of Liberia. It means taking a people-centered approach. And it means working together, everywhere we can. So, the United States supports the Secretary-General’s reform initiatives. And we will continue to work through the Security Council, regional organizations, and the UN to ensure effective transitions. And we particularly look forward to working with all of you as we look to opportunities to transition future peacekeeping operations.

Thank you very much.