The Humanitarian Situation in the Mano River Union

An MSF Statement Delivered to the United Nations Security Council "Arria Formula" Meeting in New York City by Martha Carey, MSF

An MSF Statement Delivered to the United Nations Security Council "Arria Formula" Meeting in New York City by Martha Carey, MSF

Members of the Security Council,

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is grateful for this opportunity to address members of the Security Council on our current concerns for the people of the Mano River Union in West Africa, a region where our organization has worked extensively over the past decade.

This is the third time in the last year that MSF has brought the problems facing the people of West Africa to your attention.

The war in Sierra Leone has been officially declared over and the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world has been deployed throughout that country. Meanwhile, the conflict in Liberia is gaining momentum.

The problems facing West Africa today cannot be dealt with in isolation, but rather must be handled with a regional approach. The council must not consider the problems in Sierra Leone resolved as long as the troubles are increasing in Liberia.

Between February and May 2002, MSF carried out an extensive study in order to gain a global perspective on the humanitarian situation in the region. The report we have distributed to you today shows an acute picture of the current problems and challenges that the most vulnerable populations are facing. Given the clear lack of protection of civilians that exists in this context, the findings outlined in the Save the Children and UNHCR report on sexual exploitation in the camps are not surprising.

Today, MSF is concerned that the political agenda of the international community is significantly undermining the humanitarian needs of the people of this region.

In my briefing today I would like to focus on two specific examples of this: First, the resettlement exercise carried out this year in Sierra Leone for nearly 225,000 displaced persons and returnees. Secondly, the current humanitarian response to the tens of thousands of people being displaced by fighting in Liberia.

In Sierra Leone, the international community and particularly the Security Council have been deeply involved in the peace-building process, while at the same time supporting a rushed and improvised resettlement process. MSF is concerned that because this is being done without proper planning, coordination, or resources, the real needs of the civilians are not being met, and this could result in serious humanitarian consequences.

In Liberia once again, the international community, and in particular the Security Council through the imposition of sanctions, is seeking to politically and diplomatically isolate the current regime. The humanitarian consequences of this political agenda are what concern MSF. The sanctions have created a climate of disinterest characterized by a lack of political will and donor support for the humanitarian needs of civilians caught by the current fighting.

In both countries, the humanitarian response, coordinated and implemented by OCHA and UNHCR and their governmental counterparts, the National Commission for Social Action in Sierra Leone and the Liberian Refugee, Repatriation and Resettlement Commission is seriously compromised and manipulated by political objectives.

Sierra Leone

In advance of the elections and potential withdrawal of UNAMSIL, the UN and the government of Sierra Leone are sending displaced people back to their regions of origin. However, MSF's first-hand witnessing of this process shows that it is difficult to consider this a true resettlement program in anything but name. It has been poorly planned, badly organized, and ineffectively implemented. Shelter, health and sanitation facilities are not in place in the areas they are being sent back to. Transport, medical care, water and sanitation needs during their return are woefully insufficient. The food and Non-Food Items (NFI) packages are not appropriate in quality or quantity for people who are rebuilding their lives from nothing, particularly since the hunger gap lasts from July to September.

Various tactics are being employed to pressure people to leave the camps. These include withholding relief assistance, closing of camps, and not supplying complete and accurate information to the returnees and displaced. This makes it impossible for them to take an informed and free choice whether or not to go home. For example, the UN is sending back tens of thousands of people to areas of Kailahun District in eastern Sierra Leone that they deem too unsafe for their own staff to be based.

NaCSA and its UN counterparts OCHA and UNHCR have not ensured that the rights of the returnees and displaced are respected. This is further complicated by the fact that the UN mission in Sierra Leone is responsible for both peace building and humanitarian operations - mandates that at times have contradictory objectives.


The conflict in Liberia is escalating daily. Fresh attacks around Gbarnga have empty out six camps in Bong County. Camp and town residents alike, approximately 40,000 people in total, have fled the area. In addition, an unknown number of people are hiding in the bush, trapped by the fighting and completely cut off from assistance and protection. According to testimonies gathered by MSF, people's movements are being controlled and they are suffering from atrocities perpetrated by all parties to the conflict.

Still, there is no strong international commitment to meet the increasing humanitarian needs in Liberia. This is clearly reflected in a lack of initiatives to increase funding for UN agencies and non-governmental organizations. As a result, the humanitarian response is weak and inadequate, and the minimum humanitarian needs of the civilians caught in this conflict are not being met.

Although given the responsibility by the Secretary General in 1997 to act as the lead agency for IDPs, OCHA is not assuming its role. Since OCHA is not operational in Liberia, by default the LRRRC is left alone to care for the IDPs. However, LRRRC is a government agency and therefore driven by political objectives rather than humanitarian needs.

For example, camp population figures declared by LRRRC are accepted as official UN figures and dictate the allocation of material assistance. The LRRRC/UN say that there are 63,000 people living in four displaced camps near Monrovia, but the MSF teams working in these camps estimate a total population of less than 20,000. Even with inflated numbers, the corrupt system in place prevents relief from reaching the most vulnerable.

In addition, civilians are constantly on the move because the LRRRC has installed them in sites too close to military bases or the front lines. Most disturbingly, the displaced cannot raise issues of concern to an independent humanitarian presence in the camps with the mandate to protect them.

As in Sierra Leone, the UN mission in Liberia is under pressure due to its dual mandate: on the one hand to monitor the sanctions and on the other hand to carry out its humanitarian role. Once again, these objectives are often contradictory.

MSF is extremely concerned with the lack of freedom of movement and right to seek safe refuge for Liberian civilians. Guinea continues to keep its border closed without condemnation from the international community and the obstacles in reaching Sierra Leone are remaining.


In conclusion, MSF urges the Security Council to take steps to ensure that urgent humanitarian needs are not held hostage to political agendas in the Mano River Region. To accomplish this, the international community must find answers to several important questions:

  • In Sierra Leone, as the next phase of the resettlement process resumes, will camps and appropriate assistance be available to people who choose not to return to their homes immediately?
  • Will repatriation be organized under such conditions that people's dignity and needs are respected?
  • In Liberia, What is the international community waiting for in order to consider Liberia a humanitarian emergency?
  • Who is going to ensure that people are guaranteed the right to seek safe refuge and to have access to humanitarian assistance?
  • Finally for both countries how long will political issues continue to overshadow the humanitarian needs of the people?

Thank you.