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Newsnight Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK
The Liberia question

The UN secretary general has called for a peacekeeping force in Liberia.

We interviewed one of the country's ministers, and British ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who's currently on a mission to West Africa, and has held talks on the crisis.

We are joined from the Ivory Coast by Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the UN until recently and there for the UN investigating this whole question of whether there should be an American mission sent to Liberia? Do you think the Americans should lead a force there?

That is up to the United States, we are not, of course, suggesting what they should do. The west African nations, whom we have just been talking to in Nigeria and Ghana and in the Ivory Coast, are very keen they should get some outside help beyond Africa. They can put up between three and 4,000 troops themselves, but they would like some help from outside and clearly this is a question which the United States is considering that is fair enough.

Would that force then be put together under UN auspices or what?

It would be put together with UN Security Council authority. But not under the normal peacekeeping arrangements of the UN secretariat. It would be up to a coalition, it looks like a coalition as you have suggested led by West Africa with outside help and support and maybe a core group of non-African forces. It would be a coalition and not a normal UN peacekeeping operation.

How urgently does it need to be put together?

Well, I think we can all see that the people of Liberia are having an extremely distressing time. So, from the humanitarian point of view, the sooner the better. But it's also unwise in the experience of the United Nations or of coalition forces to go in without a political agreement to observe and help to implement. That political agreement is not yet there. We don't know if President Taylor will leave the Government.

What do you think should happen to Charles Taylor?

Of course, we think he should give himself up to the Sierra Leone court. He has been indicted. That is the safest place for him to go. We don't want to see any impunity for those who have been accused of gross humanitarian abuses. But, the leaders of West Africa are trying to make their own political decisions, we are taking the lead from them. We are hoping to persuade them that the people of Liberia can be given a lot of consideration while impunity is not allowed to any of those indicted.

Sir Jeremy, thank you. Joining us from Washington is Dr Susan Rice of the Brookings Institution. What is likely to be the American response?

I think the that the Government is between a rock and a hard place, with the president scheduled to leave for Africa next Monday, with the calls from the United Nations Secretary-General and despite Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock's diplomatic language, and from West Africa for the United States to intervene. I think the pressure is mounting. I don't think it's likely that the United States will choose to do nothing. The pressure on President Bush is too great for that. So the question is a matter of degree. I think there are three possible options. The first would be to simply say to the west Africans, we will fly you in and provide logistical support and funding. That is the approach that the United States took in the 1990s. It will be deemed insufficient in this instance. The second option would be for the United States to do something very similar to what the British did in Sierra Leone, to provide sort of a command element for a west African force, command control, communications, intelligence support. Perhaps with a US military force offshore, visible from the horizon to threaten force into provide a quick reaction capability. I think that may be the most likely option. The third option would be for the United States to do as the west Africans have requested, and provide 2,000 soldiers or boots on the ground to join with their 3,000 and engage in peacekeeping or possibly even peace enforcement.

One senses a certain reticence in Washington. Is there in the way that for example the British in the case of Sierra Leone, France in the sense of various colonies, is there a sense of residual responsibility there?

I think perhaps among policy makers, but that is a small group. Most of the American people have no idea what Liberia is or where it is or why it should matter to the United States. While, in fact, we have security interests this in that sub-region and, of course, long- standing humanitarian and historical reasons, if the president makes a decision to involve the US militarily, he will have to explain it very carefully to the American people who will be scratching their heads.

That's why it's taking so long, is it?

I think that may be part of what is going on. I think also you have a battle between the administration and between the state department on the one hand, that is probably favouring a more interventionalist and active American approach and the defence department which is traditionally reluctant to engage in peacekeeping any where, particularly peace keeping in Africa and particularly now when they are so over-stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. Erm, so there's that battle. Then, I think there is a difficult question even if they were inclined to decide reluctantly to do something, what is precisely the right something? How do we do enough to satisfy international pressure and make a constructive difference? How do we do not too much so we are not exposed to tremendous questions and criticisms domestically?

What do you think is the absolute minimum as far as the position of Charles Taylor is concerned?

Well, I think the US position has been that he's an indicted war criminal and he ought to be held accountable. The president has called on him to step down and his ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said, we would all like him to see him handed over to the special court in Sierra Leone. I don't think that will happen. The with one of the risks to the United States is that we consider our options and that we will in the event we decide to do something, signal by necessity to Charles Taylor we are coming and we can't get there before he knows we are coming which gives him the opportunity to go underground and to do as Idi did in Mogadishu or Bin Laden did in Afghanistan or Saddam has done in Iraq. With Taylor, there is a possibility he is able to reconstitute a force and stage a comeback. There is also the problem...

Thank you very much, I'm going to have to interrupt you there, thank you.

Newsnight can be seen on BBC Two at 2230 BST 2130 GMT, or in Real video, either live or on demand, by clicking on the latest programme button.

Robin Denselow
reports on calls for the US to intervene in its former colony Liberia
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01 Jul 03 | Africa

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