The Cable

Ban Says U.N. Troops Are Safe, Needed to Quash Ebola Unrest

Ebola has rapidly morphed from a major public health emergency to a threat to international peace and security, severely challenging U.N. efforts to support stability in the West African heart of the deadly epidemic.

In a sign of the seriousness of the threat, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that he wants to delay the gradual drawdown of the U.N. Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which was established in 2003 to help Liberia through a vexing transition from civil war to democracy.

Several governments with police and troops serving in the U.N. mission are worried about the risk of infection to their nationals, informing U.N. peacekeeping planners that they are weighing whether to pull out, U.N. officials told Foreign Policy.

U.N. efforts to ship equipment, personnel, and humanitarian and medical supplies into the region have been hampered by flight restrictions imposed by neighboring governments and large international carriers, including British Airways and Air France, which have suspended flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone, the hardest-hit countries.

"A lot of regional countries, in our view unwisely, have interrupted communications and flights and are not allowing planes to land," according to a senior U.N.-based diplomat who has been discussing the crisis with the U.N.'s top leadership. "You can't get medical staff into the region to tackle the disease."

The diplomat joined other top U.N. officials in warning that the humanitarian and peacekeeping operations could be disrupted. "There are deep concerns about the impact on the actual peacekeeping missions," said the diplomat. "The troop-contributing countries are getting nervous."

The Philippine government is withdrawing its peacekeeping forces from both Liberia and the Golan Heights, where anti-Syrian militants abducted 43 peacekeepers.

"[T]he Philippines prioritizes the safety and security of its troops," said Philippine Department of National Defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez, according to the Associated Press. Galvez said the Philippines' 115 peacekeepers in Liberia would be withdrawn as soon as possible because of the "rising health risk posed by the outbreak of Ebola virus in Africa."

Other countries participating in the Liberia mission also "have signaled their intention to pull out of Liberia" because of Ebola, said a senior U.N. official, noting that the organization is trying to persuade them to stay put. "We have been talking to them," the official said. "Some are sending experts to assess the risks by themselves before taking a final decision."

The move comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Thursday, Aug. 28, that the Ebola epidemic is spreading even faster and could infect as many as 20,000 people. The organization confirmed that some 3,069 people have been infected, including 1,552 who have died, in four West African countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Senegal, meanwhile, on Friday recorded its first case of Ebola infection -- in a traveler from Guinea.

The United Nations and the WHO have urged international airlines to maintain regional service, saying it will help the effort to contain the virus. The U.N. also said that aircrews run little risk of being infected. However, top U.N. officials this week were forced to turn to Germany to obtain medical treatment for a WHO doctor who was infected by Ebola in Sierra Leone.

Liberia -- a country that lost more than 150,000 lives to civil war from 1989 to 1997 -- has struggled with the U.N.'s help to rebuild itself and establish democratic institutions. The United Nations, which once had more than 15,000 troops deployed in the country, had hoped to turn over the task of securing the country to the Liberian security forces by the middle of 2016. But those plans are now on hold.

As Liberia emerged as the epicenter of the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, Ban made it clear that he is reconsidering plans to downsize the mission there. In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. chief asked to put off the decision for at least three months, expressing concern that the "scale and scope of the epidemic exceeded the capacity of national institutions."

"Ebola is having a devastating impact on Liberia, with the Ministry of Health recording, as of 24 August 2014, a cumulative total of 1,378 cases, resulting in 743 deaths," Ban wrote. "While the Ebola outbreak began primarily as a medical emergency, it has become more complex, with political, security and humanitarian implications that are significant and dynamic."

While Ban highlighted the seriousness of the epidemic, he also sought to assure governments that fears of infection are overblown.

"All United Nations personnel in Liberia have been educated about the appropriate preventive measures that would minimize the risk of contracting Ebola, which is not airborne and requires direct contact with the bodily fluids of a symptomatic infected person or the deceased," he wrote. "I am therefore confident that United Nations personnel may continue their important work in Liberia."

Liberia's president has imposed extraordinary measures, deploying Liberian soldiers and police to enforce quarantines in areas of the country affected by Ebola.

On Aug. 20, Liberia's president declared a nationwide curfew as the effort to contain the virus led to clashes with community groups.

The country's National Elections Commission, meanwhile, has called for putting off October Senate elections, saying it is "neither possible nor appropriate" to hold a vote. Liberia's "judiciary is considering the constitutionality of postponing the senatorial elections."

Liberian security forces seeking to enforce a quarantine in West Point, a slum in the capital city of Monrovia, set off "deadly clashes" with locals, according to Ban. On Aug. 16, he recalled, local residents stormed an Ebola isolation center. But the security forces' efforts have done little to halt the spread of the virus. "Notwithstanding the efforts of the government of Liberia to contain it, the Ebola virus continues to spread, fueled by fear, denial, tradition, and lack of public trust in national institutions," Ban said.

In August, the U.N. chief issued a report calling for the gradual reduction in the size of the U.N. mission, noting that the government no longer faces a serious military threat. Ban proposed trimming the 4,619-strong mission by 900 by the middle of 2015, and he proposed that Liberia be given full responsibility for maintaining its own security by mid-2016, leaving behind a force of 1,500 troops.

In the short term, Ban said that he would temporarily send home a "small number" of U.N. election officials, saying it is unlikely that Senate elections will take place in October. But he said he would increase the number of medical personnel and other U.N. staff to address the Ebola crisis and deliver humanitarian assistance.

"The present and continued operations of UNMIL in Liberia remain critical, including the deterrent effect of its uniformed personnel, deployed in 11 out of 15 counties," Ban wrote. "The mission has an important role to play in protecting civilians. Though it has not, and will not, enforce the government-imposed isolation of affected areas."

Spencer Platt

The Cable

Even on Financial Front, Ukraine and Russia on Opposing Sides

This story has been updated.

As Ukraine's battle against separatists along the border with Russia intensifies, the conflict threatens to bleed the government's coffers dry. The IMF warned the government could be short $19 billion next year if fighting doesn't stop soon. Kiev could really use the money frozen in Swiss bank accounts that allegedly originated from its treasury but was allegedly stolen by the former Ukrainian president and his cronies. The only problem is that it could take years -- if ever -- to get the money back.

Ukraine's budget situation has deteriorated rapidly as the government has been forced to divert more and more resources to the military. The IMF warned Tuesday that if the conflict doesn’t end in the next few months, Ukraine will need a new bailout. "Risks loom large," the IMF said in a new report. Kiev would face a $19 billion government shortfall next year if fighting doesn't end soon.

The conflict is likely to only get more expensive, after recent setbacks against well-armed pro-Russia separatists. Ukrainian officials warned Tuesday that Russian forces had been seen in cities in the eastern part of the country, raising the prospect of direct confrontation with Russia in the crisis that began when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula in March. On Aug. 24, President Petro Poroshenko boosted Ukraine's military budget by $3 billion over the next three years -- a 50 percent increase -- in preparation for a protracted fight.

The situation also diverts attention from the new government's attempt to root out corruption and find money reportedly siphoned out of public accounts during the previous administration. In February, the Swiss government froze accounts, holding about $75 million, belonging to ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and 17 others, including his son. But none of it has returned to Kiev yet.

Although Yanukovych and his son Oleksandr, a dentist turned mogul, are widely suspected of corruption in Ukraine, proving that and getting the money back is another story. In February, Ukrainian and Swiss authorities opened investigations, but to force Switzerland and other jurisdictions to drain the frozen accounts into Kiev's treasury, they must prove the money's illicit nature in court.

A trove of documents dumped in a river near Yanukovych's lavish estate, Mezhyhirya, as he fled Ukraine should help investigators. Nonetheless, using contracts, receipts, and corporate documents to prove the assets were obtained illegally, rather than through legitimate businesses, is a long, painstaking process.

The United States and Britain dispatched experts to Ukraine in March after the new government took over to help it find assets and make a case. Kiev also reportedly asked the Swiss justice department for assistance. On Aug. 11, Vitaliy Yarema, Ukraine's prosecutor general, called in the International Center for Asset Recovery, a nonprofit specializing in corruption investigations. But even the experts acknowledge that their task is daunting.

Gretta Fenner said her Swiss-based center is helping Ukraine trace assets and build legal cases, which is challenging. Much of the money was taken in cash, making it harder to trace. And even if investigators find it and can prove that it was stolen, there's no guarantee that the countries harboring the money will return it. Switzerland has gone to great lengths in recent years to shed its image as a safe haven for the spoils of criminals and despots by helping foreign governments investigate corrupt leaders accused of stashing their loot in Swiss banks.

Other offshore financial centers like Bermuda, Singapore, and the British Virgin Islands are not necessarily as cooperative. Strong diplomatic ties are usually a prerequisite to legal assistance, so that means anything Yanukovych took with him to Russia likely isn't coming back.

"We assume that a lot of money is in Russia, and you can assume that the Russians are not being cooperative with anyone at the moment," Fenner said from Basel, Switzerland.

Fenner advised Ukrainian officials to focus on the "cases that lead to jurisdictions that have helped in these investigations in the past." Still, she said the process -- even if successful -- will likely take years.

"Anything under three or four years is going to be radically fast in comparison with past investigations," Fenner said.

For example, the frozen Swiss accounts of deposed Arab Spring leaders, such as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (Tunisia) and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt), remain full while investigations launched in 2011 continue. Swiss banks froze accounts belonging to former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986, and the money is only now in the process of being returned to Haiti. According to the Swiss government, it has returned almost $2 billion to countries chasing stolen assets. But that figure pales in comparison with how much was taken. Ukrainian officials estimated that Yanukovych and his associates made off with as much as $100 billion.

Without any prospect of getting the stolen assets back anytime soon, Ukraine will likely look to the IMF and its Western allies to fill the budget gap that deepens as the conflict in eastern Ukraine inflicts more and more damage to the economy. The IMF agreed in March to give the country a $17 billion loan, released in tranches, combined with some $10 billion more promised in bilateral aid from individual countries.

Ukraine got the first $3 billion portion of IMF money in May, but military spending and debt repayments are tearing through it. Finance Minister Oleksandr Shlapak said Aug. 20 that the IMF should speed up disbursements because the country needs more money faster to make up a budget shortfall of 5 percent of GDP. If the IMF rejects Shlapak's request for more money, Kiev may soon have to pass the hat around to its Western supporters.

Photo by Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images