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The UN Quagmire in Libya

The UN's failing attempts to reconcile the two governments in Libya
During a demonstration in support of Fajr, the military coalition that supports the GNC, not recognized by the international community, a protester glues posters denigrating Bernardino Leon, supervising the negotiations between the two Libyan governments, Tripoli, Libya, 7 July 2015. Photo Cyril Marcilhacy / Cosmos

The international coalition that helped topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 had been given a green light by the United Nations. UN involvement in Libya came at an early stage, in the February 2011 decision to freeze Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s assets abroad, which was taken less than two weeks after the protests against his regime began. It was soon followed by a Security Council resolution (1973) imposing a no-fly zone in Libya and allowing UN member states to use force to protect civilians.

NATO powers were the main backers of resolution 1973, and they even received Russia’s tacit approval (Russia abstained), but neither Russia nor the UN expected the war to lead to a regime change. There was thus little in the way of reconstruction plans ready when Tripoli was taken over by the NATO-backed rebels.

The UN was approached early on to lead the reconstruction efforts, and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was formed on 16 September 2011, with an extensible three-month mandate. The rebels had their own head of state and official institutions, but the country was going under a de facto UN supervision, as its foreign assets were largely frozen and its army was barely able to hold the country together.

The first UNSMIL chief was Ian Martin, a well-trained UN diplomat who became the United Nations Secretary General Special Adviser on Libyan Post-Conflict Planning. In that post, he oversaw the fair election and the peaceful transfer of power between the National Transitional Council (the parliament that took over after Gaddafi’s fall) and the General National Congress (GNC, parliament) by mid-2012.

The year went more or less smoothly for the United Nations, and things seemed on track, but highly localized, intra-tribal problems were common, and militias were not surrendering their weapons. Foreign countries that had participated in the war to topple Gaddafi had different agendas, especially the competing Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Also, there was little or no money provided for reconstruction or structural reform. There was a façade democracy hailed by the UN, but the ground was shaking, and the reality was much darker.

On 17 October 2012, a year after the UNSMIL mission began, Martin was replaced by Tarek Mitri, a Lebanese politician appointed Special Representative of the UN Secretary General. He was tasked with taking Libya from transition to democracy, a step that required the approval of a constitution and the organization of general elections. Mitri’s mission included also the consolidation of Libyan institutions and helping the Libyan people return to normality.

However, his mandate was marked by accelerating events, such as heavy clashes in the heart of Tripoli and other large cities and the successive resignations of prime ministers and other state officials, sometimes under the threat of arms. The regional situation was also changing, especially after Tunisia and Egypt entered a stage of deep political polarization that reached a climax with the coup of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, in the summer of 2013.

By the spring of 2014, Khalifa Bilgacem Hafter, a former general, directed his forces against GNC affiliated troops in Benghazi. His Karama operation led the government of Tripoli to agree to organize general elections, which the UN did not oppose. The low turnout of these elections (around 18%) did not prevent the international community, led by the UN, from recognizing the new parliament (House of Representatives, HoR) that would replace the GNC.

The GNC, however, refused to accept the results of the vote, and Libya became officially divided between two parliaments, with two governments and a new military coalition (Fajr Libya, Libyan Dawn, affiliated with the GNC) fighting Haftar’s Karama, itself now under the nominal command of the HoR. The military escalation led the UN and other foreigners to leave Tripoli, and Tunis became the temporary seat of the UNSMIL. The UN failed but did not concede its defeat.

The UN’s Failing Diplomatic Activity

A dialogue between the two main coalitions battling to control Libya, led by the UN, was about to begin. It was facing deadlock, while the country’s fragmentation—not simply division—and was taking unexpected turns. Mitri was replaced by Bernardino Leon in September 2014. The Spanish diplomat set up a negotiation process that was scattered across several foreign capitals. During Leon’s tenure the future of Libya was, apart from a few meetings in Ghadames and other Libyan cities, discussed abroad.

Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, visited Tripoli in September 2014 and met with several politicians. Leon made occasional trips to Tobruk, Tripoli, and other cities, but the UN became increasingly disconnected from realities on the ground. Warring factions, changing alliances, and renewed priorities were the driving forces in Libya. The UN had to rely largely on Libyans abroad, or Libyans who do not have control on the ground, politicians from minor political and military formations, etc.

There were several rounds of negotiations, in different locations, mostly under UN auspices. Egypt, which sided openly with the Tobruk government, organized meetings of tribal leaders with openly anti-GNC sentiments. Tunisia, Libya’s neighbour, was also the site of many discussions, involving mainly municipal and local leaders. Algeria staged its own series of political discussions. As Libya’s immediate neighbours, the Algerians expressed their concerns, but it was also their way to stand up to Morocco, their opponent in the quest for Maghrebi hegemony, where the Skhirat talks are taking place.

The Skhirat talks are the most publicized among the negotiations led by Leon. Skhirat, which began in March 2015, involved politicians from various political parties and representatives of the main tribes and militias. It comprised a series of rounds, with several setbacks, which was “almost completed,” as Leon put it in July 2015, when he announced, in a carefully crafted ceremony involving Moroccan and UN officials, the success of the talks and the signature of an agreement.

Leon was replaced in November 2015 by Martin Kobler, a German diplomat, but leaks that appeared in the media during that period showed that Leon was, while heading UNSMIL, negotiating with UAE officials for a position for himself in a government-funded agency in Abu Dhabi. Leon appeared also to play the UAE’s game in Libya, when he tried to create divisions inside the Fajr Libya camp.The credibility of the UN suffered yet another serious blow.

It is therefore not surprising that some Libyan factions are circumventing the UN work and announcing their own initiatives, something of which Kobler, the UN envoy, did not approve. The Tunis deal, even if it cannot be implemented, should be a wake-up call for the international community that the UN process is failing and that Libyans are looking elsewhere.

The Skhirat talks, which Leon signed and were celebrated by the international media, are continuing, and there has been no practical effect on the accords. The war is raging, and Libya’s fragmentation continues. The failure of the United Nations and the international community is a fact. Libya remains a case study of what happens when a war is planned without simultaneous plans for reconstruction.