On 2 March, Ghassan Salamé (68) tendered his resignation as the UN special envoy for Libya and head of the UN Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), pleading health reasons due to the stress.
“For more than two years, I sought to reunite the Libyans, curb outside intervention and preserve the unity of the country. Today, after the Berlin Summit convened, Resolution 2510 was passed and the three tracks of the Libyan process were launched, despite the hesitation of some, I must acknowledge that my health no longer can sustain this pace of stress. Therefore, I have asked the [UN] secretary general to relieve me of my mission, while continuing to hope for peace and stability for Libya,” he wrote on his Twitter account.
Salame’s resignation came in the wake of a recent wave of criticism levelled against him after the first round of the political track of the Libyan process began and the second round of the military track ended at the UN headquarters in Geneva. The first was attended by representatives from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and from the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS). The military track consists of the Joint Military Committee made up of five military experts representing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and another five military experts representing the General Command of the Libyan National Army (LNA).
The military committee has made no progress apart from agreeing on a draft ceasefire agreement prepared by UNSMIL. However, the criticisms came from both the HoR and the HCS because of the lack of transparency on the agenda of the political track and the criteria on which UNSMIL based its selection of 14 Libyan figures, as yet unknown to either chamber, whom UNSMIL wants to include in the political track. Both sides walked out of the first round of political talks that were held 26-28 February in Geneva. Before resigning, Salame had said that he hoped the political track would resume 16 March.
Salame is the sixth UN envoy to Libya since the Libyan crisis erupted in 2011. He is the first to ask the UN secretary general to relieve him of his post, although his more than two years in it makes him the longest serving UNSMIL chief. The UN Security Council confirmed the Lebanese diplomat as head of UNSMIL on 21 June 2017. He replaced the German diplomat Martin Kobler who, at the outset of his tenure, put his name to the Libyan Political Agreement signed by the Libyan factions in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015. However, Salame was not a shoe-in as Kobler’s replacement. His appointment was the product of strenuous deliberations after the US vetoed the appointment of former Palestinian prime minister Sallam Fayyad to that post.
Finding a successor to Salame is likely to encounter even tougher obstacles in light of the current contentions surrounding the handling of the conflict in that oil-rich North African country. A UN secretary general’s appointment of an envoy to a conflict zone requires the approval of the 15 members of the Security Council.
After the US rejected Fayyad, on the grounds that the Palestinian leader’s appointment as UNSMIL chief would conflict with Israel’s interests, about 10 other candidates were put to the 15 members of the Security Council. They were unable to reach a consensus until Salame, former dean of the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA), former Lebanese minister of culture (2000-2003) and political adviser to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (2003), emerged as a candidate.
At the moment, there appear to be two possible candidates for the job. Both have worked alongside him in UNSMIL: Deputy Special Representative for Political Affairs in Libya Stephanie Williams and Deputy Special Representative and Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Libya Yacoub Al-Hillo. Certainly, familiarity with the UNSMIL project of resolving the Libyan crisis will be a criterion in the selection of the next UNSMIL chief, which would favour Williams given her longer period of service in Libya and the fact that she helped prepare and oversee the working plan to reach a political settlement to the nine-year-old Libyan crisis.
However, last summer, when the question of a successor to Salame, whose two-year tenure had nearly expired at the time, first arose, the African Union proposed a joint UN-AU envoy. Western powers opposed the idea and extended Salame’s tenure for another year. Libyan sources told Al-Ahram Weekly at the time that the AU had proposed former Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Abdel-Aziz as the joint UN-AU envoy and that this nominee had the support of a number of regional powers.
For some time, the AU has been keen to play a larger role in efforts to resolve the Libyan conflict. Earlier this week, Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso issued official invitations to Libya’s neighbours and South Africa to attend a summit on 12 March preparatory to organising a comprehensive conference for Libyan reconciliation. Nguesso announced plans for this conference during the African summit last month in Addis Ababa.
Salame’s resignation is likely to increase the likelihood of military escalation between the GNA and LNA, making it urgent for the UN and the international community to fill his place as soon as possible. The political tracks he had initiated are at a very delicate stage, particularly given the mounting foreign military interventions in Libya that he had been trying to curb, especially on the part of Russia and Turkey.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly