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Friday, 15 November 2019

The UN in the Libyan conflict

The UN has not been able to find an objective role in the Libyan conflict, and its performance in trying to find a political solution has been problematic

Ziad A Akl , Saturday 9 Nov 2019
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Libya has been engaged in an internal political conflict for a few years now and since 2011. The international community has looked at several ways to intervene, using the tools of the United Nations mission to the country and neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. 

Several states have also acted in a unilateral manner to guard their interests, among them France, Italy, Germany, the UK and Russia. Regional institutions have come up with initiatives on the Libyan crisis, such as the Arab League and the African Union, but they have proved their inefficiency in dealing with the conflict. 

Any political settlement of the Libyan crisis will be contentious. Various actors have stepped in to induce change, but the military reality on the ground has undermined the political negotiations. There has also been some apparent miscommunication between the UN and the warring parties in Libya, and the support of the UN for Fayez Al-Sarraj’s interim government in the west of the country reflects negatively on the credibility of the UN as an actor in the conflict. 

The UN has not been able to find an objective role within the conflict, and its performance over the past few years has been problematic. Ian Martin and Tarek Mitri, earlier appointed heads of the UN mission in Libya, had roles that never exceeded mitigation, with the UN simply wanting to cool the conflict without presenting political plans for its solution. 

Bernadino Leon, the next head of the UN mission, was different because he wanted to reach a political solution in whatever way possible and even if that meant signing an agreement with a less than sufficient political consensus. This happened at the December 2015 conference on the Libyan crisis in Skhirat in Morocco. 

The Skhirat Agreement that emerged from this meeting was never implemented, and the international intervention within the Libyan conflict proved to be a failure. While the international community celebrated the signing of the agreement, none of its articles materialised. Leon was followed by Martin Kobler as the UN representative, and his approach was different both with regard to resolving the conflict and the UN role. Kobler saw that the UN role was to facilitate the demands of the warring Libyan factions as part of a political process and to turn ideas into action. 

Kobler, however, was not able to reach the targets he went after. He was followed by a former diplomat from Lebanon, Ghassan Salame, who started a new pattern within the UN role. Salame did not build on previous efforts the UN had exerted, but rather came up with his own road map. Some believed when this road map was announced Salame had found a magic solution, while others believed that he was proposing long-term solutions without sufficient knowledge of the conflict. 

Whatever the case may have been, the fact remains that what Salame proposed has not materialised on the ground. 

At this point, we have to question the efficiency of the UN mission in the Libyan conflict. At first, there was an attempt by the UN to manufacture a consensus in 2015, but the divisions among the political elites in Libya never allowed this to take place. Moving to the role of facilitator during Kobler’s period in office showed a lot of flexibility on the part of the UN, but no actual pressure on the conflicting parties. 

Salame’s period has been marked by the presentation of an elaborate political solution to the Libyan crisis, but no tools of implementation. These repeated failures of the UN mission in Libya to implement a political settlement have made many ask whether there might be another way forward. 

Another tool has been used in the Libyan crisis, namely the neighbouring countries. An agreement between Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria could have established communication with the various warring parties in Libya. The matrix of interests that connects these countries with Libya also creates value for them when negotiating with the different factions. However, there is no doubt that the recent political tensions in Tunisia and Algeria have slowed down the decision-making processes in these countries on regional matters, even if long-term interests make the neighbouring countries the most effective on the current scene. 

The political turbulence in Tunisia and Algeria puts a new burden on Egypt regarding its regional role. Egypt is an integral part of the Libyan issue, and the Libyan issue is of paramount importance to Egypt’s national security. The question then becomes of whether efforts should now be made to resurrect the neighbouring-countries mechanism to help to solve the Libyan crisis, or whether solutions should be waited for from the UN, even if this has not proven successful in Libya over the past few years.

 For the time being, and in the absence of a breakthrough from either, Libya remains a stagnant void waiting for a solution to come from the international community or from regional actors.  

*The writer is director of the Programme for the Mediterranean & North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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