Libya: UN envoy quits

Kamel Abdallah , Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

The resignation of the special representative of the UN secretary-general for Libya has drawn renewed attention to the problems facing the political process in the country, reports Kamel Abdallah

Libya: UN envoy quits


The resignation of Abdoulaye Bathily as special representative of the UN secretary-general for Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) calls attention to the need to revive the Libyan political process and stimulate UNSMIL’s role in it.

Both have stumbled due to structural flaws, and Libya and its people have remained caught in an apparently endless cycle of precarious interim phases, with the constant threat of a backsliding into civil war or further entrenchment of the east-west divide that has existed since 2014.

Bathily took many observers by surprise when he announced his resignation in New York last month. Speaking to reporters on 16 April following his last briefing to the UN Security Council, he blamed the failure of the UN-led political process in Libya on two factors.

The first is the “lack of political will and good faith”of the major Libyan players, who are set on perpetuating the current stalemate, he said. The second is the emerging international and regional dynamics that have turned Libya into a “battleground” in which “there is an ongoing renewed scramble for its territory used for military confrontations by different foreign actors.”

Libyan leaders stubbornly resisted Bathily’s attempts to launch a national dialogue to address outstanding issues to clear the way for the elections and democratic governance the Libyan people had been promised 14 years ago.

However, he said they were encouraged in their behaviour by the actions of foreign backers, some of whom had helped foster “parallel tracks” that effectively undermined the UN-led process.

“Discussions and negotiations should be led under the auspices of the UN,” he said. “Unfortunately, those parallel tracks tend to divert, and sometimes they are taken outside the UN process – the UN is not even informed about these decisions and they run up against what we have initiated. Therefore, they give ample room to Libyan leaders who are interested in keeping the status quo and to continue to manoeuvre.”

After assuming his duties at the head of UNSMIL in October 2022, Bathily attempted to breathe new life into the political process in the country, in order to find ways to encourage Libyan leaders and political bodies to overcome the impasse that has prevailed since the elections scheduled for the end of December 2021 were cancelled at the last minute.

The UN framework which guided his efforts is based on the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015. This agreement and its annexes led to the creation of a Presidential Council, a High Council of State (HCS) to serve as a kind of second parliamentary chamber alongside the House of Representatives (HoR), and a Government of National Accord (GNA).

After the initial UN-led process broke down, a war erupted over the control of the capital Tripoli, which concluded with a ceasefire agreement signed in October 2020. UN-sponsored mediating efforts led to the creation of a Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which developed the roadmap for the next phase, beginning with the creation of a reformulated Presidential Council and a new Government of National Unity (GNA) that were to oversee preparations for elections by the end of 2021.

The HoR and HCS were mainly responsible for drafting the constitutional and legislative bases for the elections.

However, two factors prevented Bathily from implementing his vision for breaking the stalemate. The first relates to UNSMIL’s position in Libya and its operations, which are constrained by UN Security Council resolutions and the influence of world powers with geostrategic and economic interests in the oil-rich North African country.

As its name implies, UNSMIL’s main mission is to support and assist the Libyan authorities during the transition to democratically elected leaders and a democratic government. That mission, however, had to be carried out in a minefield teeming with a multiplicity of diverse and mutually antagonistic players vying for positions of power and influence.

Instead of being able to provide support to the interim authorities, UNSMIL found itself in the position of having to mediate in squabbles between the decision-making bodies or their members simply to keep the process from breaking down and to prevent a renewed outbreak of hostilities.

UN Security Council resolutions did not equip the secretary-general’s representative with the tools needed to compel the Libyan players to engage actively and constructively with him and to fulfil their commitments.

In addition, the major powers often intervened in UNSMIL’s work, and sometimes took it over, as occurred during the LPDF process in Geneva. This was designed by the world powers that took part in the Berlin Conference on Libya in 2020 that then tasked UNSMIL with carrying it out.

The second factor has to do with structural flaws in the process itself, where the roles and functions of the governing bodies and key officials involved are long overdue for review. The UN-sponsored Skhirat Process that began in late 2015 brought together representatives of the House of Representatives (HoR) and the General National Congress (GNC), rebranded as the High Council of State, as well as representatives of various social and political forces.

Former UNSMIL head, Spanish diplomat Bernardino Leon, led the UN effort to draft and negotiate the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), which was signed by these parties and which has served as the framework for the political process since.

Not only was the LPA hastily hammered together and signed under pressure from the US, but it also failed to bring on board key players. Foremost among these were the eastern-based HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh and the Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Their strategies to counter attempts to side-line them combined with the mounting sway of extremist militias in Western Libya derailed the political process and led to a renewed outbreak of Civil War, centring primarily around Tripoli.

The main common denominator between the Skhirat and LPDF Processes is that they both avoided a comprehensive settlement, a genuine restructuring of the executive, and formulating ambitious but realistic goals for ending the interim phase. They also opened opportunities for influential self-seeking forces to impose faits accomplis, making it even more difficult to change the status quo in which the rival players have developed vested interests and are even willing to work together to sabotage change.   

The UN Secretary-General’s Deputy Representative for Libya Stephanie Khoury will now step in on an interim basis to assume Bathily’s responsibilities. Khoury has already been dubbed “Stephanie 2,” in a reference to another US diplomat, Stephanie Williams, who served as acting special representative and head of UNSMIL in 2020-2021.

“Stephanie 1” oversaw the creation of the LPDF as Libya emerged from the war over Tripoli. “Stephanie 2”will have to study the current situation in Libya carefully before taking any action that might trigger another descent into warfare.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will probably defer the appointment of a new special representative to Libya. This will require a consensus of the members of the UN Security Council, who will also have to discuss the nature of UNSMIL and its remit.

This will require the world powers to work together at a time when global polarisation is intensifying and the spirit of collaboration and consensus is dwindling.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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