The following excerpt is taken from the upcoming policy report The Libyan Political Process: The Need for A New International Approach, to be published in early 2019 by the Brussels International Center. This extract has been taken directly from the article, from Chapter 3, The United Nations and European Union in Libya, and examines the activities of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and explores some of the criticisms that can be levelled at its operations as an implementor of democratic transition in Libya.

The complete article analyses the complex cycles of distrust and bad faith that has been built between Libya’s actors since the revolution that overthrew former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, leading up to the political polarization present in the country today. It examines the role of international stakeholders, with emphasis on the United Nations, European Union and specific European member states, and their various, often contradictory and competing, initiatives to foster a successful democratic transition in the country, including the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, and the 2018 Paris and Palermo Conferences.

Each individual section of the paper examines a different, interrelated object of analysis, and is proceeded by a critical analysis called “The BIC View”. Following these diagnoses of failings in the democratic transition process and the international response to that process Libya, the article then proceeds to offer some recommendations for improvements primarily towards those international policy makers vested in the Libyan process.

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya

The United Nations (UN) activities in Libya have been significant since the 2011 revolution. During this time, on 16 September 2011 the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was established by UN Security Council Resolution 2009 (2011)[1] at the request of the National Transition Council (NTC) to support Libya’s democratic transition. Its mandate has been extended upon multiple resolutions, the latest of which, Security Council Resolution 2434 (2018), extended the mandate until 15 September 2019[2]. The current head of UNSMIL, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, is Ghassan Salamé.

The UN was a key broker, and supporter, of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). As such, the current mandate of UNSMIL[3] is tailored towards implementing the LPA, and thus supporting the operations of the Government of National Accord (GNA) as the legitimate representative authority in Libya. Interestingly the mandate also includes a monitoring function regarding human rights abuses, the coordination of international aid and assistance, and the implementation of counter-proliferation initiatives such as securing weapons.

A report of the Secretary-General, António Guterres, to the UN Security Council was published on 24 August 2018[4]. The report praised UN efforts to engage with local Libyan citizens, citing the success of the Summer-2018 UNSMIL consultation process, a preliminary step of the National Conference envisaged by the LPA, that engaged over 7000 Libyan citizens across the country, and who responded of the need to unify state institutions and bring an end to the political transition period. The report also praised the work of the UNSMIL, and especially Representative Salamé, in its efforts to strengthen national and international dialogue and claimed progress was made in terms of stakeholder support.

However, the UNSMIL has repeatedly called of its frustrations with the unwillingness of actors to make real efforts to change the current political status quo. It has specifically cited both the House of Representatives (HoR) and the High Council of State (HCS) as obstacles to meaningful reform, for example repeatedly saying that the HoR keeps postponing a vote on the draft constitutional law[5]. In addition, the UNSMIL has been highly critical of all actors in Libya regarding human rights abuses. The UN has been consistently critical of the Libyan National Army (LNA) campaign in Dernah, citing human rights abuses such as destruction of property, arbitrary detention of civilians and obstruction of the operations of humanitarian non-governmental organisations such as the Red Crescent. In addition, the UNSMIL has criticised the LNA for refusing to hand over Mahmoud al-Warfalli despite an International Criminal Court arrest warrant.

Interestingly, the recent outbreak of violence in Tripoli has forced the UNSMIL to criticise militias in the West more strongly and in turn the GNA for underperforming and failing to ensure better security arrangements[6]. The UNSMIL was central to the signing of a Ceasefire Agreement in Tripoli on 9 September 2018, which articulated the urgent need for new arrangements in Tripoli that can develop security from a national-level apparatus rather than militias[7].

Along with gradual increase in public acknowledgement of failings within the GNA, and the West of Libya in general, 2018 saw greater exasperation and pessimism in the realistic implementation of elections for any foreseeable date. The May 2018 Paris conference was publicly endorsed by the UN, who continued to signal their desire for elections by the end of 2018 as late as that 24 August report[8]. With the outbreak of violence in Tripoli, unrest in Southern Libya[9], as well as recent attacks on key Libyan institutions such as the High National Election Commission headquarters by groups including a re-emerging ISIL, the UNSMIL moved away from speaking of elections in 2018, and instead referred to elections as a key goal to the UN without emphasising a short-term timeframe[10].

More recently, during his remarks to the UN Security Council on Libya in November 2018, Salamé made the first public acknowledgement that the UN did not expect elections in 2018, and instead was aiming for spring 2019[11]. The timing of this announcement appeared to coincide with the November conference in Palermo, Italy. As such, it was possibly a way for the UN to maintain its place as the primary driving force in setting and timetabling the agenda for the Libyan political process. Salamé made two additional statements of note. Firstly, he said that the current polling data within Libya shows 80% support of Libyan citizens for elections, a possible outcome of the summer 2018 consultation phase of the National Conference[12]. Secondly, he also stated his desire to bring together political leaders and stakeholders within Libya in the first weeks of 2019 to implement the National Conference, a step that will be informed by these recommendations[13]. Unsurprisingly, since November, reports regarding the UNSMIL have focussed on this upcoming National Conference as a precursor to elections[14]. Salamé, for his part, welcomed 2019 as a year he hoped to see a “historic compromise” in Libya[15].

The BIC View

The UN, through the UNSMIL and Salamé, has been struggling on several fronts to maintain credibility and legitimacy as a deal-broker for the Libyan political process.

Firstly, within Libya, they have struggled to maintain credibility as a neutral, unbiased broker. This has mainly been due to their treatment of the east of Libya. By articulating that the main issues with the process were the HoR and Haftar’s LNA, they not only started to marginalise a key player, but gradually built distrust. Recall that the UN-backed LPA was primarily a way to create a new unity government to replace the HoR. In effect, the UN created a new administration in the place of the previously elected one, even if that previous elected administration had a contentious election process in 2014. That new administration has even created space for political leaders of the west, those who had forcefully ousted the HoR with violence, appearing to give validation for such actions. The targeted comments of Salamé against the operations of the LNA in Dernah also would have built this feeling.

This is perhaps a problem because of the UN’s dual nature in Libya. On one hand it is the chief international deal-broker and negotiator, tasked with being neutral and pragmatic in finding a solution to accommodate the different parties. On the other, it is the chief reporter of human rights atrocities and violations, and the framework to prosecute such abuses via the Human Rights Council. So, while the UN must report the suffering of people in the Dernah campaign for example, it also must mediate with those same people it is criticising to find a political solution. While the stance of the UN appeared to shift considering the violence in Tripoli during August 2018 and became more critical of the GNA and western militias, this appears a little too late to undo this feeling of bias.

Another difficulty the UN has faced has been external: a systematic undermining of its authority by external players. For example, the initiatives of both France and Italy appeared to be attempts to undercut the UN’s authority as a negotiator and circumvent the process.

Finally, the claim that the LPA is the only viable framework for the Libyan political process has become a dogma of the UNSMIL. All UN-based initiatives have looked to implement or adapt the LPA, and there has not been significant steps, even Salamé’s Action Plan, to look for alternative ways to implement democratic transition. All measures have been to improve or hasten the LPA. It should be said that if something is so fundamentally compromised, it will be unsuccessful even if it is polished as much as possible. Perhaps due to a lack of political will, or innovation, or an attempt to save-face, the UN has yet to look for new solutions to the political problems in Libya.