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Is the UN envoy about to give up on Libya?

UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame [Riccardo de Luca/Anadolu Agency]
UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame [Riccardo de Luca/Anadolu Agency]

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was established by the international organisation in September 2011 for an initial period of three months. UNSMIL’s mandate was to help the country stand on its feet again after the civil war that saw military intervention led by NATO, ex-leader Muammar Gaddafi murdered and tribal divisions becoming more violent across the country.

So far, the mission has had six directors, known officially as the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) of the UN. The current SRSG is a Lebanese-French academic and former minister, Dr Ghassan Salame. When he took over from the German Martin Kobler last year, many observers and commentators, myself included, thought that the UN had picked the right person.

From day one, Salame was very clear about how to handle Libya and where to go from where he picked up the mess. He proposed a comprehensive roadmap based on three pillars: the amendment of the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) of 2015, a call for a pan-Libyan inclusive national conference and national legislative and presidential elections.

Failing to bring the Libyan protagonists to agree about amending the accord, the UN envoy suspended the process last summer and concentrated instead on the reconciliation conference, but did not announce when it could take place. However, he succeeded with one important issue, that of including all former regime supporters in his consultation process. The inclusion of Gaddafi supporters had never happened before and talking to this rather large constituency has always been controversial.

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Lately, Salame seems to have lost grip on the process and is no longer optimistic about the roadmap on which he bet the success of his entire mission, including proposed elections in Libya on 10 December. In a recent interview he was sceptical about the proposed elections. “There is still a lot to do,” he explained. “It may well be that we cannot respect the date of 10 December.”

This change of mind was denied by UNSMIL in a message to me. In any case, it cannot be blamed entirely on the UN envoy; blame should be shared by Libyan politicians and the international community. Libya’s leaders seem to be less interested in their country and more in their own personal, tribal and regional interests. Ghassan Salame accused them publically of selfishness and putting personal gains before their country. Internationally, France and Italy, both important players in the Libyan file, are engaged in shameful open competition over influence in shaping Libya’s future, while the United States just does not appear to be bothered.

Recently, Salame seems to have decided to change tack to embarrass the Libyan actors — politicians and armed groups alike — as well as foreign powers interested in the Libyan file. This happened as a result of the latest violence to rock the capital Tripoli, which left more than one hundred dead and thousands displaced, most of them civilians.

For the first time since it was established, UNSMIL finds itself involved directly in playing a mediation role between fighting Libyan militias. Previously, it has only mediated between politicians rather than militias.

The fighting that erupted last month forced the closure of Mitiga Airport, the only one serving the capital, for the second time in less than two weeks. The UN official was left with no choice but to get involved personally in mediation efforts to bring about a ceasefire in a city of over two million people.

Does this mean that UNSMIL’s mandate should be concentrated on securing Libya before any talk of a political settlement between the different factions? This is what Libya’s Foreign Minister requested from the UN in his speech at the UN General Assembly last week.

Ghassan Salame was so frustrated that in his news briefing on 12 September he said, “We know who targeted the airport twice and on the third time I will name him.” Less than two weeks later, on 22 September, the airport was targeted and closed again, for the third time in one month. Local airlines had either to cancel their flights or re-route them to Misrata Airport, some 250 kilometres away. Despite this, Salame did not name the party responsible.

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Naming names is crucial because it will make clear that the UN knows who is disrupting the relative peace around Tripoli and it is not trying to instigate a formal cover up, and it also means that the relevant party could be held accountable for a wide range of crimes, some of which could amount to crimes against humanity. Since almost all local militias are supported by foreign actors, states or otherwise, naming the perpetrators of the violence means exposing their foreign backers. Furthermore, Salame would publically force world powers to take Libya more seriously by implementing the relevant UN resolutions, particularly those that threaten certain punitive measures. As long as no one is blamed directly for the occasional flare up of violence around Tripoli, and as long as no one is held accountable by the international community, it is hard to see how rogue and well-armed militias in Tripoli can be stopped. Publically naming perpetrators will also help expose foreign countries that keep supplying arms to different parties in Libya in violation of at least two UN Resolutions, namely 1970 and 1973.

Social media in Libya has been mocking the UN envoy for the past ten days for failing to deliver on his promise to call out the perpetrators, with some users accusing him of a cover up. It is well documented that countries like Qatar, for example, still seek influence in Libya by using money and weapons to help its pawns inside the country.

If he wants the UN to be more serious about Libya, Dr Ghassan Salame must go public with whatever information he has and point the finger at the party which is at fault. Failure to do so means that he will only be managing rather than solving the Libyan crisis.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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