Between May 2011 and today the United Nations has appointed six special representatives to Libya, from five different nationalities, each serving less than two years. The present envoy, Ghassan Salame, is a respected Lebanese academic, former minister and experienced UN operative in both Iraq and Myanmar. His appointment brought enthusiasm among ordinary Libyans that this time the UN is right on track to solve Libya’s problem.
The UN played a decisive role in creating modern Libya right from the start. The first envoy appointed by the world body was a Dutch diplomat, Adrian Pelt, who became high commissioner for Libya on 10 December 1949. His task was to help the difficult birth of modern Libya out of the wreckage of World War II which ended Italy’s colonial era in the country. Pelt is credited with bringing Libyan tribes together and drafting Libya’s independence constitution in 1952 giving birth to the United Kingdom of Libya. Royal Libya was so proud of him it named the main street in Benghazi after him.
Sixty years later and the UN is back again, but this time, trying to remedy the country it helped create only to help destroy it later on. With six envoys so far nothing comparable to what Pelt did in the 1950s has been achieved.
In 2011 a NATO-backed uprising destabilised the North African country setting it ablaze. During the so-called “17 of February Revolution” Libyans were promised paradise in a bright future only if they get rid of their long time “brother leader” Muammar Gaddafi. Ever since Libya has been anything but peaceful and prosperous.
From 2011 the mediation role the UN played in Libya became the main vehicle in attempting to stabilise the country. But the UN is the sum of its members, particularly veto wielding powers, and in many instances it cannot do the right thing. The first mistake the world body made in Libya was on 17 March 2011 when its Security Council adopted, under chapter VII, resolution 1973 vaguely authorising the use of force against the Libyan government. It also imposed an arms embargo on Libya, applied to the Gaddafi government but not to the rebels and their backers. Neither the UN nor major powers, like France and US, had any plan for Libya once the regime was gone.
After the Gaddafi regime was toppled in October 2011, Libya became lawless, arms-flooded the proxy battlefields which steadily made the oil rich country ungovernable. Clearly the UN was failing Libya and there is no one to blame. In subsequent years the Security Council passed over 25 resolutions, always under Chapter VII, but the situation worsened with every resolution. The current fighting over control of Tripoli illustrates this failure.
The appointment of Ghassan Salame ignited hope among many Libyans that this experienced diplomat could workout a roadmap for the conflict-ridden country. He enjoyed strong UN support and the veto powers appear to listen to his advice. However when he was just about to deliver his plan, all support evaporated. The US and Russia blocked all efforts by the Security Council to adopt a resolution that might convince Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar to stop his attack on the capital. A few days before Salame’s proposed reconciliation conference was to start, on 14 April, Haftar ordered his offensive on Tripoli shattering Salame’s plans and starting a new war cycle that has been raging since 4 April.
Salame tried to salvage his plans hoping that the permanent Security Council members would rush to his aide. He quickly discovered that not only had Haftar been given the green light to attack the capital, but he was being supported by France, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and the US, however, by condoning his actions.
Once sure about the steady support of the UN, Salame always thought himself lucky because the Security Council is not as divide as it has been over Syria. Yet all that support vanished when he needed it most.
The UN also failed Libya by lacking political will to reinforce its relevant resolutions. In 2011, in contravention of relevant UN resolutions and in pursuit of regime change, world powers reinforced the arms embargo against Gaddafi’s government. Once the regime was toppled, however, arms started flowing into Libya again.
While the same resolutions are still in place, Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan openly supply arms to both sides of the current conflict. In fact arms shipments into Libya never stopped over the last eight years despite the UN embargo. Even France, a veto power Security Council member, is accused of meddling in Libya’s internal conflict. On 10 July France admitted that the US made javelin rockets found in an abandoned Haftar base in Gharyan, actually belong to the French army.
After eight years of bloodshed can the UN really help Libya become stable again? The simple answer is yes! This is unlikely to happen unless three conditions are met. First the UN should reinforce its relevant resolutions on Libya by penalising any party or country found violating them, particularly, by transferring arms to the warring factions. Such reinforcement should be accompanied by verifiable commitment, by all countries, to refrain from meddling in Libya’s affairs and all mediation is left to the UN. This would give Libyans some room to solve their problems guided by the UN.
Secondly, the Libyan political and tribal elites must give up their political narcissism for the overall good of their country. This would make it easier to rally people around a broadly consensual national agenda. Thirdly, a UN, regional and international, pledge to help disarm the local Libyan militias within a specified timeframe must be imposed for the implementation of whatever the Salame proposed conference produces.
Such a process is will pave the way for general elections free of foreign interferences. If there is political will, on the part of the international community, this could crack the difficult part of the Libyan conflict, which is armed conflict. Rebuilding then is not a problem given Libya’s vast oil wealth.
Unless that happens the UN is very likely to appoint its seventh envoy, maybe soon, and will keep managing the conflict instead of solving it like Adrian Pelt did 70 years ago.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.