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How not to fail as UN envoy to Libya

Former UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame in Rome, Italy on 8 August 2017 [Riccardo de Luca/Anadolu Agency]
Former UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame in Rome, Italy on 8 August 2017 [Riccardo de Luca/Anadolu Agency]

The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is yet to name his new envoy to Libya and head of its United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Ghassan Salame, who held the post for two and half years, has abruptly and rather surprisingly, resigned on 3 March while in Geneva working on his roadmap for the country. In his resignation letter, he cited “stress” as his main motive, but the reality is something else. Salame decided to resign, among other reasons, because he lost the backing of the UN Security Council. When he took over from German Martin Kobler in June 2017, he had the full backing of the council and most Western powers. That united front of the council started to disintegrate after Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) launched its attack on the capital of Tripoli on 4 April 2019, to dislodge the Government of National Accord (GNA).

That single event disrupted Salame’s tireless efforts before ending it altogether. Just days before the LNA attack on Tripoli, the UN envoy was supposed to preside over a pan-Libyan inclusive dialogue inside Libya with one task: to produce a widely-based government to organise elections and a constitutional referendum within a maximum of a two-year transitional period. If implemented timely, the plan would have by now produced an elected government, legislator and a constitution. Haftar himself would have achieved in few days what Salame has failed to achieve after a year of fighting.  But the plan was shelved, and Salame’s resignation further prolonged the misery of Libyans.

READ: Libya’s Syria connection is being reactivated 

Now it is the task of whoever picks up the pieces once Guterres selects his ninth envoy to the elusive Libyan mission. There have been rumors that the secretary-general is inclined to appoint Algeria’s former foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra. Rumor has it that the US, as a veto power, rejected the choice.

Whoever takes up the post is likely to face the same divided UN Security Council. In fact, the council has become even more divided over the course of last year and half. This division within the international body is detrimental to the success of any UN envoy.

The powerful Haftar - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The powerful Haftar – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

There are plenty of ideas on how to solve the conflict in Libya, yet they all failed to make it into the implementation phase in a nationally agreed setting to reboot the country out of its devastation, unleashing its great potential. The sticking point has always been foreign meddling in Libyan affairs and a lack of political will on the part of the major UN member states who helped destroy Libya in the first place. The NATO military intervention to topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 not only destroyed the country, but reignited tribal and militias grudges and conflict. Furthermore, it made each group more susceptible to foreign help as it sought to outgun its rivals. Over the years, regional countries like Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia became major players in the conflict. At the same time, major powers like France, Russia, the UK and the US either looked the other way, or simply, discreetly, backed their own preferred local proxy. Haftar, for example, might have been unable to attack Tripoli over a year ago, unless he was given the green light from larger powers, particularly France, the US and Russia.

Turkey, who supports the GNA, openly ships arms, Syrian mercenaries and drones to Libya, despite committing itself to non-interference. Turkish drones played a major role in helping GNA forces reclaim Western cities including Sabratha, Surman, Al-Ajaylat on 14 April. A few days earlier, they delivered a serious blow to the LNA’s supply lines in Bugrain and Bani Walid in the east and south east of Tripoli respectively. Countering it of course, are the UAE supplied and manned drones that support General Haftar’s LNA, as they have been doing for almost two years.

READ: One year on with his offensive and Haftar is more determined but less successful 

Yet the same countries, and in clear hypocrisy, repeatedly commit themselves to not interfere in the civil war. The last Berlin Conference, on 19 January, did exactly that and even led to the UN Security Council adopting resolution 2510 reinforcing the weapons embargo as one way to end the conflict. Yet arms and foreign mercenaries keep flowing into the country in scandalous violation of over a dozen UN resolutions prohibiting any arms transfers to Libya.

To help his new envoy to succeed, the UN secretary-general must ask the simple question: why did Ghassan Salame fail?

The answer is very simple. For any envoy to Libya to succeed, the UN must be certain about three things – firstly, strict and transparent implementation of the relevant UN resolutions. Almost all UN resolutions call for arms embargos on Libya as stated in Resolutions 1970 and 1973, which were adopted in February and March 2011 respectively. Secondly, the UN veto holding powers are collectively responsible for much of the catastrophe in Libya. They should admit that they continue to be, partially, responsible for what happens in the country. Guterres, rightly, once described their failure in Libya as a “scandal”. Thirdly, the country’s political elite should face the punitive measures dictated by many UN resolutions, including Resolution 2362, for those who hinder the political process for their own narrow interests.

Unless those three steps are taken seriously, any new envoy will fail before beginning the difficult mission of stabilising Libya. Two things Libya does not need: new ideas and more weapons. It needs united international and regional communities speaking in one unified voice, otherwise any envoy is doomed to fail.

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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