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How the United Nations took over Libya, then decided its future

A group of Libyan gather to stage a protest against Libyan political dialogue meetings hosted by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum which will be held on November 9 in Tunis, in Tripoli, Libya on 7 November 2020. [Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency]
A group of Libyan gather to stage a protest against Libyan political dialogue meetings hosted by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum which will be held on November 9 in Tunis, in Tripoli, Libya on 7 November 2020. [Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency]

On 16 September, 2011, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 2009, creating the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). The mission, which has boasted seven chiefs so far, increasingly became Libya's top decision-maker following a seven-month bloody civil war that divided the country.

The war "officially" ended on 20 October, 2011, with the murder of the late leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) intervened on 30 March, 2011, in support of the rebels, ending its air operations on 30 October, 2011. But as is usually the case in civil conflicts, fighting never truly ends without a widely-accepted settlement, which never happened in Libya.

Over the past ten years, the war decentralised into smaller sporadic, but lethal, fights at tribal and city levels, away from the focus of mainstream media – despite the colossal negative impact on society.

UNSMIL's original mandate was to help Libya transition to a peaceful, Western-style democratic country, in which power is decided through ballot boxes rather than barrels of guns. As years went by, internal problems accumulated, more people were internally displaced, thousands left the country and hundreds were detained in jail centres outside any judiciary process. And the war continued in various forms.

READ: Is Libya heading in the wrong direction, with potential for another war?

For UNSMIL, this translated into a broader scope of work: more staff, more resources and an active role in tackling daily difficulties facing ordinary Libyans. UNSMIL found itself being sucked into the quagmire and becoming entangled in almost every daily issue disrupting its main objective of helping the country become governable again. Libya became a UN protectorate, minus the protection – what it was seventy years ago, before gaining independence. UNSMIL is the ultimate decision-maker on issues of war, peace, reconstructions and even foreign relations.

For any UN mission to succeed, it must have the full backing of the UNSC, which not only decides the agenda, but has the power to enforce it. Up until 2015, the council was more or less united behind UNSMIL. This unity produced the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), signed in Morocco in December of that year, after a major war the previous one. The LPA, despite its shortcomings, set up a unity government with two main tasks: prepare and organise elections and fight terror, after which it should dissolve itself within a two-year window.

Libya: Never-ending chaos - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Libya: Never-ending chaos – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

That never happened, and the transitional government is still in power six years later.

Between 2011 and today, the country went from one smaller war to another bigger one, almost every two years. With local social leaders fragmented and divided, almost all local reconciliation initiatives and peace-keeping have all but failed and have increasingly been sidelined. Dignitaries and tribal leaders, once-powerful mediators in pre-2011 Libya, were slowly replaced by well-financed armed militias across the country.

When Ghassan Salame took over UNSMIL in July 2017, he was faced with a divided country at war with itself. His successor Stephanie Williams inherited an even more divided country, yet a relatively peaceful one. The two competing centres of power – one in Tripoli and the other in Benghazi – are corrupt, weak, discredited silhouettes of national power, while real power rests with the armed militias.

The conflict became a frozen struggle, while the political quarrelling continued unabated. All competing protagonists seemed to implicitly agree on maintaining that situation, as it serves them better. In 2019, Salame devised the best possible political process to stabilise Libya and move it towards permanent settlement. However, his efforts were frozen in April 2019, when renegade General Khalifa Haftar ordered his troops to march into Tripoli. That failed, and UNSMIL stepped up its quest for peace-making tangible results last October.

2019 also saw the UNSC being openly divided about how to handle Libya, and its backing for UNSMIL started to dwindle. The January 2020 Berlin Conference was an attempt to unify the council and give Europe, a powerful neighbour directly affected by unstable Libya, more of a leading role in the country. The conference produced UNSC Resolution 2510, recommitting the UN to further supporting UNSMIL. But the division within the council was clear, particularly among the veto-holding powers, namely the US and Russia.

Turkey, Russia and others were already making their presence in Libya more visible. Fighters and weapons flowed into the country fuelling the conflict, despite commitments made at the Berlin Conference to cease all meddling in Libyan affairs. UNSMIL's task became more difficult as it lost the support of the unified UNSC.

When the UNSC fails to enforce its Resolutions 1970 and 1973, banning meddling in Libyan affairs, UNSMIL will definitely fail to tackle the military conflict – the mother of all other conflicts.

READ: A breakthrough in Libya, or just too much ado about nothing?

In the background, local Libyan politicians remained divided and more susceptible to foreign powers forming what Williams once described as the "status quo" party, hugely benefitting from the current situation.

Ordinary Libyans, lacking almost all living essentials such as regular electricity supply, fresh water, cash in the banks and medical services – at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic which has so far claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 people – became disillusioned with UNSMIL, accusing it of every sin in their country.

Finding itself in the middle of conflict in, literally, a collapsing country, UNSMIL started to take over the entire political and military processes in the country. With the Higher Council of State and parliament trusted with national settlement negotiations, yet failing to agree on anything, another way had to be found.

UNSMIL came up with the idea of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), a 75-strong group of mixed publicly-elected and UNSMIL selected individuals. The entire process of political settlement of the unity government became the business of the LPDF. Furthermore, should parliament fail to vote on any new executive expected to emerge from the current talks in Geneva, the LPDF will step in and pass it. This means that parliament itself will become useless.

Cynical Libyans on social media joked by calling Williams the "lady president of Libya". UNSMIL is likely to continue to dominate Libya for years to come.

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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