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UN envoys to Libya fail because of the body’s failure

January 12, 2023 at 8:50 am

UN diplomat, Abdoulaye Bathily in Dakar [SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images]

When his name was circulating last summer as a candidate for the position of United Nations envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily was almost unknown except within the halls of the UN itself. A former history professor and former Senegalese minster Bathily served in a number of roles for the UN in Mali, Gabon and Madagascar. In 2019 he was asked by the UN boss to carry out a “strategic review” of the UN mission in Libya. Apparently, Antonio Guterres liked his report and went on to nominate him as his envoy to the country.

Just like most UN diplomats, Bathily’s success is hard to pinpoint as there has been no single successful experience to highlight. The UN, in selecting its envoys, goes with the simple rule that says: better the devil you know than the one you don’t. Most UN diplomats spend, on average, a year mediating in a conflict ridden country before being moved to another or being retired. Most are never fired for failure or weak performance; an indication of a lack of accountability within the organisation itself.

However, most UN efforts in conflict situations fail mainly because of the Security Council’s failure to reinforce its resolutions because the five veto powers hardly agree on what to do, let alone how to do it. Numerous examples testify to this; Ukraine where the council never agreed against Russia, a veto member, despite its aggression against the European state. In Syria, it is the same thing as Russia and the other permanent members support opposing sides of the conflict and Libya is no exception.

READ: UN calls on Libyan leaders to end transitional period

Despite the good plans former UN envoys developed for Libya none worked because none was, decisively and strongly, backed by the UNSC. The council never reinforced any of its resolutions over the last decade except when the government of the former President Muammer Gaddafi was the target.

This explains why Tripoli’s Government of National Unity (GNU), at first, rejected the appointment of Bathily when his name was floated in a debate last August. Its UN representative, Taher El-Sonni, called for “serious” discussion with Libyans before any appointment. He said his government prefers an African envoy but would not just accept the first one that comes along. Such an envoy must “know the file,” El-Sonni said. Notably it was the first time in over a decade that Tripoli asked to be heard on how the UN selects its representatives mediating the crisis. The organisation usually does not consult with parties to any conflict when appointing its mediators.

Since his arrival last September, Bathily has done little work apart from what he termed as “consultations” with all Libyan “stakeholders” in the 11-year, and counting, crisis. The problem with the “Libyan stakeholders” is that they have long since become proxies to regional countries and Bathily has, politely, highlighted this in his 16 December statement  to the UNSC.

He told the council that he has been touring regional countries seeking their “continued and coordinated support” for the UN as it tries to help the “Libyan leaders overcome their differences.” None of the countries Bathily visited in his 11-day tour, publicly opposes the UN’s efforts in Libya. Yet what they do behind the scenes is the number one factor that makes conciliation in Libya more difficult. This has been a fact since 2011 when the country collapsed into chaos after the government of the late Gaddafi was toppled because of, among other reasons, foreign military and political meddling in Libya’ affairs.

It is not a question of how capable Bathily is at handling Libya. The question should be how much support the UNSC can offer to UN representative as without that support any envoy is bound to fail because it is the council that makes the final decision on a major crisis like Libya. Currently, the UNSC is far from united on any issue let alone using its powers to implement any decision it might take on top of the two dozen resolutions it has adopted on Libya since 2011.

Even before the war in Ukraine the council was divided over who should be appointed to lead the UN mission in Libya. The idea of having an African mediator came about because the African Union pressed for it given the fact that Libya is in Africa and the African Union.

READ: US backs UN efforts to sponsor Libyan intra-dialogue

Impartiality is also critical. Just before the New Year, Libyan social media was swamped with the fake news that Bathily was preparing his own “roadmap” to impose on all Libya parties. His office had to issue a statement on 28 December denying the reports.

He also wanted to send a message to the two top political leaders who were preparing to meet in Cairo, Egypt, that he welcomes their meetings and wants to see serious results. Speaker of Parliament, Aguila Saleh, and Chairman of the High Council of State, Khaled Al-Mishri, concluded their 5 January meeting by issuing a joint statement promising a “constitutional document” that is supposed to spill out how elections are to be conducted and who is eligible to contest them. This has been the sticking point that led to the 24 December 2021 election being postponed indefinitely. It is not the first time both men agree only to disagree later. The “constitutional document” is to be debated by both chambers and it is unlikely a consensus is possible. Both Al-Mishri and Saleh like to delay elections as long as possible because any vote could end their political careers — another hurdle to Bathily’s efforts.

Regardless of how successful Bathily could be in tackling Libya’s political deadlock, the outcome of such effort will always depend on the UNSC not on his own talents in achieving what his seven predecessors have failed to do.

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