By Richard Galustian
The invitation earlier this month to Libya’s UN-installed Government of National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez Serraj to visit Holland had hidden agendas.
On the surface, Serraj’s meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to discuss political support was a shot in the arm for the GNA, a government that has yet to get a grip on militia-strewn Tripoli, never mind the rest of the country.
More than a year after arriving in Tripoli the GNA has become a one-man show, a ‘government’ in name only, with no army of its own and no control of the country it was installed to unify.
But I believe there is another larger game afoot: Serraj is seeking support in Netherlands on Libya’s future on two counts.
First, to smooth the path for Royal Dutch Shell to return to a country it pulled out of five years ago as fighting worsened. Oil production in Libya is zooming up, even as the war continues, hovering at a million barrels a day, and Shell want in.
Second is the question of Saif al-Gaddafi, son of Libya’s former leader Muammar, who was freed from custody last month. Saif is indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court which is also based in the Dutch capital, the Hague.
After his release ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said: “Libya is obliged to immediately arrest and surrender [Saif] to the ICC, regardless of any purported amnesty law in Libya.”
Where are the warrants for Isis members and well-known terrorists in Libya?
Serraj’s problem is that he is in no position to hand Saif over. The GNA has no authority outside Tripoli, and the only authority inside the capital depends on militias who, day to day, decide to back Serraj.
Zintan, south-west of Tripoli, is aligned with the GNA’s rival, the House of Representatives (HOR) Parliament in eastern Libya, and its powerful army commander Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar who recently liberated Benghazi. And this parliament has granted Saif an amnesty.
That in effect gives Saif a potential new political role, of defusing tensions between different forces in the country, some of whom backed his father, some of whom opposed him: to become a peacemaker.
Saif has called for a truth and reconciliation commission to meet that end. His supporters say there is no evidence showing he orchestrated crimes the ICC accuses him of, and that this would be exposed in any Hague trial. Surrendering to the Hague would, however, mean a long trial, and extended time in detention, time better used to help the HoR and Haftar in Libya.
Serraj and his UN backers seem to want the opposite, seeing a long trial, whatever the result, as taking him out of circulation from Libya’s political ferment. I believe this is because they sense that Saif’s amnesty by the HOR will see parliament, not the GNA, benefit if he is allowed freedom.
The last piece of this puzzle involves energy. Shell’s interests in Libya were attacked repeatedly by various belligerents during the country’s 2011 revolution. Libyan oil production is rising not because of the GNA, but because of parliament, and the LNA, which has captured most of the country’s oil industry from militias that had been demanding payments for letting the oil flow.
For the moment Saif’s situation is deadlocked. The ICC chief prosecutor cannot drop charges as only the UN Security Council can cancel a prosecution. Equally, Serraj, with or without Dutch support, cannot hope to catch Saif.
More than a decade ago, Dutch commandos joined American, British and French units swooping on alleged Serb war criminals in Bosnia, snatching them to face trial at the Hague, but today for the Netherlands it would be far more difficult and controversial.
I believe a more enlightened policy would be for all actors to invite Saif to show what he can do; get going on a reconciliation process and help within a team of Libyans to bring peace to the country.
Now that Benghazi has been liberated, and with the back drop of the Qatar crisis and the Trump-Putin meeting, it is time for Libya to have a strategy for its own future and not just be a pawn on Trump/Putin’s chess board.
Richard Galustian is a British political and security adviser based in MENA countries for nearly 40 years.