By Patrick Wintour
Move part of diplomatic reboot of efforts to cajole opposing sides into forming national unity government.
The United Nations will try to reboot its push towards national unity in Libya by bringing in monitors to oversee a widely flouted ceasefire and by forcing the country’s riven political leadership to find a mechanism for electing a prime minister.
UN officials said Libya was locked in a race against time to make tangible progress towards forming a national unity government and avoid the possible collapse of a three-month ceasefire.
In a letter to member states, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, called for regional blocs to nominate monitors to oversee the ceasefire and a UN arms embargo that has been flouted, principally by Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
It would be the first time the UN has taken active steps on the ground to enforce the ceasefire beyond reports detailing how the arms embargo is being breached.
The move comes at a critical time since the ceasefire, which was agreed with the warring parties on 23 October in Geneva, also includes provisions for all foreign troops to leave Libya within three months. There is no sign of this happening.
The UN acting special envoy, Stephanie Williams, has said there are 20,000 foreign troops or mercenaries in the country.
Libya has been beset by internal divisions for almost a decade. the country is divided between the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in the capital, Tripoli, and backed by Turkey, and the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is based in the east and supported in various degrees by Egypt, the UAE, Russia and France. The UN estimates the cost of the conflict since 2011 has been $578bn (£424bn) so far.
In the last three months, the chance for a national reconciliation had blossomed, partly because the mastermind of the LNA’s failed siege of Tripoli, General Khalifa Haftar, lost influence externally and prestige domestically, allowing more pragmatic voices to be heard. An exhaustion with war also contributed.
Williams tried to seize the moment to cajole the Libyan leadership. In November in Tunis she convened a 75-strong Libyan political dialogue forum to prepare the ground for elections – now scheduled for 24 December, the 70th anniversary of Libya’s independence – and for the formation of an interim national government, including prime minister.
Since then the forum has been deadlocked over the voting threshold that could decide the new prime minister, a seemingly technical dispute that is a proxy since the method of voting may determine which candidate wins.
After 30 hours over six sessions online the forum has yet to reach an agreement, but Williams told participants on Wednesday that time was “a luxury you can no longer afford” if they wanted a Libyan-made solution. She announced she was setting up a 15 strong subgroup to agree a formula to choose the interim prime minister.
Williams, who has previously described the established generation of Libyan politicians as “dinosaurs”, said Libya could also no longer afford politics being viewed as a zero-sum game in which there were clear winners and losers.
Ambassadors from the US and four European countries reinforced the message in a blunt meeting with the GNA on Wednesday.
The UN’s sense of urgency was raised when Haftar, sensing a political vacuum, declared on 24 December that war with Turkey was imminent and Libyans should prepare for it.
But in a surprising development, a delegation of senior Egyptian diplomats and intelligence officials visited Tripoli on Sunday to meet GNA leaders, the first diplomatic contact between Egypt and the GNA since 2014.
The visit appeared to indicate a distancing if not a break between Cairo and Abu Dhabi over the value of Haftar and further war.
That Egypt’s longstanding ambassador to Libya, Mohamed Abu Bakr, was a key participant in the delegation was of note. His approach has always been to work with all sides and back the UN, but his voice has been undermined by Emirati and French backing for Haftar’s military campaign
“The voices of diplomacy have temporarily won in Cairo and the Egyptians need to rebuild their links with the GNA,” said Peter Millett, a former British ambassador to Libya.
“There have always been divisions in Cairo between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which favours a politically negotiated solution and the military, which backed Haftar and worked with the Emiratis. The military option hasn’t worked and the diplomatic approach has been given a chance again.”
Patrick Wintour is Diplomatic editor for the Guardian.
Ceasefire holds in Tripoli, but core problems remain, says UN Libya mission chief
The recent ceasefire in Libya’s capital Tripoli, brokered by the United Nations mission in the country, is holding, its head told the Security Council on Thursday, highlighting efforts to sustain the calm and help secure lasting peace.
“We have dedicated ourselves to the consolidation of the ceasefire on the ground and at the political level to minimize the prospects of similar crisis in the future,” Ghassan Salamé, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, said in a briefing to the 15-member Council.
Speaking from Tripoli, via teleconference, Mr. Salamé, said that a new comprehensive security plan for the capital is in place and that several armed groups have withdrawn from key Government buildings.
He stressed that the concept for executing the plan was “clear and balanced”, with armed groups outside the city remaining beyond the outskirts, while those within had reduced the level of intimidation on the streets and pulled back from attacking institutions in the centre.
“Looking forward, the city should be protected by disciplined, regular police forces”, said the Special Representative.
Armed groups have also “indicated readiness” to hand over the seaport and the airport’s civilian terminal to the authorities, he added, noting that there a “fragile but palpable” sense of improvement across Tripoli.
What works in Tripoli can be replicated elsewhere
The envoy said success in the capital was crucial not only given its large population, but also because “what works in Tripoli can be a model to be repeated elsewhere in Libya.”
At the same time, the drivers of the conflict in Libya, including the “appalling” conditions in detention centres and effective Government control over natural resources, must be addressed, stressed Mr. Salame.
“Some prisons have turned into incubators of extremist ideology,” he said, while hundreds of Libyans and foreigners remain illegally and inhumanely detained, as a way of securing ransoms.
Prisons which have become ‘for profit private enterprises’ run by armed groups under State-cover must be closed immediately – Mr. Salamé
A judicial process to improve prison conditions and release those wrongfully imprisoned must be expedited, and armed groups in control of prisons must return control to State authorities, stressed Mr. Salamé.
Alongside prison reform, there is also an urgent need to build capacity of security forces to enable them to protect and serve the Libyan population, he added.
Mr. Salamé also called for efforts to root out the abuse of the Libya’s vast natural resources by those illegally operating a “shadow economy.
“Libya is wealthy,” he said, but “Libyans have been increasingly impoverished, while criminals employ violence and patronage networks to steal billions from the national coffers,” he said, urging immediate steps to clamp down on the scourge.
Legislature resisting fresh elections ‘at all costs’
The UN envoy also drew the Security Council’s attention to continued lack of action by the country’s legislature on any of the binding commitments it has previously made, including holding a referendum on the constitution, and fresh Presidential and parliamentary elections.
Although Libyans have made a clear demand for fresh elections, said Mr. Salamé, that call was being “resisted at all costs” by the legislature.
“Libyans are sick and tired of military adventurism and petty political manoeuvres,” he said, adding that the “time has come” to give a more representative group of Libyans the opportunity to devise a path out of the present impasse.
Ultimately, the country’s people should be the ones to “guide the way”, with the politicians following, stated Mr. Salamé.