With multiple governments, a collapsing economy and local militias competing for power, is Libya a failed state?

Our guest is Martin Kobler, Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya.

As a career diplomat, Conflict Zone guest Martin Kobler is well familiar with states in crisis.

Prior to his appointment in 2015, Kobler had top UN jobs in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and came into his role in Libya with the goal of preventing the country becoming the ‘next Syria’.

Does he believe he has achieved this?

“It is much better [in Libya] than it is in Syria and it did not slide into total chaos. Yes, there are rival governments and, yes, there is criminality and the country does not have a central authority as in other states, but the conflict so far is contained. But I do not want to belittle the problems.”

Libya’s problems are hard to belittle, facing rival governments, security issues, and energy shortages.

Oil production – once the country’s economic backbone – is now at less than a quarter of its pre-revolution levels.

So far this year 1300 migrants have died making the dangerous voyage to Italy

So is Libya a failed state?

“I would not categorize it as a failed state. It is a state where we had a peace accord which the Libyans signed way back in December 2015,” said Kobler.

But the argument about whether Libya is ‘failed’ or simply ‘failing’ is unlikely to comfort most in the country, as long as there is a shortage of basic services and political chaos.

According to the UN, Libya is still the main exit for refugees and migrants trying to get to Europe. 300,000 people have been displaced by conflict there and 1.3 million – including migrants, refugees and asylum seekers – are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Following a visit to Libya earlier this week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said his agency will increase its activity in response to the situation and called for refugees and asylum seekers being held in detention centers to be freed.

“I was shocked at the harsh conditions in which refugees and migrants are held, generally due to lack of resources,” said Grandi. “Children, women and men who have suffered so much already should not have to endure such hardship.”

On the issue of refugees, Kobler told Conflict Zone: “If you ask how I feel here, I feel very frustrated. I go to these migration camps once every few weeks and I see these people suffering and they tell me their stories. How they lost their families.”

No central authority

Libya’s peace accord – known as the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), brokered by the UN and signed in Skhirat, Morrocco, in December 2015 – has so far failed to solve the country’s political problems.

The International Crisis Group says the agreement has “reconfigured more than contributed to resolving internal strife” and should be “reset”.

Six years on from the revolution and the removal of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, three separate governments in the country – as well many local militia groups – are competing for authority.

The UN backs one – the Government of National Accord (GNA). But its inability to improve the lives of Libyans has been a source of criticism even from within.

In January one of its deputy premiers resigned, saying: “I don’t think we are unaware of what the citizens are suffering, but we are incapable, and I admit that we are failures because we didn’t solve the problems, which are many.”

Asked why, despite its failures, the UN continued to back the GNA, Kobler told DW’s Michel Friedman: “It is a lack of alternatives. If you want to get out of a civil war and this we did, we negotiated a peace agreement … So one has to start with the first step.”

So is there any authority in the country?

“There are many authorities and you have to start … in a fragmented state which was suffering from 42 years of Gaddafi dictatorship. And by the way, also Gaddafi created the illusion of a state. He was the strongman, but there were never in Libya strong institutions.”

Another strongman in Liby’s story is General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of a Libyan National Army who refuses to recognise the authority of the GNA and in September took over control of key oil ports from militia supportive of the GNA.

His role is seen as an essential one to any future peace in Libya even though his forces have been accused of atrocities, which Haftar says are being internally investigated.

Kobler says he is in contact with the International Criminal Court and that human rights violations have to be addressed, but recognized the political reality in Libya: “That’s how it is, we have to work with those forces who are on the ground.”

Hopes of a peace settlement in Libya were boosted earlier this month following a rare meeting between Haftar and the GNA leader, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, though in recent weeks fighting between their relative backers has continued to escalate.

An attack last week on Haftar’s Libyan National Army reportedly caused more than 140 deaths, to which the army launched airstrikes in response.


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