By Muriel Asseburgk, Wolfram Lacher, and Mareike Transfeld
This section of the study answers the following questions: Why are the Libyan conflict so resistant to resolution efforts?
What are the specific aspects of the conflict configurations that impede UN efforts? What factors in the UN approach are obstacles to a successful conclusion? What lessons can be learned for future mediation efforts? And how can Europe contribute to progress in this area?
UN Special Representatives León and Kobler in 2015 tried to negotiate a transitional power-sharing arrangement to overcome Libya’s political divisions under challenging conditions.
The UN mediators enjoyed the unanimous support of the Security Council and Western states, but they had limited influence on local actors because deploying peacekeepers to enforce the agreement was never a realistic option, and the great powers were unable or unwilling to dissuade regional states from supporting the conflict parties.
Given these conditions, there is no definite answer to the question of whether a more patient approach by the UN mediators, and a stronger integration of armed actors, might have produced a more workable power-sharing agreement.
However, poor decisions by the UN mediators and Western governments, particularly during the final phase of the talks, meant that UNSMIL’s efforts at that stage no longer amounted to a serious attempt to reach a viable agreement.
Neither León’s personal ambitions nor concerns about the ongoing expansion of IS justified the haste with which the agreement was pushed through. Already at the time, it was clear that the assumptions underlying this approach were unrealistic.
The fact that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon approved León’s move from Special Representative to a highly-paid post in the UAE – and that the UN as well as Western governments then simply swept the scandal under the carpet – also gives cause for concern that such obvious conflicts of interest may feature with future UN mediators as well.
From the perspective of Western governments, the Skhirat agreement was a partial success despite its failure. Although the internationally recognised government in Tripoli was largely impotent, it allowed them to pursue key interests.
The US, UK and Italy assisted Misratan militias in fighting IS in Sirte with GNA approval, sticking to the fiction that these militias were forces loyal to the GNA.
The EU, and particularly Italy, used the GNA as a cover to conclude arrangements with local militias to curb migration. By late 2016, IS had lost all its territory in Libya, and in 2017 the number of migrants arriving in the EU via Libya dropped by a third compared to the previous year – without a real unity government having been formed.
Oil production also recovered – despite, rather than because of the Skhirat agreement. The urgency with which Western governments and the UN had forced through the formation of a unity government then gave way to an accommodation to the status quo.
However, rapidly installing a government that served as a front for the pursuit of Western interests came with consequences. The repercussions of the Skhirat negotiations have created more obstacles to the UN’s ongoing mediation attempts.
The controversy over the agreement irreversibly divided both parliaments, which lost all credibility in the eyes of the Libyan public.
They are now even less suited to acting as negotiating parties than they were during the Skhirat talks. For better or worse, UNSMIL will have to try a new approach, one that relies on actors who are not elected officials.
Designating representatives will be yet more difficult because the agreement has further exacerbated the fragmentation of the political landscape.
And finally, with the failure of Skhirat, the last chance to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with a wider range of actors in eastern Libya than just Haftar was missed.
Since the Skhirat agreement, Haftar has established himself so firmly there with his repressive tactics that other political forces can no longer organise in the east. His strengthened position also means that his ambitions are difficult for other Libyan political players to accommodate.
And as long as Haftar not only continues to receive support from the UAE and Egypt, but is now being courted by Western governments, he remains in a position to veto any deal.
UN Special Representative Salamé was initially adept at recommitting Libyan and international actors to the UN-led process. He set out to negotiate amendments to the Skhirat agreement by the two parliaments; organise a conference at which all political and social groups would be represented, but whose objectives remained unclear; and hold a referendum on the draft constitution presented in July 2017 by the constitutional assembly, as well as elections – all in 2018.
Lack of progress on these points has since forced Salamé to revise his roadmap. His attempts to persuade the parliaments to make a move that would spell their own dissolution have proven futile.
UNSMIL turned the National Conference into a broad-based, local-level consultation process that offers no basis for new negotiations.
Under pressure from the French push for rapid elections, Salamé has at times stated that voting could take place without prior amendment of the Skhirat agreement or a referendum on the constitution; at times he has dismissed the feasibility of elections in the near term, but has expressed confidence that a constitutional referendum could be held.
And while Salamé has publicly recognised that negotiations between the two parliaments offer little prospect for progress, he has not proposed an alternative framework for negotiations. As a result, by mid-2018, there was no longer a clearly identifiable political process.
In this vacuum, parallel initiatives began reappearing, among them Macron’s unsuccessful attempt to push through an agreement on elections at a Paris meeting in May 2018; an Italian plan for a Libya conference with unclear objectives, to take place in November 2018; and a “reconciliation meeting” between Libyan players the African Union scheduled for late 2018.
A key obstacle to rapid elections is the absence of a legal and constitutional basis for a vote. In September 2018, the HoR claimed to have passed the necessary amendment to the 2011 constitutional declaration to pave the way for a referendum on the draft constitution.
But such a referendum would be a risky proposition, since it could lead into a dead end if the draft is rejected or if the referendum is not held in all parts of the country.
Both possibilities have been made more likely by the disputed manner in which the HoR drafted and adopted the referendum law.
Moreover, the draft constitution itself is controversial: the Amazigh ethnic minority boycotted the constitutional process, and representatives of other important groups in the constitutional assembly refuse to recognise the draft.
In addition, political and military power relations in the country have fundamentally changed since the elections to the constitutional assembly in 2014.
The balance of power is still so far from being settled that it is probably not realistic to adopt a permanent constitution for the country at the moment. For Libyans to decide how to deal with the draft, a greater degree of stability is necessary.
In the meantime, however, the constitutional or political basis for elections is lacking, and the two parliaments have lost both the ability and the credibility needed to produce such a basis.
Salamé has repeatedly spoken out against a new transitional arrangement, but that is exactly what is needed before elections can be held.
The most important lesson from the mistakes of Skhirat is that imposing seemingly quick solutions to the power struggles in Libya comes at the expense of their viability, and is ultimately counterproductive.
Western governments and UNSMIL should avoid making the same mistake again. At the time of writing, the objective of holding elections as soon as possible continues to dominate international policies towards Libya, despite the lack of any progress on creating the conditions for successful elections.
UNSMIL and most European governments see elections as a solution to the demise of legitimate institutions in Libya. But without a sufficiently broad agreement on the legal and constitutional framework for elections, voting is likely to deepen Libya’s crisis of legitimacy, not resolve it.
Moreover, it is worth remembering that the idea of elections first gained traction among international players as a way of integrating Haftar into the political process, on the assumption that he saw elections as being in his interest.
However, not only has Haftar made contradictory statements regarding his support for elections, but he may very well be interested in elections only in areas under his control, or he may expect to benefit from a failed attempt to hold elections.
For elections to resolve the conflicts in Libya rather than to fuel them, a range of conditions have to be met that cannot be created by international decrees.
Only a constitution – or, indeed, an agreement that prevails in lieu of a constitution – can determine what institution elections will be held for, and what the competencies of that institution should be.
Voters and candidates require assurances that warlords and militia leaders will not dictate election results in their respective areas of control; that elections will take place across the country; and that the majority of actors will accept the outcome.
To move towards these conditions, a new, more effective power-sharing agreement is needed that also includes security arrangements. Reaching such an accord requires persistent mediation efforts and consistent international support.
Given that the dysfunctional institutions created by the Skhirat agreement have long blocked progress towards such an agreement, and that there now no longer is a political process, it may be time to build a new negotiating framework – one that brings together actors with real influence on the ground.
To build such a framework, the UN will need European support for a more sustainable approach, not unilateral initiatives for quick fixes.
Overview 1: Mediation Mission
United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL)
Resolution 1973 (March 2011) welcomed the appointment of a Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to “find a peaceful and sustainable solution” to the crisis in Libya. UNSMIL was created by Resolution 2009 (September 2011).
Several subsequent Resolutions, most recently 2376 (2017), have extended the mission mandate for mediation and provision of good offices, including (since December 2015) supporting the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement.
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Libya:
■ Abdelelah Al-Khatib (Special Envoy) (07/03/2011 – 20/08/2011)
■ Ian Martin (11/09/2011 – 13/10/2012)
■ Tarek Mitri (14/10/2012 – 30/09/2014)
■ Bernardino León (01/09/2014 – 4/11/2015)
■ Martin Kobler (04/11/2015 – 22/06/2017)
■ Ghassan Salamé (since 22/06/2017)
Overview 2: Significant Military Involvement of third parties
Egypt: Logistic support, training, advice and arms to Khalifa Haftar; and several airstrikes (2015-2017) against armed groups or cities which are hostile to Haftar.
France: Deployment of Special Forces and intelligence assistance for Khalifa Haftar; and assistance in training the Presidential Gusrd for Sarraj government in Tripoli.
UK: Deployment of Special Forces in Misrata and intelligence assistance there, as well as for Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi.
Italy: Deployment of millitary advisors and field hospital to support armed groups from Misrata fighting IS in Sirte (May – December 2016 and since), and training for the Presidental Gusrd of Sarraj government in Tripoli.
Russia: No clear evidence for support for Khalifa Haftar; possibly indirect arms deliviries (via Egypt); and advice or training possibly via private companies.
UAE: Financial and logistical support and arms for Khalifa Haftar; airstrikes in support of Haftar’s alliance (August 2014); and constrauction of UAE air-force base in eastern Libya for regular airstrikes in Benghazi and Derna (2015-2018).
Qatar: Financial support for Haftar’s opponents; funding of arms deliveries via third parties (sudan).
Turkey: Several arms deliviries to opponents of Haftar. Role of turkish government unclear.
USA: Airstrikes against IS in Sirte (August – December 2016) in support of armed group from Misrata; Special Forces active in Benghazi and Misrata; and intelligence coorporation with virious conflict actors.
Dr Muriel Asseburg is a Senior Fellow in the Middle East and Africa Division at SWP
Dr Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate in the Middle East and Africa Division at SWP
Mareike Transfeld is a doctoral student at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies