International Organizations at Odds with Global and Regional Players

By Wolfgang Mühlberger

Since Colonel Gaddafi’s demise in late 2011, Libya has embarked on a political transition marked by conflict and uncertainty. The meddling of external players has increased fragmentation and polarization along multiple emerging fault lines.


The United Nations has exerted considerable efforts to foster reconciliation and to engage local actors in a political process.

Against this backdrop of rival governments, lacking human security and conflicting external interests, the UN process could be enhanced by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) longstanding experience in conflict mitigation, mediation and dialogue facilitation.

1- Fragmented statehood : Libya’s brittle structures torn apart

Far from consolidating its statehood structures, Libya has shown a sustained tendency toward fragmentation and disintegration over the past six years.

While harsh ideological, intra-regional and even international competition is involved over the establishment of a centralized, bureaucratic state, a wide range of domestic Libyan actors have been setting up ad-hoc bodies that provide various forms of transitional governance – mostly precarious, limited in scope and hence lacking wider legitimacy.

These interim para- and proto-state structures range from localized fiefdoms at the intersection of criminal organizations and armed groups, via tribal coordination councils to larger, umbrella-like military organizations such as the Libyan National Army (LNA) or representative political bodies such as the House of Representatives (HoR) or the Presidential Council (PC).

The latter structures either emerged from elections held in 2012 and 2014, such as the rump parliaments in Tripoli (where the remnants of the General National Congress or GNC are located) and Tobruk (HoR), or were established through top-down processes, as was the case with the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the PC under the aegis of the United Nations in late 2015.

At the current stage of the political transition, the result is a multiplication of governments, two of which operate out of the capital Tripoli while a third is centred in the eastern city of Tobruk, each with loosely allied militias that only add to a confusingly fragmented and complex domestic landscape.

The shattering has reached a point where sovereignty in terms of territorial regime is mainly upheld from the outside, through the continued recognition of Libya as a unified state by external actors as well as their declared objective to maintain such a status.

Within Libya, however, a different reality presents itself, due to the high number of competing power poles, exacerbated by foreign intervention on two levels.

First, through armed non-state actors, who should ideally be integrated into the fabric of a central authority but instead enjoy varying degrees of autonomy thanks to their local embeddedness and capacity to generate income.

Yet, the power base of militias is not only derived from the vast quantities of weapons acquired from Gaddafi’s depots, but is also sustained through various revenue sources, ranging from “taxation” (i.e., extortion) to external rents provided by foreign patrons.

Secondly, external players are also central in shaping political processes in Libya. Their ultimate declared objective remains a transition from a de jure political agreement to a de facto power-sharing arrangement, based on an encompassing renegotiation of the political order.

However, direct involvement of external actors in Libya not only manifests itself in various ways during the current post-Gaddafi transition phase but can be traced back to the early period of upheaval, when Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey started to carve out their respective roles from 2011 onwards.

In addition, a number of Western states (mostly NATO members) that intervened in Libya in a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) mission under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973 have remained influential interested parties.

Later, during the post-intervention phase, a number of external actors have redefined their relationship with Libyan entities: either by continuing with material support to local partners (usually on ideological grounds), or by taking sides with different armed factions in reaction to local and regional developments.

In that sense, the basic pattern set during the early conflict has not fundamentally changed. Rather, political and ideological cleavages and post-Arab Spring geopolitical shifts have reinforced competitive positions amongst Libyan and external actors, undermining diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing about a political solution.

Yet, it is virtually impossible for external players to establish functional bilateral relations with state institutions. Even though the GNA/PC have at their disposal institutions such as a ministry of foreign affairs, most external parties do not limit contacts to these entities, as they are widely deemed ineffective.

Instead, they have also developed relations with other players, shifting their support depending on interests, foreign policy objectives, strategic security considerations or threat assessments.

In this relatively anarchical setting, plagued by political fragmentation, an atomized security landscape and polarizing external meddling, fostering national reconciliation or political dialogue is a tall order for those who pursue a peaceful transition by political means.

2 – Libya divided: external players between diplomacy and military logic

In the current context of Libya’s advanced corrosion of statehood, international policy responses to the country’s instability are driven by a variety of interests, which more often collide than converge due to diverging conceptions of stabilization.

Effectively, a wide range of actors are pursuing power projection in the Libyan theatre for their own geopolitical benefit, often with detrimental effects for Libya’s stability. Key domestic players, in turn, rely on substantial external support to maintain their positions of relative strength.

This fluctuating power balance has contributed to deepening local fragmentation, further complicating the task of diplomacy and political mediation.

Fundamental differences among external players on how to deal with the Libyan crisis can be traced back to early 2011, when actors were torn between positions of non-intervention (Germany, Italy, the African Union, Turkey and, less explicitly, Russia) and forceful intervention (France, the UK, the US, Qatar, the UAE, the UNSC and the Arab League).

Those diverging positions have evolved over time with, for instance, actors such as Italy moving from being opposed to the intervention to taking an active and forceful part in the military operations over Libya.

Another example was the remarkable volte-face by the United Nations, whose role switched from approving an R2P-inspired military intervention via the Security Council (taking shape as a NATO-led no-fly zone enforcement), to mediating efforts in post-conflict politics.

The contrast between these two camps – an interventionist group on the one side, and one favouring diplomacy and mediation on the other – has manifested itself on three levels: the first involves international and regional organizations; the second, regional Arab and non-Arab countries; and the third, global powers.

The increasingly independent policies pursued by regional powers, exemplified by their direct implication in the Libyan conflict, adds further complexity to the Libyan crisis.

Clashing ambitions of pro-active players such as the UAE and Qatar, as well as of re-emerging international powers such as Russia, express themselves in often opposing re-alignments played out on Libyan soil.

The wider regional balance of power in the making is thus reflected in Libya’s ongoing conflict, much to the detriment of a peaceful political process.

Hence, irrespective of the degree of domestic and homegrown fragmentation, a lack of concerted international efforts and coherent policies based on close coordination between multi- and bilateral actors has resulted in, and further increased, the disintegration of Libya’s body politic.

Furthermore, from early on in the transition, a range of actors undermined the steering role of the United Nations, by subverting the political process through their practices on the ground while continuing to pay lip service to UN-led reconciliation efforts.

One of the implications of these actions was the reinforcement of an ideological cleavage between a camp identifying with Islamic values (ranging from political Islam to Islamic militancy/jihadism) and a non-Islamist camp.

The latter is led militarily by the LNA, loosely allied with Zintan militias, Tebou tribal groups and the Tuareg minority. This fundamental divide, which continues to define the general landscape in Libya today, emerged into the open in 2014, and was consolidated when violent clashes erupted between the camps, each supported by external players.


Wolfgang Mühlberger is a senior research fellow in the the European Union research programme at The Finnish Institute of International Affairs – FIIA in Stockholm. He held positions at the Austrian National Defence Academy, with the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He studied Arabic and Islamic Studies as well as Economics and Business Administration in Vienna, and was a Visiting researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv (2011) and at NATO Defense College in Rome (2012). His research focuses on post-revolutionary Libya, the civil war in Syria, the Israeli-Arab conflict and EU external relations in the southern Mediterranean.


Source: Chapter 3 of ‘Search for Stability in Libya .. OSCE’s Role between Internal Obstacles and External Challenges. Edited by Andrea Dessì and Ettore Greco.


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