Stephanie Williams and Ghassan Salamé
Two former top U.N. envoys to Libya recount for the first time how the unraveling of the international order helped devastate an already fractured country and how a renewed international consensus can help Libya’s restoration.
In 2019, Germany also sat on the Security Council and was head of the Sanctions Committee on Libya. Merkel was a principled and determined leader and Germany a country with close ties to the regional actors who were directly interfering in the Libyan conflict.
Despite the skepticism and cynicism displayed by many Libyan watchers and analysts, the Berlin Process has proved to be a worthy one. It is a clear demonstration that the international “spirit” is willing to do the right thing even if the occasional national “flesh” is weak.
The communiqué signed in Berlin was codified in the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2510, adopted by the Security Council in February 2020.
Sustaining this international grouping should be a top priority of the U.N. and key international actors. It provided the umbrella for the U.N. to launch the three intra-Libyan tracks — military, political, and economic — as well as an umbrella track focusing on human rights and international humanitarian law.
The Berlin Process has bound the international community to support the comprehensive process through a deliberate follow-up mechanism at all levels — working, senior officials, and ministerial. It continues to be one of the only international fora where Emiratis and Egyptians will sit down with Turks.
Of course, the folly that began with the use of force was suspended by the use of force.
The red carpet unfurled by Haftar to his international backers translated into the introduction of even more weapons, advanced military systems, and foreign forces on the ground, in a country that was already awash in weaponry. (At one point in the last two years, the opposing forces in Libya were engaged in the largest drone war in the world.)
In the fall of 2019, the internationally recognized government, fearful that Tripoli would fall within weeks, turned officially to Ankara for assistance. It was the Turkish assistance, paired with the largest mobilization of Libyan armed groups since the 2011 revolution, that turned the tide.
Having advanced as far as the gates of Tripoli, Haftar’s forces were forced to retreat from western Libya by June 2020. A cessation of hostilities then took hold in central Libya, buttressed by a U.N.-facilitated cease-fire agreement signed in October 2020, which continues to stand today.
The halt in hostilities and the ensuing calm on the ground allowed the U.N. mission to work directly with the Libyans on the three intra-Libyan tracks established in January 2020 under the Berlin umbrella.
The Libyans soon proved eager to reclaim their agency, their sovereignty, to try to come together to salvage what was left of their battered and bruised country.
And come together they did.
In a remarkable display of the Libyan spirit, led by the military officers for whom the continued foreign presence constituted an assault on their dignity, the joint military committee in October unanimously agreed to the cease-fire and called for the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Their calls for national unification and a revival of the Libyan identity put the status quo political class to shame.
The economic track worked quietly and effectively toward the unification of Libya’s sovereign financial and economic institutions.
They supported a unified budget; an international audit of the two branches of the Central Bank, the results of which will be published in the coming weeks; and the convening of the Bank’s board, after an absence of five years, to adjust the exchange rate.
The political forces, coerced by the example set by the other two tracks, came together in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), initially to agree on an election date, and later, in February of this year, to select an interim executive.
We ensured a transparent selection and ratification process for the executives that was watched live by millions of Libyans, adding crucial domestic legitimacy and a sense of buy-in that had largely been lacking in earlier international efforts.
The ensuing executive, the Government of National Unity, was then approved by a majority of the members of the House of Representatives and broadly welcomed by the international community.
Alot of work remains to be done.
In contrast to their silence in 2019, the Security Council rose to the occasion on April 16, adopting UNSCR 2570 calling on member states to require foreign fighters and mercenaries to leave Libya and authorizing the deployment of a U.N. cease-fire monitoring team.
The text also calls on the relevant authorities to facilitate presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 24, 2021, and welcomes the new national unity government. This resolution is an important signal to the Libyan people of international resolve and commitment to support them on the way ahead.
The Libyan authorities charged with facilitating the national elections should take heed. The two assemblies — the fractured House of Representatives and the High Council of State — have long ago exceeded their shelf life.
The first was elected in 2014, the second in 2012. The Libyan people have spoken, time and again, making clear their demand for new elections to usher in a new parliament, to elect anew their representatives, to elect a president, to renew the democratic legitimacy of their institutions.
The two assemblies should make haste to create the legislative and constitutional bases needed to enable Libyans to go to the ballot boxes at the end of this year.
The Government of National Unity should honor the contract it has signed with the LPDF, the Libyan people, accountability, and the international community to respect the Roadmap agreed to by the LPDF in Tunis, the Dec. 24 elections date, and to deliver quickly and in an entirely transparent manner on the immediate needs of the Libyan people, including services to the long-starved municipalities, strengthening of COVID-19 prevention measures, and urgent repair of the decimated electrical sector.
The Presidency Council should focus on national reconciliation, the return of internally displaced persons, and transitional justice. Protection of the Libyan people’s wealth — the country’s oil revenues — through effective and transparent governance and combating corruption at all levels must be a top priority lest those in this government, like their predecessors, lose the trust of the governed.
The international community should send a firm signal to Libyan internal actors, Haftar among them, that this time the world will not stand by should they, once again, pursue a military option.
The international diplomatic lattice created by the Berlin Process should continue to be used to direct and constrain the Libyan parties. And the U.S. should once more play its traditional role — using its influence to ensure compliance with the long-established, rules-based, international system — including actively assisting the U.N. in its difficult task to sustain the momentum that has been created.
Global disorder allowed for the upending of the U.N.’s previous peace process in Libya in 2019; a firm reassertion of, and adherence to, global norms can help ensure that the current process will enjoy a happier fate — one that the Libyan people so clearly deserve.
Williams and Salamé are documenting their experience about Libya in a forthcoming book
Stephanie Williams served as United Nations deputy special representative for political affairs (2018-20) and acting special representative of the secretary-general (2020-21), at the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
Ghassan Salamé was United Nations special representative of the secretary-general in Libya (2017-20) and the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special adviser (2003-07)