Hanan Salah

Libya is making good progress: ceasefire, unity government, elections soon. The stabilization process is now to be continued in Berlin. It’s going to be difficult.

The second Berlin conference on Libya this Wednesday follows a ceasefire agreement signed by the conflicting parties last October. The focus will be on “the preparations for the national elections scheduled for December 24th and the withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries from Libya as agreed in the ceasefire”.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and UN Secretary General António Guterres, the joint hosts of the conference , announced that there will also be “steps to unite the Libyan security forces” .

Germany should also use this second conference to address systematic and serious human rights violations by armed Libyan groups and government authorities, and to demand public accountability. 

The states that attended the first Berlin meeting in January 2020 , including the US, several EU member states, Russia , Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, are expected to join the current Libyan interim government of national unity, again this time (GNU), will be sitting at the table.

Following the conclusion of the first conference in 2020, Germany and the other participants formed a working group for human rights and committed themselves to encouraging all parties to respect international humanitarian law and human rights. 

So far, however, it appears that justice and accountability are not a priority. The Libyan authorities practically ignored the conclusions of the conference on human rights, which included ensuring the rule of law, ending arbitrary detention and being accountable for serious human rights violations.

Still dependent on armed groups

The fighting in Libya ended last June after a 14-month conflict between armed groups backing the former Libyan government of National Unity in Tripoli and the armed group known as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces based in eastern Libya. 

The ceasefire was largely respected and the UN-mediated consultations between Libyan factions and experts known as the Libya Political Dialogue Forum eventually resulted in the GNU.

In March it led to a swift and non-violent takeover of the former government of National Unity in Tripoli and the merger with the transitional government in eastern Libya. Foreign diplomatic missions, including those of the European Union , announced the reopening of embassies in Tripoli in recent weeks. 

Foreign officials and dignitaries – Foreign Minister Maas was one of the first – have visited Tripoli since the GNU was sworn in by the House of Representatives on March 15.

However, the Libyan authorities remain dependent on armed groups and the political situation remains fragile, as does the current ceasefire . 

The situation is made even more risky by the continued involvement of third countries such as Turkey and Russia in the arming of Libyan groups and the provision of foreign fighters. 

It becomes difficult to hold those responsible for serious crimes accountable while law and order authorities still rely on the loyalty of unaccountable militias and armed groups.

Free and fair elections are hardly conceivable

Among other issues on the conference agenda, the unification of the Libyan armed forces will become a contentious issue, especially given the unclear role of the Libyan Armed Forces commander, Khalifa Haftar. 

The amalgamation of existing armed groups into a single state force will require careful scrutiny of their members for possible implications in serious human rights violations during the past decade – no easy task. 

Germany and the other participants should introduce standards and mechanisms to ensure that no one joins a future state force if they have unlawfully killed, or tortured.

With regard to national elections, there are still no decisions on the legal basis and order of election of a new parliament and the future president, or at least on whether the president is elected directly or indirectly through parliament. 

The government has not yet called a referendum on a draft constitution drawn up by an elected assembly to draft a constitution in 2017. 

Given the objections of various political groups and ethnic minorities, it is unclear whether the referendum will take place and whether it should be held before the national elections.

It seems unlikely today that the government of national unity can create the conditions necessary to hold free and fair elections . If the government is serious about fulfilling its main mission of organizing national elections, then it needs to provide a clear roadmap and an urgent public commitment to uphold the rule of law, justice and accountability. 

Germany and the other conference participants can offer guidance here, but should also demand appropriate control mechanisms from the Libyan government.

No more appeasement politics

One of the most important practical issues to be resolved before the elections is ensuring the registration of as many Libyans as possible, both inside and outside the country, including tens of thousands of internally displaced persons, thousands of long-term detainees arbitrarily detained without trial, and hundreds of thousands of Libyans who are eligible to vote. who are abroad. 

The High Electoral Commission, which is responsible for planning and conducting the elections, should commission an independent review of the electoral roll and promptly come up with an adequate security plan. Election organizers must ensure that independent observers can safely reach remote polling stations.

A functioning judicial system capable of resolving electoral-related disputes quickly and fairly is a feature of free and fair elections, but the Libyan judicial system faces enormous challenges, including harassment and attacks on judges, prosecutors, lawyers, witnesses and accused by armed groups.

A policy of appeasement and turning a blind eye to human rights violations committed by Libyan groups and foreign groups that support them have been an integral part of the political agreements in Libya since 2015 and also characterize the first Berlin conference. That needs to change. 

Otherwise there is a risk that it will only pay lip service to human rights and that stability in the country will ultimately not be sustainable. 

Germany and the other participants will not be able to solve all of Libya’s problems at once. But the people of Libya have a right to an end to the widespread impunity that has prevailed so far.


Hanan Salah – Senior Libya Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Divisio


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