Reflecting on the UN’s strategic role as an international partner in Libya and identifying the UN’s comparative advantages and limitations with its current mandate.
On June 9, 2022, the International Peace Institute (IPI), the Stimson Center, and Security Council Report organized a virtual workshop to discuss the situation in Libya and ways for the UN, including through the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), to strengthen its engagement in the country over the coming months.
This discussion was part of a series of workshops that examine how the activities included in peace operations’ mandates can be better prioritized, sequenced, and grounded in a political strategy. This was the first workshop on UN engagement in Libya since 2016.
The meeting note summarizes the main points raised in the discussion under the Chatham House rule of non-attribution and does not necessarily represent the views of all participants. The project is funded with the support of the German Federal Foreign Office.
The Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) by the end of July 2022. The current mandate, adopted in March 2022, was a technical rollover of the previous mandate for the fourth consecutive time.
Deliberations on UNSMIL’s mandate are unfolding amid a protracted political impasse. Since March, renewed competition between the two rival executives—the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU)—has paralyzed the UN-endorsed framework that emerged from the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum.
This competition among elites has also drawn attention away from the underlying drivers of violence and insecurity and caused the political, security, economic, and human rights situations to deteriorate.
The special adviser of the UN secretary-general on Libya is leading track-1 facilitation efforts in the hope of bringing the two competing power centers to an agreement over the path forward for elections that were scheduled to take place in December 2021.
The Security Council will also have to reach a consensus on a new special representative of the secretary-general to lead UNSMIL and replace UN Special Adviser Stephanie Williams, who is set to leave her post at the end of June.
In this context, the International Peace Institute (IPI), the Stimson Center, and Security Council Report co-hosted a virtual roundtable discussion on June 9, 2022, to reflect on the UN’s strategic role as an international partner in Libya and identify the UN’s comparative advantages and limitations with its current mandate.
Participants also considered scenarios for the trajectory of Libya’s political process as well as the state of security, human rights, and the economy.
Participants agreed that the UN continues to be an important partner to Libya and that UNSMIL’s mandate is broad and flexible enough to enable continued engagement.
Nonetheless, the current political stalemate, the uncertain trajectory of various mediation tracks, human rights and humanitarian concerns, and the upcoming expiration of UNSMIL’s mandate underscore the importance of recalibrating international support to the country.
To that end, several points were raised for consideration by the UN Security Council and UNSMIL.
Key considerations for UNSMIL’s mandate renewal
- Acknowledge the comparative advantages and limitations of UN engagement in Libya.
- Clearly articulate and better communicate its strategic priorities and desired “end state.”
- Focus on fostering cohesion among dialogue initiatives and holding Libyan stakeholders accountable for following through on their commitments.
- Sustain meaningful engagement with a broad array of civil society organizations.
- Develop a more holistic approach to its mandate by focusing on economic issues and mainstreaming human rights in all aspects of its work.
To the Security Council and broader UN membership:
- Continue prioritizing Libya and ensure consistency between stated positions and actions.
- Provide UNSMIL more funding and staffing to engage on economic issues and mainstream human rights.
- Support the renewal of the mandate of the International Fact-Finding Mission on Libya.
- Ensure a speedy transition to the new UN special representative of the secretary-general for UNSMIL.
As Libya’s political impasse persists, the two competing executives are increasingly using violence to ensconce themselves in power, leading to a deterioration of security, human rights, and economic conditions. This complex situation raises questions about the orientation of UN engagement in Libya.
Libya’s current political framework revolves around the International Follow-Up Committee on Libya and the UN-facilitated Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). In 2020, the LPDF produced a transition roadmap, including the organization of national elections by December 2021.
Despite initial broad consensus, the roadmap hit a political impasse in the second half of 2021, resulting in the failure to hold elections by the December deadline. The mandate of the GNU set up through the LPDF is now set to expire at the end of June 2022.
The political crisis culminated in a vote in the HoR in February 2022 to elect Fathi Bashagha as prime minister in place of Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the interim prime minister in the GNU.
Since then, the two parallel executives—Bashagha and the HoR in eastern Libya and Dbeibah and the High Council of State (HCS) in Tripoli—have competed for power, with increasingly frequent clashes in the capital and other parts of western Libya.
In March 2022, UN Special Adviser Williams established a Joint Committee comprising members of the HCS and HoR to agree on the constitutional basis for elections. During its first two sessions in Cairo in April and May, the committee agreed on 137 out of 197 constitutional articles, including some of the prerogatives of the president and prime minister.
Yet important issues remain outstanding, including the sequencing of elections, transitional governance provisions, the allocation of seats in parliament, local governance arrangements, and eligibility criteria for candidates.
One participant identified three possible scenarios for the outcome of the talks in Cairo:
(1) agreement on a full constitutional draft;
(2) agreement on most but not all constitutional issues, requiring ongoing mediation; or
(3) no agreement (dismissed as the least likely because of popular pressure to move forward).
Even in the case of full or partial agreement, however, the subsequent political process is uncertain. Participants questioned whether the committee members would be able to get support from their respective legislative bodies, let alone agreement between the two bodies.
One participant raised concerns that any agreement could be held up in court, giving spoilers the opportunity to dispute its legitimacy.
While participants appreciated the UN’s role in facilitating this dialogue, they posed questions about the process’s legitimacy and political viability. It is uncertain whether the members of the Joint Committee have constituencies among the broader Libyan population.
Moreover, many of them are perceived as being part of the problem and as having benefited from the country’s instability. It is therefore unclear whether they have a vested interest in coming to an agreement.
Participants also questioned the legitimacy of the process’s format, considering that it lacks a clear legislative basis. Others called for more deliberate engagement of civil society and more integration of human rights throughout the process. One participant described the overall process as reflective of a desire to get “fast results instead of credible results.”
In parallel to the talks in Cairo, the International Follow-Up Committee on Libya, which emerged from the Berlin Process, has four dialogue tracks—political, security, economic, and human rights/international humanitarian law—each co-facilitated by the UN and other partners.
The committee’s four working groups have met several times during the past few months (including in May and June 2022), signaling international partners’ interest in maintaining momentum.
However, many participants were concerned that some of Libya’s international partners that publicly support UN-led efforts are simultaneously pursuing their national agendas behind the scenes or through competing (if not conflicting) processes.
For example, Russian and Turkish officials met on June 8th to discuss their collaboration in Libya, while a delegation of leaders from Western Libya met with Moroccan officials on June 9th.
This speaks to the “forum shopping” undertaken by many protagonists of the Libyan conflict. There is also a perception that Egypt, by hosting the talks in Cairo, has undue influence over the outcome.
There was broad acknowledgement that the protagonists of the conflict benefit from the legitimacy bestowed by this international engagement and that action against spoilers is needed to disrupt the cycle of violence.
Against the backdrop of this political impasse, participants highlighted Libya’s deteriorating security situation and the lack of substantive progress on security sector reform (SSR).
Competition for territorial control among armed groups continues to threaten the cease-fire, particularly in Tripoli and towns in the northwest. In recent months, several disputes between brigades affiliated with Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army and forces supporting the GNU have escalated, resulting in casualties.
This tension culminated on May 16th when Bashagha entered Tripoli to install his government, leading to clashes with armed groups loyal to the Dbeibah. Such incidents could easily escalate.
One participant drew parallels to the security landscape in 2019 prior to Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, describing the current situation as even more volatile, as armed groups are continuously shifting their affiliations, and neither political faction has complete control over security forces in their region.
After several months of suspension, Libya’s 5+5 Joint Military Commission resumed talks in Tunis in June 2022. Participants described the commission as useful as a formal channel to key political figures inside and outside of Libya.
For instance, members of the commission, alongside local mediation efforts, helped ease tensions after the security crisis on May 16th by creating the conditions for Bashagha to leave Tripoli.
Nevertheless, several participants stressed that the security track of dialogue remains “shallow” due to a lack of vision on issues like SSR and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), as well as insufficient political attention. Some participants also pointed to UNSMIL’s lack of leverage, expertise, and a clear mandate in this area.
Others noted that UN-led conversations on security issues are likely to remain inconsequential without Russian engagement, as Russia’s buy-in is necessary to push its proxies toward a political solution and neutralize their potential role as spoilers.
The presence of foreign mercenaries continues to destabilize Libya. In recent months, armed confrontations between Haftar’s Libyan National Army, Chadian armed opposition groups, and Sudanese mercenaries in eastern Libya have threatened to escalate.
Foreign mercenaries—allegedly acting on behalf of Russia, Turkey, and several Arab and neighboring states—are also present and benefit from breaches in the arms embargo. This is despite efforts by the UN special adviser and UNSMIL, which convened a meeting of the 5+5 Joint Military Commission in Sirte on February 9th to discuss operationalizing an action plan for the withdrawal of mercenaries, foreign fighters, and foreign forces from Libyan territory.
These efforts are complicated by divisions among the permanent members of the Security Council, some of which continue to support Haftar despite their rhetorical support for the UN-led process.
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