Thomas M. Hill & Martin Pimentel

Charged with bringing peace to Libya, the U.N. body was never set up for success — it’s time to rethink its mandate.

Nearly 12 years since the overthrow of Libya’s longtime dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, the country remains divided, providing opportunities for malign foreign interference. European and Middle Eastern governments have exploited the Libyan conflict to advance narrow self-interests — often at the expense of the Libyan people.

Against this backdrop, the United Nations, via its support mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has worked to find a way to balance the interests of the Libyan people, political elites and powerful external actors to devise a political settlement and resolve the conflict.

The mission’s many critics, including a sizeable number of Libyans, believe UNSMIL has underachieved and been tainted by scandal. With the Libyan conflict stagnating, recent changes in UNSMIL leadership, and a renewed mandate, it is appropriate to examine what the future of UNSMIL should look like.

UNSMIL was originally given only a three-month mandate and has had to survive without a long-term commitment for nearly 10 years. Still, the U.N. mission has notched several notable achievements since its 2011 establishment, including the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (2015) and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (2020).

But critics claim that the organization lacks the diplomatic, political or military heft to force combatants to make concessions or hold external parties accountable. As a result, several prominent Libyans have called for UNSMIL to be dissolved, arguing that Libyans can settle their disputes without the intervention of the U.N. Others, frustrated with UNSMIL’s lack of progress, would like to see the mandate of the mission changed to reflect the challenges of the current conflict — not the conflict as it existed in 2011.  

Despite these complaints, the U.N. renewed the mission’s mandate this fall with only a minor modification to paragraph 4, urging “Libyan political institutions and key stakeholders to agree to a roadmap” to deliver elections as soon as possible. Long-standing concerns about UNSMIL’s leadership, which has been beset by scandal and resignation, persist.

On September 25, Abdoulaye Bathily of Senegal officially assumed the role of special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG) for Libya and head of UNSMIL with the backing of the African Union, which voiced strong support for the appointment of an African. Bathily replaces the widely respected Stephanie Williams. Despite being on the job for three months, there are already rumors that Bathily’s management style has alienated some central figures, further fueling the calls from some to dissolve UNSMIL.  

Competing Interests: From Revolution to Peacebuilding

The U.N. created UNSMIL as the Libyan opposition began to consolidate military victories following the largely leaderless popular uprising in 2011. Libya had long been a politically monolithic entity with all real power residing in the hands of Qaddafi and his family. With no viable political parties, civil society organizations (including religious organizations), or military leaders able to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, international actors — especially those that had been active in the NATO coalition effort to oust Qaddafi — began to identify proxies and allies.

Competing interests and divisions influenced the foundation of UNSMIL. By March 2011, it was clear that the interests of the Obama administration did not align with the positions advocated by the United Kingdom, Germany or France. For the United States, the political upheaval in Libya was occurring in Europe’s backyard and therefore primarily Europe’s responsibility to resolve.

As analyst Fred Wehrey notes in “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper viewed NATO intervention as costly, impractical and short-sighted. Others argued that the power and legitimacy of the Libyan revolution derived in part from a lack of American involvement.

Officials feared that a leading U.S. role in subsequent stabilization efforts could ultimately do more harm than good for the emerging opposition movement. Despite these tensions, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were ultimately able to successfully lobby President Obama to sign on to a no-fly zone over Libya. 

But even as the United States agreed to take a more active role in Libya, the fault lines between the allies were already being drawn. Pundits began pointing to apparent similarities between Libya and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, including the potential for a power vacuum, economic collapse and a prolonged and costly foreign intervention.

This final point particularly occupied the thoughts of European leaders, with the British foreign secretary tweeting that the stabilization would be led by Libyans and would only include the UK in an advisory role. Senior French officials echoed this sentiment, pointing to the failure of the political transition in Iraq as a reason to avoid a Western-led transition in Libya. 

Simultaneously, the Libyan opposition was beginning to show fractures as well. In March 2011, a group of local opposition groups in Benghazi formed the Transitional National Council and declared itself the official representative body of the Libyan opposition. While the council gained U.N. recognition, it faced domestic resistance from several directions.

Many Libyans took issue with the presence of Qaddafi-era officials in leadership positions on the council. Islamists also demanded that the council recognize a national constitution based on Shariah law. 

The formation of a formal government exacerbated regional discontent. The split since 2015 between the western Government of National Accord and the eastern House of Representatives has occupied much of the discourse, but local-level tribal and armed groups divisions have been at least as significant as the national dispute. At that level, powerful armed groups vie for power and material interests, further complicating attempts at reconciliation and unity.

UNSMIL’s Fraught History

The original UNSMIL mandate reflects NATO members’ cautious approach to the Libyan transition process. The U.N. established UNSMIL to:

(a) stabilize the country;

(b) initiate political dialogue to foster reconciliation and lay the ground for elections and a new constitution;

(c) protect human rights;

(d) help Libya’s economy recover; and

(e) coordinate international support. 

However, UNSMIL was never empowered to fulfill all elements of its mandate, most notably, the ability to “restore public security and order.” To do this, UNSMIL would have needed a peacekeeping force made up of international troops or NATO would have needed to put “boots on the ground.” Obama repeatedly pledged that U.S. involvement in Libya would not include ground troops.

In addition to U.S. hesitancy, Libyans were adamantly opposed to international peacekeeping forces, perhaps demonstrating the lingering animosities that still simmer inside Libyan society in response to the Italian colonial period. Nevertheless, the absence of so-called “blue helmets” meant that UNSMIL was always going to be working with one hand tied behind its back.

U.N. sanctions regimes are notoriously weak and often unenforced even by countries that purport to support them; it’s been no different in Libya. The most significant sanctions were asset freezes on Qaddafi’s family and his associates. But according to the U.N., international actors have blatantly flaunted arms embargoes without repercussion.

Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the United States has opted not to enforce sanctions on influential armed group leaders and political spoilers under either the Global Magnitsky Act or various executive orders.     

Today, Libya finds itself with two rival governments — with Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah representing the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli and Fathi Bashagha representing the parliament in the east — and tensions have begun to spill over into deadly clashes that risk spiraling into wider conflict.

UNSMIL’s mandate now reflects the need to achieve a cease-fire and limit the proliferation of arms and materiel. But, importantly, is still tied to implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), which is not a binding agreement under Libyan law and was never ratified by relevant political bodies.

As a result, UNSMIL is locked into attempting to manifest an outcome that the Libyans themselves are not committed to. Libyan officials who were elected in the run up to the LPA are now serving on expired terms, undermining their claims to a mandate and complicating the prospects for resolving constitutional questions that would establish a roadmap for elections.

But UNSMIL’s lack of success cannot be laid solely at the feet of those Libyan political elites that have refused to prioritize the needs of the nation above parochial and personal self-interest. Indeed, for some, UNSMIL’s weakness is not problematic; it allows self-interested regional states and international actors to operate with near impunity while publicly pledging support for the U.N. as the instrument for establishing peace in Libya.  

Ultimately, UNSMIL’s power comes from the support of U.N. member states. If those member states are unwilling or unable to enforce arms embargoes, level sanctions against spoilers and hold one another accountable for their actions then UNSMIL will always be limited in its ability to fulfill its mandate.

To be sure, UNSMIL’s leadership has undermined its own credibility in the past — the revelation that former UNSMIL chief Bernardino Leon secretly accepted a lucrative position from the UAE government while still working as the U.N.’s special envoy to Libya was especially damaging.

The repeated and unexpected turnover of UNSMIL’s special envoys have also limited their efficacy (few have served longer than a year or two). But the poor management of UNSMIL should not overshadow the role played by major international actors.

Many have argued for a more robust and visible U.S. engagement in diplomatic efforts to resolve the Libya conflict, but successive administrations have shown little or no desire. Libya, and North Africa more broadly, is an historically underappreciated region among U.S. foreign policy priorities. European states like France and Italy continue to advocate for policies and individuals, often in contradiction to each other despite public pledges to the contrary.

And regional countries — especially Turkey, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia — have been the most egregious violators of U.N. arms embargoes. Turkey even has its own forces on the ground. The efforts of all of these countries undermine UNSMIL and prevent diplomatic progress toward a peaceful solution.   

Prospects for the Future

U.N. peacekeeping missions have been overwhelmingly successful at reducing violent conflict and facilitating negotiated political settlements. Bathily himself has served as the deputy special representative to the U.N. Mission in Mali from 2013-2014, when the mission enjoyed high legitimacy and relative stability.

However, despite rational and justifiable arguments for a peacekeeping or multi-national force mission in Libya, the country’s political leadership is adamantly opposed to the idea — it’s perhaps the only thing they all can agree upon.

There will be another opportunity to revise UNSMIL’s mandate in 2023, either when the current mandate expires or if Bathily were to resign (out of frustration or because of outside pressures), at which point the UNSC should consider revising some of the existing mandate language.

In particular, language related to the implementation of the LPA should be removed entirely and the preambular paragraphs should explicitly recognize that both legislative bodies are operating without a valid mandate.

An explicit recognition by the U.N. that these legislative branch bodies are, in fact, not legitimate could shame political leaders into making the kinds of concessions necessary to execute a free, fair and inclusive national elections with respectable voter turnout. (International legitimacy is known to be of great importance to both rival governments.)

In addition, if the international community is serious about resolving the current conflict then they need to hold each other accountable for their actions. European governments must find a way to align their actions with their rhetoric, demonstrating a common European position rather than competing national interests.

Encouraging the United States to take a tougher stance with respect to the UAE and Egypt in particular would be meaningful. As the war in Ukraine has changed global energy markets, North Africa is increasingly important as an alternative energy source to Russia.

This pivot toward North Africa should give the United States and Europe the courage it needs to take a harder line with political spoilers. There is also an opportunity for Algeria to play an important role. Algeria appears to be eager to balance Egyptian influence in the Maghreb.

If Algeria were to signal that it would be willing to discuss new areas of collaboration with the United States and Europe in return for applied pressure on Egypt (and other spoilers in Libya), that might be the justification that Washington and others need to engage more productively.

The international community ostensibly supports the U.N. as the lead entity in resolving the Libyan conflict. The Libyan people appear to be divided on the role of the U.N. However, given the changing nature of the conflict, the impact of the war in Ukraine and the near universal recognition that UNSMIL in its current form has not been successful, there is an opportunity to change course.

Revising UNSMIL’s mandate would be a small but significant first step. Ultimately, UNSMIL’s success or failure will depend on the willingness of U.N. member states to hold one another accountable and match their actions to their rhetoric.


Thomas Hill is the senior program officer for North Africa at USIP. He most recently served as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution where his research focused on reforming civilian U.S. foreign policy agencies. 

Martin Pimentel is a USIP research assistant based in Rabat, Morocco.


Related Articles