Irene Fernández-Molina

International government recognition dilemmas and pitfalls (2011-19)

One further aspect of the international involvement in post-2011 Libya that deserves closer attention is the broad range of practices of international recognition of governments that have been pursued during the course of this conflict, ranging from the macro to the micro level, and from highly formalised procedures with legal implications to purposefully unofficial modes of interaction.

The repertoire includes declaratory, diplomatic, informal engagement, intergovernmental cooperation and support practices.

Furthermore, in a context of recurring domestic authority splits and areas of limited statehood, these practices have confronted three dilemmas stemming from the gaps or tensions between international vs domestic recognition, legitimacy vs effectiveness and coherence vs inclusivity.

First, the mismatch between international and internal recognition has been prominent in situations where the former has preceded the latter, yet the externally-backed government has proved eventually unable to achieve a viable social contract with all the key societal groups and political stakeholders inside the country. This domestic recognition deficit has affected, to a greater or lesser extent, all the successive internationally-recognised governments in post-2011 Libya.

It was already a concern for the National Transitional Council (NTC) established in Benghazi upon the anti-Gaddafi uprising in February 2011. Originally conceived as a tool of rebel diplomacy vis-à-vis the international community, the NTC, in parallel, had to provide governance in areas under rebel control during the 2011 civil war, and eventually became the country’s government for nearly 10 months after the civil war came to an end. Tensions between the two roles were inevitable.

Still, the NTC mitigated them thanks to a mix of revolutionary legitimacy and the legal effects of its increasingly formal international recognition, which enabled it to secure access to some of Libya’s frozen assets abroad and thereby continue to pay state salaries at home.

The gap between international and domestic recognition was greater in the case of the GNA established in late 2015. The reason for this was the rush that pushed a powerful range of international actors –including multilateral organisations such as the UN, the EU, the Arab League and the African Union– to ‘pledge [their] support’ for this would-be unified central government even prior to the actual signature by Libyan actors of the Libyan Political Agreement (Skhirat agreement) that founded it.

The urge mostly came from the Western crisis approach to both the capture of the Sirte region by the Islamic State (IS) group and the increase in migrant sea crossings from the Libyan coast to Italy. A regular Libyan government was needed as a partner for international anti-terrorism and anti-migration cooperation efforts to be effectively, and legally, boosted.

Yet, the initial strong international and EU endorsement of the GNA was not met with a similar level of domestic sanctioning. The power-sharing elite deal was spoiled as the HoR –the country’s (transitional) legislative authority in accordance with the Libyan Political Agreement– denied consent to the GNA.

Besides a new West-East government split, the GNA’s domestic recognition shortage was reflected in its very struggle to physically set foot in and operate from Tripoli, exerting effective rule over the armed non-state actors that controlled the capital’s security.

In my interviews with Libya-focused diplomats and international practitioners based in Tunis in early 2019, there was a widespread, ex-post acknowledgment that the GNA had been one of those ‘fictions the international community has to get into’.

Secondly, the relationship between the legitimacy and effectiveness of the various aspiring Libyan governments is a complex one, and foreign actors have had to balance between these two types of criteria.

In the case of the GNA, after being originally externally enabled, legitimacy became taken for granted and prioritised by the international community, who expected a virtuous circle whereby effectiveness would progressively come to match it. However, from 2016 onwards, the GNA did not become more effective in its rule over Libyan territory and population.

Quite the opposite: its rival Haftar’s LAAF consolidated and expanded its control in the east and the south of the country. This led international interaction with this anti-GNA rebel to gradually shift from informal engagement to increasingly official diplomatic practices, deflating the exclusiveness of the recognition of the GNA in several respects.

Diplomatic practices towards Haftar grew in significance from bilateral visits from regional allies such as Egypt and the UAE to official invitations from Russia in 2016, and to participation on an equal footing with the GNA’s head Fayez al-Sarraj in the Libya-focused multilateral summits organised by France and Italy in 2017 and 2018.

Chief among the justifications for such an evolution provided in my fieldwork was that Haftar could ‘not be ignored’ as an effective ‘party on the ground’ and that it was ‘one of the stakeholders’ with most ‘influence on the peace process’. The non-governmental nature of this actor was helpful because it allowed to claim that dealings with him were not in breach of the international recognition consensus.

In any case, Haftar’s effectiveness-based international recognition worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy in consolidating a diplomatic fait accompli at least until the 2019-20 civil war.

Thirdly, the de facto veto-player role of Haftar’s LAAF and other Libyan armed non-state actors raised the dilemma between coherence and inclusivity in conflict mediation and peacemaking processes. This applied most notably to the mediation efforts undertaken by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) after the establishment of the GNA, when the UN had thrown all its weight behind this government and was thus considered one-sided by other Libyan players.

From mid-2017 onwards, though, concerns about the counterproductive side-effects of this approach led UNSMIL to reconsider and reframe its mandate putting a greater emphasis on engagement with ‘all Libyan political actors’ and ‘bridging the inter-Libyan divide’.

This change of method was influenced by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General Ghassan Salamé’s preference for bottom-up mediation and grassroots dialogue initiatives involving non-state actors, as part of his roadmap for the Libyan national conference that was supposed to be held in the spring of 2019.

The aim of such a wide-ranging preparatory consultation process was that the national conference endorsed a pre-negotiated transition plan that enjoyed the wide domestic consensus and domestic recognition that the Libyan Political Agreement and the GNA had lacked three years earlier.


Related Articles