The International Crisis Group considers the international conference on 13 December in Rome an opportunity to bring together a divided Libya through an inclusive political process. Under the co-chairmanship of Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, it will bring together the “P5+5” group that has backed the talks – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and Germany, Italy, Spain, the European Union and the UN, as well as Libya’s neighbours.
Intense diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Libya are of course welcome, but there are risks associated with a precipitous rush to anoint a government without consolidating domestic support or addressing urgent security concerns. Ending negotiations will strengthen hardliners; granting recognition to a government that has insufficient backing will condemn it to irrelevance.
Establishing a sound basis for stabilising the country entails giving Libyan, regional and other international actors and Martin Kobler, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative, the necessary support and time to rebuild trust in the UN – which was damaged by the premature announcement of the composition of a government of national accord in October and the allegations of impropriety by the Secretary General’s former Special Representative, Bernardino León – and to secure as wide a consensus as possible through the following steps:
- acknowledging that a government of national accord is likely to be stillborn if prematurely recognised. It would not be able to be seated in Tripoli due to security concerns and might trigger renewed fighting for control of the capital;
- giving time before announcing a government to revise the Tripoli security plan proposed by the UN and to conduct a broader, nationwide security dialogue between military coalitions – including militias from Jebel Nefusa, Misrata, Tripoli and Zintan in the west, the Libyan National Army, the Shura Council of Benghazi and the Petroleum Forces Guards in the east, and Tebu, Tuareg and Arab groups in the south– to buttress the political dialogue. This would allow these actors to devise a coordinated approach to combat the Islamic State and other extremists;
- prioritising urgent economic questions, via a separate track of the UN-led negotiations with international financial institution support. These talks should build agreement for steps that the incoming government of national accord will have to take quickly, while determining interim economic policy and managing key Libyan financial institutions; and
- seeking to win over Libyan stakeholders who are supportive of an agreement in principle but demand clarification or modification of details, notably some members of the General National Congress (GNC) and the House of Representatives (HoR), both of whose endorsements are needed for an agreement’s implementation (which calls for extension of the HoR’s mandate and creation of a State Council of former GNC members). At present, however, the leaders of both parliaments oppose the deal.
There is, rightly, concern that more negotiations, especially if in bad faith, would allow further deterioration on the ground. But security and economic talks must happen in any event. Their prospect will be threatened should a hard push on the political track lead to polarisation or fragmentation. Pursuing the security and economic tracks even as the political track regains its footing, however, should be seen as an opportunity to begin to correct the increasingly alarming economic, humanitarian and security situation and help build momentum toward a more inclusive agreement and buy-in for a government of national accord. Crisis Group recognises that there is strong pressure to give the proposed government of national accord international recognition. In the event of such a decision, it urges participants to:
- state clearly that actors who do not initially sign onto the agreement will have the opportunity to do so at a later date without sanctions, which should not be imposed on the sole criteria of rejecting a UN agreement or refusing to recognise the government of national accord. Given the likelihood that an agreement will be contested (including in Libya’s Supreme Court), room must be created for future concessions, even if limited;
- leave the leadership and membership of the government of national accord’s presidency council, which will have key decision-making powers, open to future modification. This is crucial for eventually drawing in those whose support is conditional on other factors;
- encourage Libyans who support the UN deal to do more to change perceptions of it. Prime Minister-designate Serraj, whose success depends on broadening his support base, and politicians from the western city of Misrata, who were key to efforts to reach an initial agreement last summer, should reach out to the east of the country and assuage fears that the western Libyans seek to dominate the new political institutions; and
- pursue the security and economic tracks described above with key stakeholders. Even if the broad outlines and formation of a government of national accord are fixed, there should be flexibility to negotiate its policies.
Many countries gathered in Rome intervened militarily in Libya in 2011 without a plan for the aftermath; they should not repeat that mistake now on the diplomatic front. This conference is an occasion to chart a realistic way forward. It should not gamble with Libya’s future.
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