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The United Nations and Libya: The habit of putting the cart before the horse

As the international body entrusted with world peace, security and conflict mediation worldwide, the United Nations (UN) has been involved in Libya’s internal conflict from the very start.

This involvement came quickly – somewhat hastily and ill-advised from day one. Over the years, the UN became part of the conflict, instead of being the usual impartial mediator broadly accepted by all local protagonists, as it should be.

Just 11 days after civil unrest against the government of Muammar Gaddafi erupted in eastern Libya on 15 February, 2011, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1970, imposing an arms embargo and referring Gaddafi, his son and his intelligence chief to the International Criminal Court (ICC) accused of crimes against humanity. The UN still does not know the facts about what actually happened.

Major UN powers wanted Gaddafi out in the name of enforcing UN resolutions against his government. It was a big mistake on the UN’s part to take one side in the internal conflict in the country. But the UN was pushing forwards, building on its mistake and getting deeper embroiled into the Libyan mess without any clear exit strategy, let alone a permanent solution.

When the rebels prevailed in the war, thanks to an extensive NATO air bombardment campaign, just as quickly, in September 2011, the UNSC passed Resolution 2009, creating its Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) without much of a thought-out strategy.

It was a failed attempt to create a democratic and peaceful Libya.

Permanent UNSC members concluded that quick elections would be the best solution for Libya and should happen as soon as possible. Elections took place in June 2012, but reconciliation as a basis for a future Libya was forgotten. What Libya needed then was a transitional government for at least another year to collect arms, dismantle the militias and launch a national reconciliation process prior to any elections. Clearly, here the cart is before the horse.

Indirectly, this helped militias keep turfs, hampering any peaceful future democratic process.

By the end of 2011, the UNSC had passed half a dozen resolutions on Libya, but none of them were reinforced enough to tackle the critical issues of national reconciliation and the disarmament of militias. In the background, fighting in the country never stopped, but war was decentralised to city and tribal levels with little mainstream media reporting.

In October 2012, armed militias forced the elected parliament to vote, authorising the invasion of Bani Walid, southwest of Tripoli. More than 60,000 people were displaced, with hundreds of civilian casualties. UNSMIL couldn’t do much, except watch the bloodshed.

In subsequent years, UNSMIL’s mandate kept expanding, touching every aspect of life and steadily moving away from its original political goal of stabilising the war-torn country and putting it on the right track towards democracy.

By 2014, UNSMIL became more of a de-facto government than an assisting political mission. It pushed for yet another national legislative election in a divided country without a constitution. The June 2014 elections failed to produce any decisive winner, triggering yet another war.

Between 2014 and late 2015, Libya had two competing authorities: the UN-recognised and elected government based in Al-Byada, in the east, and a Tripoli-based government known as the National Salvation Government. It was a cover for violent elements belonging to the former outlawed Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

In the background, UNSMIL continued its efforts to bring Libya out of its darkness, but all the UN body could really do was attempt negotiations, while the country was being flooded with arms. Local militias gained more resources, further expanding their control.

In December 2015, UNSMIL led negotiations producing the Libyan Political Agreement and creating the Government of National Accord (GNA). The GNA was supposed to take power for a maximum of two years if approved by parliament. But before any of that happened, the UNSC made another error by passing Resolution 2259, recognising the GNA as the only legitimate government in Libya and withdrawing its recognition of the Al-Byada-based elected government. Parliament rejected the GNA twice, yet it is still in office today.

This made reconciliation harder, triggering another more bloody and devastating war when renegade General Khalifa Haftar, in April 2019, ordered his Libyan National Army (LNA) to attack Tripoli in an attempt to depose the GNA.

By then, UNSMIL was already deeply entangled in Libya’s internal affairs, becoming the “go-to” for all sorts of problems in a collapsing country. This led the US, and other UNSC members, in 2019, to propose splitting up UNSMIL into two entities: one for humanitarian issues and the other for political concerns.

This added another unnecessary bureaucratic layer to UNSMIL, forcing it to increase its human and financial resources with little benefit to Libya – the country it is supposed to help.

Even worse, last November, UNSMIL created yet another new unconstitutional and unelected body called the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). With the exception of a few, the 75-member LPDF group does not consist of elected officials – they are neither elected nor representative of the country. Furthermore, the LPDF has the power to name the prime minister and presidential council for Libya, which it did on 5 February. The new government must pass a vote of confidence in parliament.

Amazingly, the UNSC issued a statement on 9 February welcoming this “achievement”. It also urged the new interim executive authority to agree on the formation of the new government. No one in both the UNSC and UNSMIL seems to note that this newly-designated executive will only become an interim executive after it is approved by parliament – not before – as the UNSC statement implies. Again, UNSMIL is bypassing any due democratic procedures.

Even worse, should the divided parliament fail to approve the new government when it is formed, the LPDF has the ultimate power to approve it, as dictated by UNSMIL’s roadmap document, which is the only frame of reference. What is not clear is what will happen if the LPDF itself rejects the government. The roadmap says nothing about such a possibility, except that UNSMIL is here to stay.

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