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Restoring UN Leadership of Libya’s Peace Process

Efforts to reunify Libya after six years of internal strife have drifted. Global and regional powers should seize the opportunity of a high-level UN meeting on Libya and a new UN special envoy to speak with one voice and act to build an effective and inclusive peace process.

On 20 September, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, will chair a high-level meeting on Libya on the side-lines of the General Assembly. After a long period of drift in international diplomacy, this marks an opportunity to bring greater clarity of purpose to the UN’s mission in Libya. In the meeting’s aftermath, UN member states should speak in a united voice about the urgency of healing the country’s institutional divides, addressing pressing economic and security challenges and empowering the Secretary-General’s new Special Representative, Ghassan Salamé, to find the best way to relaunch an effective and inclusive political process.

Initial indications are that Salamé, who is expected to present his plan for negotiations, will seek to work within the framework of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015 even as he seeks to quickly renegotiate some if its elements. There is widespread international consensus that the LPA, despite its flaws, is the only viable framework at the moment; its collapse would leave an institutional and legal vacuum. The UN is expected to initiate its renegotiation by seeking to get two key institutions whose role is endorsed by the agreement, the House of Representatives (the parliament elected in June 2014 and operating from the eastern city of Tobruk), and the State Council (an advisory body created by the LPA and whose members largely are drawn from a previous parliament) to fulfil their intended functions under the agreement – something neither has done since they were created. The goal also is to get them to agree to new arrangements for the composition and mission of both the Presidency Council, the body created by the LPA and supposed to act in a head-of-state capacity for a transition period, and the Government of National Accord, the executive body supposed to run state affairs. This would be a welcome development. As Crisis Group has previously argued, the formation of a new government and the separation of its duties from that of the Presidency Council offer a plausible way out of the current deadlock in the implementation of the LPA. Such an outcome also requires the backing of a wider array of actors who make up Libya’s fragmented political and military landscape.

To make progress on any new roadmap, however, UN envoy Salamé will need to receive the full-throated support of the states that have been most involved in Libyan diplomacy: France, Russia, the UK and the U.S. among permanent members of the Security Council; Libya’s neighbours, including Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Italy; regional powers further afield such as Qatar and Turkey; and regional institutions such as the European Union (EU), the League of Arab States and the African Union. The diplomatic vacuum of the last year resulted in too many competing initiatives that have created confusion among Libyan factions, or were exploited by them. Greater international convergence is needed to restore the primacy of the UN as the show-runner of the Libyan peace process. Consultation with Salamé also is essential to avoid undermining him. This includes consulting him on interventions aimed at countering people-smugglers in the Mediterranean or jihadist groups that, if unilaterally implemented, could damage his agenda. A political settlement is ultimately the best way to address the myriad of consequences stemming from the Libya’s current instability.

Avoiding Arbitrary Deadlines

At a minimum, external actors should set common expectations for the coming period of renewed negotiations. The idea of 17 December 2017 (the two-year anniversary of the signing of the Skhirat Agreement) serving as an arbitrary deadline for the expiration of the institutional framework created by the LPA should firmly be put to rest. It would place undue pressure on efforts to restart meaningful peace negotiations, which will take time to get off the ground. The LPA, as Crisis Group argued in 2015, was rushed. The international community should not repeat that mistake.

The question of whether, and when, to hold elections is more complicated. Several Libyan and outside actors have called for new elections as soon as possible. So too did a 28 July communiqué issued after France hosted a meeting of the head of the Presidency Council, Faiez Serraj, and the head of the Libyan National Army, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. In theory, calls for new elections are sound. The institutional arrangements created by the LPA always were meant to be transitional, and Libyans should enjoy a chance to democratically appoint their leaders and the current status quo is nearing collapse. In practice, however, legal and political obstacles are likely to obstruct holding them soon.

Without some sort of preliminary agreement that has relatively broad buy-in, elections are likely to set back efforts to reach a settlement. The areas of disagreement among the various camps are fundamental and include the basic contours of a new regime: should Libya be a monarchy or republic; should it be a federation or centralised; should elections be parliamentary, presidential, or both; what electoral law should apply; as well as who, and particularly whether Qadhafi-era officials, can run. If today’s belligerents cannot agree on whether elections should be held and what they should be for, what hope is there that they can produce a viable solution?

The better course is to agree on a transitional arrangement before elections. Those who advocate holding them quickly hope they can create a new legitimacy through the ballot box. Yet, the current Libyan conflict in part is due to the adoption of this logic to push for the June 2014 elections, which immediately were contested (through legal and military means) by the losing camp and interpreted as a carte blanche by the winning camp. To avoid reproducing the same dynamics, the peace process should focus not on elections as an end-goal, but rather on ensuring their outcome is not seen as a zero-sum game.

Economics and Security

The UN is rightly focused on resetting the political process, retaking leadership over negotiations to modify the LPA to allow for its implementation. This is its prime mission. But, given the reality that achieving progress likely will take time, there is also a need to advance on two issues of immediate importance: addressing Libya’s economic situation and launching a security track. Given the UN’s limited resources, it cannot do so without the support of key regional and international actors.

In his 28 August address to the Security Council, Salamé rightly put the spotlight on Libya’s economic situation, arguing that unless “economic challenges are addressed, and soon, the humanitarian crisis in Libya will deepen”. Such challenges include: healing the rift between rival branches of key economic institutions such as the Central Bank of Libya and National Oil Corporation and ensuring they operate effectively; improving the quality of governance, including relations between the Central Bank and the government; resolving the liquidity crisis faced by Libyan banks; and confronting rampant economic predation. Some of this will necessitate outside economic expertise and guidance, whether from states or international financial institutions, and greater collaboration by concerned actors. In the case of fuel-smuggling, for instance, Libya’s neighbours need to coordinate with those who have the capacity to confront land and sea-based smugglers.

Since the beginning of the UN’s efforts in 2015, the peace negotiations’ security track has never taken off. The UN’s current security-related mission is focused on making Tripoli safe for both the Presidency Council and the impending return of UN staff. At a minimum, this should be broadened to include establishing a dialogue among security actors in various parts of the country, starting at the local level (for instance, in southern Libya) and ultimately widening this nationwide. This is a necessary complement to a political dialogue, particularly as security issues – including leadership of security institutions – lie at the heart of disagreements over the LPA. Importantly, this also will make possible broadening negotiations beyond the international community’s four main interlocutors: Serraj (a political actor with no military base), Haftar (an important military actor with political ambitions), President of the House of Representatives Agheela Saleh (a political actor with local military backing in the east) and President of the State Council Abdelrahman Swehli (a political actor with some influence among military groups in the west). Broader talks can also bring in a range of political-military actors with national and local-level influence, but no institutional perch.

A related matter is that of the political and military support many international actors have given to various sides of the conflict. In the case of military backing, this happens in flagrant violation of the UN-imposed arms embargo, as revealed by the June 2017 report of the UN Panel of Experts on Libya. While violations exist on all sides, the report highlighted particularly egregious ones in support of Haftar’s faction. Such actions have a track record of making him reluctant to compromise. Egypt, France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which have the greatest influence over Haftar and are most active in engaging him, should ensure that he is fully incentivised to collaborate with Mr Salamé’s efforts.

Altogether, this amounts to a tall order for the new special envoy who will need to find the right sequencing for a political process and balance the sometimes-contradictory interests of Libyans and external actors alike. His task is hard enough – and will be made infinitely harder if he does not enjoy the political backing and resources of a more united and effective international community.


(c) 2017 International Crisis Group

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