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Restoring UN Leadership of Libya’s Peace Process
Restoring UN Leadership of Libya’s Peace Process
Members of the Libyan army stand after a fire broke out at a car tyre disposal plant during clashes against Islamist gunmen in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on 23 December 2014. AFP/Abdullah Doma
Report 157 / Middle East & North Africa

Libya: Getting Geneva Right

After six months of worsening clashes, Libya is on the brink of all-out civil war and catastrophic state collapse. All parties must press the two rival authorities to join a national unity government, resolutely uphold the UN arms embargo, and persuade regional actors to stop fuelling the conflict.

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Executive Summary

Libya’s deteriorating internal conflict may be nearing a dramatic turning point. Over six months of fighting between two parliaments, their respective governments and allied militias have led to the brink of all-out war. On the current trajectory, the most likely medium-term prospect is not one side’s triumph, but that rival local warlords and radical groups will proliferate, what remains of state institutions will collapse, financial reserves (based on oil and gas revenues and spent on food and refined fuel imports) will be depleted, and hardship for ordinary Libyans will increase exponentially. Radical groups, already on the rise as the beheading of 21 Egyptians and deadly bombings by the Libyan franchise of the Islamic State (IS) attest, will find fertile ground, while regional involvement – evidenced by retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes – will increase. Actors with a stake in Libya’s future should seize on the UN’s January diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva that points to a possible peaceful way out; but to get a deal between Libyan factions – the best base from which to counter jihadis – they must take more decisive and focused supportive action than they yet have.

Since mid-2014, fighting has spread and intensified. Aerial bombardment and attacks on civilian infrastructure have increased; at least 1,000 Libyans have died (some estimates are as high as 2,500), many of them non-combatants; and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees have increased from 100,000 to 400,000. The fledging post-Qadhafi state is beginning to buckle: basic goods and fuel are in short supply; in some urban areas people no longer have reliable access to communications or electricity and are using firewood for cooking. The likelihood of major militia offensives in cities like Benghazi raises the spectre of humanitarian disaster. Moreover, Libya faces the prospect of insolvency within the next few years as a result of falling oil revenue and faltering economic governance, as militias battle for the ultimate prize: its oil infrastructure and financial institutions.

As the crisis has deepened, the positions of the rival camps have hardened, and their rhetoric has become more incendiary. Libyans, who united to overthrow Qadhafi in 2011, now vie for support from regional patrons by casting their dispute in terms of Islamism and anti-Islamism or revolution and counter-revolution. The conflict’s reality, however, is a much more complex, multilayered struggle over the nation’s political and economic structure that has no military solution. A negotiated resolution is the only way forward, but the window is closing fast.

The two rounds of talks the UN hosted in Geneva on 14-15 and 26-27 January 2015 mark a minor breakthrough: for the first time since September 2014, representatives of some of the factions comprising the two main rival blocs met and tentatively agreed to a new framework that will at least extend the talks. This is testimony to the tenacity and relentless shuttle diplomacy of Bernardino León, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative. The road is long, and there will be setbacks, for example if parties refuse to participate or pull out; the General National Council (GNC) in Tripoli only belatedly agreed to participate in the talks, while the Tobruk-based House of Representative (HoR) announced it was suspending its participation in them on 23 February. Yet, this is the only political game in town and the only hope that a breakdown into open warfare can be avoided. To build on León’s initiative and ensure that ongoing discussion produces an agreement with nationwide support, however, members of the international community supporting a negotiated outcome must reframe their approach and do more to support him.

The way in which they have tended to frame the conflict should be modified first. The dominant approach to the parties has been to assess their legitimacy. The question, however, should no longer be which parliament, the HoR or the GNC, is more legitimate or what legal argument can be deployed to buttress that legitimacy. Chaos on the ground and the exclusionary behaviour of both camps have made that moot. An international approach that is premised on the notion the HoR is more legitimate because elected but does not take into account how representative it really is encourages it to pursue a military solution. Conversely, it feeds GNC suspicion that the international community seeks to marginalise or even eradicate the forces that see themselves as “revolutionary” (among them, notably, Islamists), as has happened elsewhere in the region.

Libya needs a negotiated political bargain and an international effort that channels efforts toward that goal. Outside actors will have to offer both sides incentives for participation and make clear that there will be consequences for those who escalate the conflict. Immediate steps should be taken to reduce the arms flow into the country and prevent either camp from taking over its wealth. The alternative would only lead to catastrophe and should not be an option.

In sum, the UN Security Council and others supportive of a negotiated political solution should:

  • de-emphasise “legitimacy” in public statements and instead put the onus on participation in the UN-led negotiations and on behaviour on the ground, notably adherence to ceasefires and calls to de-escalate. Rather than interpreting the legal and constitutional consequences of the Supreme Court’s ambiguous ruling on this question, they should indicate that those consequences are best negotiated as part of a wider roadmap toward a new constitution and permanent representative institutions;
  • be more forthright in confronting regional actors who contribute to the conflict by providing arms or other military or political support – notably Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and encourage them to press their Libyan allies to negotiate in good faith in pursuit of a political settlement. Military intervention on counter-terrorism grounds, as requested by Egypt, would torpedo the political process, and for now should be opposed. Regional actors who attempt to support negotiations, notably Algeria and Tunisia, should be encouraged and helped;
  • devise, without prejudice to the UN’s efforts to achieve reconciliation, political and military strategies to fight terrorism in coordination with Libyan political forces from both camps but refrain from supporting outside military intervention to combat the IS. The GNC and its supporters should unambiguously condemn IS actions, and the HoR should refrain from politicising them.
  • keep in place the UN arms embargo, expressly reject its full or partial lifting and strengthen its implementation to the extent possible;
  • consider UN sanctions against individuals only if so advised by the Secretary-General and his representative. If enacted, they should be linked to the political process and applied or lifted according to transparent criteria for individuals on all sides, focusing on incitement to or participation in violence; and
  • protect the neutrality and independence of financial and petroleum institutions: the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Company (NOC) and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA); and ensure that these manage the national wealth to address the basic needs of the people and contribute to a negotiated political solution.

Tripoli/Brussels, 26 February 2015

The UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Libya and Head of UNSMIL Ghassan Salame speaks during a joint press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano following their meeting in Rome, Italy, on 8 August 2017. Riccardo de Luca/ANADOLU AGENCY

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, [...] UN envoy Salamé will need to receive the full-throated support of the states that have been most involved in Libyan diplomacy.

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.

The areas of disagreement among the various camps are fundamental and include the basic contours of a new regime.

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.

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.