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The Libyan Political Dialogue: An Incomplete Consensus
The Libyan Political Dialogue: An Incomplete Consensus
Quick Fixes Won’t Block Libya’s People Smugglers for Long
Quick Fixes Won’t Block Libya’s People Smugglers for Long

The Libyan Political Dialogue: An Incomplete Consensus

The preliminary political agreement that emerged from UN-led talks between Libyan rival factions at a signing ceremony in the Moroccan coastal resort town of Skhirat last week was a critical first step toward ending the Libyan civil war. Yet one side’s refusal to come on board without further amendments to the text potentially makes the agreement stillborn. Under the leadership of UN Special Representative Bernardino León, Libyan, regional and international actors should therefore put all their efforts into reaching a broader consensus on the text before proceeding to the next mileposts on the political roadmap, first and foremost the establishment of a national unity government, as well as security arrangements in Tripoli to support it.

On 11 July 2015, eighteen out of the 22 participants of the UN-facilitated Libyan Political Dialogue signed a preliminary framework agreement in Skhirat, Morocco, that charts a way out of a conflict that has divided Libya into two rival sets of parliaments, governments and military coalitions since July 2014. The Political Dialogue includes four representatives from each parliament – the internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and its predecessor, the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli – as well as boycotting members from both sides and a number of independents, mainly former bureaucrats. The GNC delegation stayed away from the final talks in Skhirat and refused to sign the agreement, demanding further changes based on its perception that the text effectively sidelines its camp from the proposed political arrangement.

The Skhirat agreement envisions the creation of a consensus-based national unity government (“Government of National Accord”) that would have wide powers to govern from its seat in Tripoli, including foreign and security policy and oversight of state finances and institutions. It would extend the life of the HoR, the parliament elected in June 2014 and currently based in the eastern city of Tobruk, for at least another year and make it the sole legislative authority. And it would set up a separate body, the State Council, to absorb GNC members. It is the ambiguity concerning the State Council’s powers and role in the new setup that prompted the GNC’s refusal to sign on to the deal.

Giving Libyans Hope

In light of Libya’s growing chaos and fragmentation, even the incomplete consensus secured in Skhirat is an achievement, although a very limited one: it gives Libyans hope that a year-long conflict could be coming to an end. The presence of six mayors, including from the country’s three main cities (Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata), and representatives of two main political parties, the liberal-leaning National Forces Alliance (Tahaluf al-Quwwat al-Wataniya) and the Muslim Brotherhood-led Justice & Construction Party (Adala wa Binaa), at the signing ceremony was further evidence that many constituencies support the deal. Other negotiating tracks, representing municipal councils, political parties and women, also signalled their backing, as did Libya’s neighbours and the wider international community.

Despite this building consensus, however, the GNC’s objections must be taken seriously ­– both because the GNC represents a significant constituency with understandable concerns and because it has the power to derail the agreement’s implementation. The GNC’s principal concern is uncertainty over how the State Council’s members will be appointed and what powers, if any, it will have. Unlike a previous draft (released on 8 June and opposed by the HoR), the text adopted on 11 July does not give the State Council any powers and indeed is vague on what specific role the institution will play. The GNC is understandably upset about this change, as the 8 June draft had raised its expectation that it would play a meaningful role in the new order, one it could defend toward its political and military backers.

The GNC has indicated it wants the State Council to have equal weight to the HoR in approving legislation and making appointments to key state positions, including the heads of Libya’s financial and oil institutions and its public prosecutor. It also demands that decisions taken by the HoR since August 2014 be invalidated. At the heart of this request is its fear that the HoR will not cancel its appointment of General Khalifa Haftar, the pro-GNC camp’s chief military opponent, as head of the Libyan armed forces. Their fears are not out of place. In a 15 July televised interview Haftar alluded to the possibility he might oppose the agreement if he sees it undermining both his authority and formal recognition of the armed forces he leads, stating that while he supported the Political Dialogue – which he said “was in Libya’s interest” – if the final agreement is not in the “interest of the Libyan people, there is no chance it can succeed”.

Some members of the GNC delegation (and many in the pro-GNC camp more broadly) were willing to accept the 11 July agreement with reservations, ie, on the understanding that after the signing the GNC’s concerns about the State Council would be taken into consideration and addressed in the agreement’s annexes. A powerful hard-line faction in the GNC, however, sees the agreement as aiming to marginalise the GNC and is therefore holding out to secure ironclad guarantees that the GNC (like the HoR) will at least have veto power over giving confidence to, or revoking it from, a future national unity government. The GNC hardliners have a key ally in GNC President Nuri Abu Sahmein, who has the power to decide whether to put a motion up for a vote. For example, Abu Sahmein refused to allow a vote on the draft agreement in early July and likewise refused to authorise the GNC delegation’s participation in the final Skhirat meeting, which led to the agreement being initialled on 11 July.

Participants in the Political Dialogue appear to have mixed views on whether the text can still be amended before it is considered final. HoR delegates say that after the signing ceremony the text became binding. Some independents closer to GNC circles, however, said they signed the document with the understanding that there would be room for some adjustments. The UN delegation has stayed ambiguous on the matter. The fact that no actual text was attached to the two pages of signatures collected in Skhirat is testament to such ambiguity.

It should be possible to amend the 11 July agreement to accommodate at least some of the GNC’s demands without subverting the HoR’s legislative authority. Both sides owe it to the Libyan people and the country’s future to show the flexibility necessary to reach a final, mutually acceptable text of the framework agreement. One way to reflect some of the GNC’s concerns would be to specify the composition and responsibilities of a new State Council in an annex to the framework agreement rather than in the main body of the text.

Avenues for Compromise

The pro-HoR camp, which opposes further revisions, should understand that the advantages of adopting a more accommodating line toward their rivals in Tripoli outweigh the disadvantages of refusing to amend the agreement. Without the GNC on board negotiations on the formation of a national unity government will be moot. Moreover, without key GNC figures backing the deal there is a real risk of a military escalation in the capital. Their continued participation is essential to ensure that the Tripoli-based militias also support it. At the moment, security forces in Tripoli control access to all government and state institutions, such as the Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation. The GNC’s opposition to the agreement could therefore mean that the future government will not be able to use these buildings unless pro-agreement armed groups seize them. The calculation apparently made by some Misratan participants that a coalition of pro-agreement militias from Misrata and Zintan would be able to take control of the capital from the deal’s opponents is short-sighted and underestimates the resilience of some of the security forces present there.

For its part, the pro-GNC camp – particularly GNC President Nuri Abu Sahmein – should show goodwill toward the negotiations, end belligerent rhetoric and stop taking unilateral security decisions. (As the debate on the latest draft agreement was taking place in early July, Abu Sahmein sidelined the Tripoli-based army chief of staff in initiating an internal restructuring of the GNC-aligned army units and took the podium at a military parade in the centre of the capital vowing to resist any attempt by HoR-allied armed groups to enter the capital.) The GNC leadership must understand once and for all that the international community will not extend legitimacy to the GNC as such and should therefore grasp the opportunity to retain influence through the State Council and national unity government.

Some of the GNC’s demands – for the State Council to have equal weight to the HoR in approving legislation and for decisions taken by the HoR since August 2014 to be invalidated – are unrealistic, given the HoR’s and its backers’ absolute and explicit refusal to accommodate them. However, the State Council’s role could perhaps be fine-tuned to accommodate the core interests of both sides and thereby reach a deal. While the State Council should have the power to review and advise on legislation drafted by the HoR, its responsibility should be of a strictly consultative nature. Yet on critical political matters, such as approving a new government and making appointments to key state positions as part of the transition, the HoR and State Council should jointly reach consensus, thus giving each veto power. As for the council’s composition, the GNC should have the right to have 90 of its members join the new institution.

Moving the UN Process Forward

To move forward, the UN-led process would benefit from modification as well. Participants in the talks, the UN and international actors should acknowledge that the rush to the initial 11 July agreement was short-sighted if it was their aim to stabilise Libya through the creation of a consensus-based governing arrangement. Part of the problem has been the talks’ format. As the HoR refused direct negotiations with the GNC, all five groups participating in the Political Dialogue held separate one-on-one sessions with the UN team, which then drafted language that it showed to them for approval. From the participants’ perspective, this approach created too many surprises and thus caused unnecessary delays. Moreover, successive drafts appeared to favour once the pro-HoR camp, then the pro-GNC camp, each time prompting the losing side to accuse the UN of bias.

If talks resume on a mutually acceptable text, the best way to proceed would be for the participants to agree to hold direct face-to-face talks, with the UN as facilitator. To be effective, each side would need to empower its delegation to negotiate rather than serve as a mere conduit for proposals requiring their approval at every stage. Such a change in the negotiating process would accelerate the time needed to reach an understanding on all the pending issues and minimise the risk of eliciting destructive inflammatory reactions to each amendment.

There are good reasons to hurry, both for Libyans and for regional and international actors worried about Libya’s trajectory. The Islamic State and other jihadi groups have spread their presence in Libya dramatically since 2014, taking control of several towns in the Gulf of Sirte and carrying out a series of attacks against foreign workers, oil infrastructure and military and civilian targets in areas controlled by either of the two main camps, most recently striking twice in Misrata. Libya’s neighbours, Egypt foremost among them, are growing worried that further delays in reaching a political deal will increase security threats to their interests. The migrant and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and the EU’s desire (backed by strong political pressure from certain member states) to find a Libyan partner to combat people smuggling has also created new urgency. An October 2015 deadline – the point at which the HoR’s term will lapse if no accord extending it is found – also looms, pushing some in the pro-GNC camp to stall for time in the hope that, after October, the international community might grant it recognition. Finally, the deadline of León’s mandate, currently scheduled to expire in September, also adds pressure, since he has been the talks’ architect.

The procedure to select the unity government’s prime minister and his two deputies will be the most critical step for the agreement’s implementation. Together these three positions will form the Presidency Council, each having equal veto power on key government decisions, most importantly in the security sector. They will then also be tasked with proposing the government line-up. The Skhirat agreement offers no agreed procedure on how such key figures will be chosen. While UN mediators have a procedure in mind, Libyan participants have many different – often conflicting – views. The UN mediator will have to convince the GNC that a truly inclusive government of national unity can be formed. Negotiations over the choice of persons to join the unity government and the appointment of the heads of contested state institutions, such as the National Oil Corporation and Libya’s sovereign wealth fund will succeed only if both the HoR and the GNC agree on some effective power-sharing arrangements.

Such agreement is unlikely to be reached unless the UN team reaches out to and engages the regional actors who have some influence on the Libyan parties, Egypt and the UAE for the HoR, Turkey and Qatar for the GNC. Pursuing a regional track should be a priority of the UN mediator.

It is also urgent to accelerate discussions of security arrangements to implement the agreement. One of the UN-led process’s main shortcomings has been the absence of a parallel security track that could have created a forum to bridge rival armed groups. While some progress has been made in creating points of contact between opposing armed factions in north-western Libya, thanks to the involvement of tribal leaders and local military commanders’ goodwill, a broader dialogue between the military coalitions in the east and west never kicked off. As for the south, no attempt has been made to even start reaching out to armed groups there.

The difficulty was in part due to the gradual fragmentation of the two main military blocks – Operation Dignity in the east and Libya Dawn in the west – and the erosion of a command and control structure that led to the absence of clearly identifiable interlocutors that the international community could use as focal points for dialogue. The noticeable deficit of security-sector expertise on the UN team (recently addressed by the addition of a EU security team), and most importantly their inability to enter Libya, was a further hurdle. Countries supporting the UN should provide greater resources to the security track.

Negotiators in Morocco, and those regional and international actors that support the process, should have no illusions that the agreement that appears within reach is just a beginning. The most difficult issues remain: how to de-escalate the conflict, implement security arrangements and create an effective unity government. Even as these negotiators sharpen their pencils to tackle these difficult issues, armed groups back home are oiling their weapons to be ready to pounce on their adversaries if and when the political process breaks down – or in order to bring it down as it lingers. It is therefore critical for all involved in the process to create the optimum conditions in which it can proceed and not start under a cloud of recrimination caused by an agreement based on an incomplete consensus.

Tripoli/Brussels

A Libyan coast guardsman stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 illegal immigrants attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiyah, 45 kilometres west of the capital Tripoli, on 27 June 2017. AFP/Taha Jawashi

Quick Fixes Won’t Block Libya’s People Smugglers for Long

A recent dramatic decrease in migrants reaching Europe may be partly explained by payoffs to armed groups in Libya. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Libya, Claudia Gazzini, warns about the risks associated with this policy, arguing that while working with armed groups may be necessary in the short term, any durable solution requires putting Libya’s economy and politics back on track.

What are the latest migration figures from Libya?

Italian officials report that the number of migrants and refugees travelling from Libya along the Central Mediterranean route to Europe fell sharply in July and August 2017 compared to the same period last year. In 2016, approximately 160,000 people travelled on makeshift boats from Libya to Italy. Based on trends during the first six months of 2017, it appeared that these numbers would increase by 20 per cent. Instead, the number of crossings in July 2017 was half of what it was in July 2016, and in August, 20 per cent of what it was a year earlier. This comes as welcome news to European Union (EU) policymakers, particularly Italian officials who have sought desperately to curb migrant flows from Libya. But it may have come at a price that should cause concern – some international NGOs say European efforts to stop migrants from crossing the sea is encouraging their abuse in Libya.

As the primary gateway for migrants and refugees reaching Europe through the Mediterranean Sea, Libya is at the forefront of the EU’s migration policies. In late 2014, the EU launched its Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED), also known as Operation Sophia, whose goal is to save lives at sea and to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking networks between Libya and Europe. The EU also invested in training coast guards, facilitating voluntary repatriation flights and enhancing UN agencies’ migrant related activities. But until mid-2017, migrant flows from Libya to Europe continued to increase.

Stabilising Libya's Economy Essential to Curb the Flow of Migrants

Fixing Libya's Economy Essential to Curb Migrant Flows CRISIS GROUP

How do you explain recent changes in the numbers using Central Mediterranean route?

There are a series of factors behind it. First, the previously dysfunctional Libyan Coast Guard has received new equipment from Italy and training from the EU. It also coordinates with Italian naval forces in Libyan territorial waters to dissuade smugglers. Smugglers are not the only ones at risk off the Libyan coast: the Coast Guard has threatened to shoot the vessels of some international NGOs which both Libyan and Italian authorities accuse of colluding with smugglers and encouraging migrant flows – accusations the NGOs reject. The Libyan Coast Guard also has ordered that foreign rescue vessels remain 90 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, making it more dangerous to cross the Mediterranean and thus deterring migrants.

Until recently, militias in the towns west of Tripoli from which most migrants depart had provided protection to smuggling and trafficking groups.

Second, Libyan armed groups appear to have been co-opted. Until recently, militias in the towns west of Tripoli from which most migrants depart had provided protection to smuggling and trafficking groups. According to credible reports, Libya’s UN-backed and Tripoli-based government, possibly with Italy’s support, has made direct payments to militias and armed groups to thwart the passage of smuggler vessels and migrants. Italy has denied any role in such payments while the Tripoli-based government has downplayed financial incentives, stating they simply promised immunity for armed groups formerly involved in people smuggling and gradual integration into state security forces.

It is unclear whether Italy made payments directly or whether it simply funded local authorities who in turn paid off militias. The alleged payments could be an extension of the Tripoli government’s longstanding strategy to use financial incentives to win the allegiance of armed groups. With these armed groups frequently implicated in the mistreatment of migrants, the EU’s July 2017 announcement of a €46 million fund to address migration issues in Libya – much of which is being managed and disbursed by Italy – already had drawn the fire of international NGOs, even before the recent allegations against Italy.

A third possibility is that armed groups formerly involved in people-smuggling may be turning to more lucrative fuel smuggling. The Libyan state subsidises gasoline and diesel at ridiculously low prices (less than $0.10/litre at the official exchange rate; $0.02/litre at the black-market rate); smuggling these refined fuels out of the country can generate about $0.30/litre in profits. The business is estimated to be worth up to $2 billion per year.

Migrant Arrivals to Italy by Sea in 2016-2017 CRISIS GROUP

Is the European approach sustainable?

European governments, particularly those facing electoral challenges from the far-right, understandably want a quick solution to their urgent migration crisis. But there is a risk the current approach could boomerang in the longer term if, in seeking quick results, the EU and member states inadvertently undermine simultaneous efforts to address Libya’s economy and political crisis. This could imperil the recovery necessary for stability.

Even if it works in the short term, [paying off armed groups] is likely unsustainable.

Paying off armed groups is risky. Even if it works in the short term, it is likely unsustainable. Armed groups are fickle, as Libya’s recent history has demonstrated. Their cooperation is typically based on the promise of rewards, financial or otherwise. Tomorrow they may find another patron with a different mission. As a result, any payoffs to militias should be aimed at eventually integrating them into a security structure answerable to the Libyan state to constrain the rents they could obtain from criminal activities.

More broadly, providing resources to one faction at the expense of others feeds ethnic, tribal and political bickering while reinforcing the impunity of armed groups. Whatever the short-term gains, fuelling the country’s militia culture likely will impede a political solution and undermine the political project that Europeans ostensibly support: fostering a more coherent and effective Libyan state. There is also a moral dimension. The round-up of migrants by armed groups, without oversight or training, exposes them to widespread abuse, including torture, rape and extortion.

Paying off troublesome militias is nothing new in Libya, and has been part-and-parcel of politics there since the outbreak of conflict in 2014. Because these groups retain considerable power and cannot simply be brushed aside, payoffs may seem both necessary and inevitable. But there are other ways to encourage their cooperation – chiefly offering armed group members, and their families, a licit alternative to the illicit economy and ensuring they end their criminal behaviour.

Ongoing UN-led efforts are bringing armed groups in Tripoli under the authority of the internationally-recognised government. It is important that attempts to co-opt armed groups involved in human trafficking outside Tripoli not contravene this effort, by accidentally empowering factions that resist government oversight. So far it appears that the deals cut with militias in Sabratha and Zawiya areas, west of Tripoli, were not coordinated with the UN representatives liaising with the Tripoli armed groups. The UN-backed government and its international partners should coordinate efforts to ensure they are working in concert toward a unified security sector.

Nobody should have any illusions about the difficulty of reducing militia influence, whether through financial or other incentives.

Nobody should have any illusions about the difficulty of reducing militia influence, whether through financial or other incentives. One mistake made earlier this year was to delay payment of the Presidential Guard, a new military force charged with securing key installations in the capital. Administrative bottlenecks (and perhaps also corruption and competition between local factions) delayed the disbursement of a budget for this.

The EU’s efforts to support the Libyan Coast Guard also has faced difficulties with many recruits, including former members of armed groups accustomed to receiving bribes. Wives of these coast guards, who were used to regular payments from smugglers, often opposed their husbands’ training at sea without up-front payment from the EU.

It will take time to find the right model of financial incentives, institutional grounding and accountability. All of these should be factored in when seeking to dissuade people-smugglers.

You were recently in Libya’s south west. Can you describe how realities on the ground there fit into the bigger picture of trans-Mediterranean migration?

South-west Libya is the missing link in the EU’s action plan, as the region, called the Fezzan, is central to the migration issue. Due to a de facto open border with Niger, it is the entry point for a majority of sub-Saharan African migrants. Yet the EU largely has ignored the region; its officials and those of member states have rarely set foot there. Access to the south west is difficult for Westerners, with no functioning airport or hotels. Special arrangements are needed to visit, not least because the patchwork of armed groups and local tribes means territorial control changes hands every few hundred kilometres.

Despite the challenges, Europe needs to increase its presence [in Libya's south west] to develop an accurate understanding of local challenges and needs.

Despite the challenges, Europe needs to increase its presence to develop an accurate understanding of local challenges and needs. This is crucial to formulate any sensible plan, whether to invest in border guards or promote economic development, both of which are indispensable for revamping Libya’s legitimate economy.

Locals are entirely dependent on the illicit economy, including the smuggling of people and goods. But the EU should resist the temptation of bypassing the central state to work with local authorities – who are often no less divided – on local economic initiatives. The EU should only back projects that are sustainable and fit within the framework of a united Libyan state.

How do you see Libya’s future?

Libya remains politically adrift and economically unstable. The country’s rival factions are in desperate need of reconciliation and stabilisation. The fragile government led by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj risks becoming a mere placeholder, used by the EU or some of its member states to pursue a European – rather than Libyan – agenda, such as curbing migration. Failure to pursue Libyan interests will further discredit this government within Libya.

Ignoring the Libyan agenda also runs counter to the goal of building a stable country, capable of serving as an effective partner with the EU for managing migrant flows and other interests. Libya’s economy once absorbed millions of migrant workers, mostly from Africa. It is potentially wealthy and in need of reconstruction. Such an effort that could also create many jobs, mostly for non-Libyans. Immediate solutions, however politically expedient, should not come at the expense of progress toward a long-term solution of the conflict. If they do, the recent dip in migrant crossings could prove short-lived.

What should the international community do to address Libya’s multiple crises and help rebuild a united country?

The international community should work within a coherent nationwide stabilisation plan rather than dealing with Libya through piecemeal and potentially contradictory efforts. Interested powers, particularly European, should prioritise three things in particular.

Libya’s economic deterioration must be addressed [by interested powers, particularly European].

First, Libya’s economic deterioration must be addressed. Its vast oil wealth must once again become a lifeline for all rather than a weapon for various factions promoting political and personal interests. This will only be possible by stopping the pervasive predation on state resources not only by militias, but also by politicians, state officials and business people. Stabilising Libya’s economy would allow migrants to enter the Libyan labour market rather than seeking opportunities in Europe.

Second, the UN’s special representative, Ghassan Salamé, must work on rebuilding Libyan trust toward the international community, damaged over the past three years as the UN rushed the negotiations. This could breathe new life into the political process.

Third, an attempt should be made to reconcile Libya’s military factions in order to stem violence on the ground. Fostering dialogue among armed groups – starting first at the local level in the south and west and then convening nationwide talks – is vital.

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