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A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN
A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN
Op-Ed / United States

A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN

Originally published in The Interpreter

After the United States experienced a rebuff at the United Nations last week – with almost the entire membership of the Security Council rejecting its attempt to re-impose UN sanctions on Iran – US officials warned that the dispute could lead to a major crisis in the Council, damaging the institution’s authority.

They are not alone in this analysis. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, a vocal critic of the US sanctions drive, has accused Washington of risking “a very serious scandal and rift” at the UN.

But these dire predictions may prove to be exaggerated.

The argument pivots on the US claim that, acting on the UN resolution that endorsed the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), it can demand the reactivation of UN sanctions resolutions on Iran that were terminated as part of the bargain. The negotiators of the deal agreed on a complex process to “snap back” these resolutions if Tehran broke its commitments and other dispute resolution mechanisms failed. (A recent International Crisis Group report looks at this process in detail.)

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the US was triggering the snapback process on 20 August, most of other Council members responded dismissively, for the simple reason that the Trump administration quit the JCPOA unilaterally in 2018. While the US has made a legal case that it retains the standing to initiate snapback, even its European allies at the UN argue that it has forfeited its right to do so in practical terms. They suspect that the Trump administration’s real goal is to provoke Iran to renounce the JCPOA, and so kill the Obama-era deal.

While Pompeo was laying out the US case in New York, Britain, France and Germany – the European signatories of the JCPOA – released a statement rejecting the move. Overall, 13 of the 15 Council members have informed the Indonesian UN ambassador, the current president of the Council, that they did not believe the US had the standing to trigger snapback. The one member left in the US camp is the Dominican Republic.

What happens next? The Council has 30 days to debate the topic, but it is hard to see serious diplomacy taking place now. In theory, under the rules of the snapback process, if the Council does not agree to maintain the termination of the pre-2015 sanctions resolutions – which centre on military imports and exports, as well as individual travel restrictions and a total ban on uranium enrichment – they will come back into force on 20 September. While the US will claim that those conditions apply, and its allies in the Persian Gulf may support the notion, most of the wider UN membership will not.

This will lead to a surreal situation in which the US and other Council members talk past each other about what sanctions are in force. This scenario will create headaches for UN officials handling sanctions and the Middle East. But it is hard to say if it will cause a bigger crisis at the UN.

Some diplomats fret that the Trump administration, which has a track record of boycotting multilateral organisations that irritate it, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), could respond by trying to disrupt other Security Council business. Yet there are limits to how disruptive it can be before it starts harming US interests in other areas. It is hard to imagine, for example, the US breaking off talks with China and Russia over the sanctions regime on North Korea – on which the three powers grudgingly cooperate at the UN – out of spite over Iran.

The US could threaten to withhold funding to the UN secretariat’s political, peacekeeping and disarmament branches to demonstrate its dissatisfaction over Iran. The UN is already struggling financially, so such a move would make the long-suffering Secretary-General António Guterres’s life even more difficult. But it would also be a propaganda win for the Chinese and Russians, which will take every opportunity to use this crisis to argue the US cannot be trusted at the UN.

The snapback spat will doubtless hurt relations between the US and its European counterparts at the UN, but their cooperation has not been that great during the Trump presidency anyway. In July, the US blocked a German resolution calling for a new UN envoy to deal with climate change and security. This month, the Americans threatened to veto the continued deployment of peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, a French priority, on the grounds that the Blue Helmets are soft on Hezbollah. Even the UK, usually the closest US ally in New York, has been frustrated by Washington’s failure to invest in UN diplomacy over Libya and Yemen.

While European diplomats expect the snapback debate to be messy, and speculate that Washington could also use tariffs and other economic measures to put pressure on those who oppose its efforts, the US has alienated its partners to such an extent that they appear willing to endure some additional unpleasantness. They might be warier if opinion polls suggested that Trump was on track for victory in this year’s presidential elections. But the Europeans for now seem more inclined to believe in a Biden victory, and thus see the main challenge as holding off Trump’s attack on the JCPOA until next year, when it may be possible to rebuild diplomacy over Iran with a new administration. If Trump wins, the JCPOA is dead anyway.

Some argue that the snapback debate will undermine the Security Council in other ways. The spectacle of council members bickering over sanctions on Iran could inspire some states to question the validity of other sanctions regimes. African governments have, for example, criticised council measures against countries like South Sudan that do not enjoy regional support, and could use the uncertainties over Iran to re-litigate these issues. But as the snapback mechanism is unique, the dispute offers little real ammunition for such arguments.

More fundamentally, this debacle raises longer-term doubts about the Council’s value as a venue for endorsing compromises among the big powers in an increasingly fragmented international system. The Iran deal’s negotiators believed that by embedding the agreement in a UN resolution they could better guarantee its implementation. If the Council cannot resolve its differences over snapback one way or another, the Council’s status as guarantor of such complex agreements will suffer.

Nonetheless, it is probably wise to see the snapback dispute as just one of the recurrent diplomatic breakdowns that have punctuated UN diplomacy on issues from the Balkans to Iraq and Syria since the end of the Cold War. Each time Council members hit an impasse, commentators hurry to say that the UN has reached a decisive or disastrous turning point. Yet time after time, Council members – and above all the Permanent 5 – manage to patch over their differences after a cooling-off period.

The Security Council may suffer a split over snapback, but it is unlikely to be terminal.

A UN official shows the ballot box to participants of the UN-hosted Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Geneva, 5 February 2021. UNSMIL

Libya Update #4

This Briefing Note assesses the outcome of a UN-backed forum that took place in Geneva from 1-5 February and where Libyan delegates elected a new interim executive. It is the fourth in a series of regular updates on efforts to end Libya’s civil war.

Against All Odds, Libya’s Peace Process Makes Substantial Progress

On 5 February, Libyan delegates attending UN-hosted political talks in Geneva nominated a new unified interim executive for their country, which has been split in two regions, each administered separately, since 2014. They chose eastern Libya’s Mohamed Mnefi to head a new three-person Presidency Council and a businessman from Misrata in western Libya, Abdulhamid Dabaiba, as prime minister-designate. If confirmed, this executive would serve until elections in late 2021. The Mnefi-Dabaiba list won by a slim majority in a race with other heavyweights including the eastern parliament’s speaker, Aghela Saleh, and the Tripoli government’s interior minister, Fathi Bashaga. It was a significant accomplishment that during the marathon five-day proceedings, which were broadcast live on the internet and Libyan television, no controversy arose. The losing candidates conceded defeat. This outcome sets the right tone for returning to peaceful, healthy political competition in Libya after years of bellicose rhetoric and a fifteen-month war that ended in June 2020. To translate this preliminary result into a concrete step toward unifying a country, the nominees and the cabinet they propose must now pass a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives.

It will not be easy. One challenge is to bring together the House’s members, who are split into one group based in Tobruk, eastern Libya, and another in the capital Tripoli. Another is for Dabaiba to propose a cabinet line-up that satisfies all constituencies. Negotiations are under way, but it will be taxing for the prime minister-designate to meet all the factions’ demands even if he proceeds with the bloated cabinet of 30 ministers that he appears to be considering.

The political atmosphere in Libya has improved significantly since 2015.

That said, parliamentary approval of the new cabinet is not impossible. The political atmosphere in Libya has improved significantly since 2015, when a similar attempt to win parliamentary backing for a UN-backed transitional authority failed. While at that time the main actors’ attitudes were confrontational, today both camps have adopted a more conciliatory tone. 

An Unexpected Outcome

When, in November 2020, the UN launched the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, few expected it to reach agreement on a new interim government. It seemed destined for discord, as it comprised 74 delegates sent by the two rival assemblies in addition to several UN-handpicked independents representing a broad spectrum of the country’s military, political and tribal factions. At first, progress was indeed stumbling. The forum laid out a roadmap to elections, but its members were deadlocked for over two months on how to select top state officials. Delegates and UN officials assumed that the forum would agree on a new executive by consensus (ijma), as members had done with the roadmap. This approach would have been in line with other UN-mediated peace talks, in which rival factions negotiate arrangements that are acceptable to all, but it would likely have been arduous and time-consuming. 

Instead, the forum opted for something entirely different. To select the new executive, delegates agreed in late January to hold an election with two possible voting procedures: the first vote on prospective nominees was to take place on a regional (geographic) basis, and, if that failed (in the eventuality that none of the candidates reached the required 60 per cent endorsement), voting would then take place between joint tickets specifying the candidates for the prime minister’s slot and three Presidency Council positions. These officials would jointly lead the country until general elections that have been scheduled for late 2021. Any Libyan who received endorsements from at least two forum members by a 28 January deadline could run for these positions. From 1-5 February, over 40 candidates presented themselves through video link to the forum members in Geneva. Libyans at home could also follow the proceedings, which were broadcast live. Although some Libyans outside the forum questioned the legitimacy of the UN-backed process, high-level politicians from across the spectrum and spanning the civil war’s divide endorsed it de facto by joining the race. 

Following a nail-biting four-day voting session, an unexpected result emerged. The region-based vote did not produce a winner, so voting followed the joint ticket system. Of four groups of candidates running in the joint ticket vote, delegates narrowed the lists down to two after a first round of voting. The forum then picked a winning slate on 5 February with 39 votes of 74. It comprised Dabaiba, a businessman with ties to the former Qadhafi regime, as prime minister-designate and Mnefi, from the east and a former Libyan ambassador to Greece, Musa Koni from the south and Abdullah al-Lafi from the west as Presidency Council members. By virtue of an implicit understanding that, if the prime minister is from western Libya – Dabaiba is from Misrata in the west – an easterner should head the Presidency Council, Mnefi is due to become the Council’s president. 

The result was a blow to supporters of the list defeated in the run-off, which included Bashaga and Saleh, who had formed an alliance of convenience that some foreign officials, especially in Paris and Cairo, had expected and may have quietly hoped to win. Dabaiba’s victory was not so much an endorsement of his list (many Libyans are wary of his family name, which they associate with Qadhafi-era corruption) as a rejection of Bashaga and Saleh. Many delegates and their constituents were annoyed by the pair’s evident confidence of prevailing. But they also had substantive concerns: Bashaga’s anti-militia agenda engendered the opposition of powerful armed groups and politicians in Tripoli, who also rejected Saleh’s support for Haftar’s war in Tripoli. Haftar, for his part, considered Saleh, his nominal ally, unreliable. 

Cautiously Positive Reactions to the New Interim Executive

In a great and unexpected display of political sportsmanship, all the losing candidates conceded defeat and congratulated the winners. Faiez Serraj, the current head of the Tripoli-based Presidency Council, also welcomed the result. These reactions are remarkable given the rancour and zero-sum mentality that often prevail in the Libyan political arena.

In a great and unexpected display of political sportsmanship, all the losing candidates conceded defeat and congratulated the winners.

Also surprising is the absence of controversies, such as allegations of vote buying, surrounding the election. Such accusations surfaced two months ago, but thus far no one has come forward to substantiate them. These signs would seem to indicate that no one is working actively to spoil the Mnefi-Dabaiba team’s prospects. 

Another unforeseen development is that Haftar and his forces, which backed another set of candidates who lost in an earlier stage of the race, embraced the winning ticket. On 6 February, Haftar’s spokesperson stated that his group is ready to work with the elected leaders; in a subsequent televised interview, he went so far as to claim that his side accepted that the new Presidency Council would also act as the supreme commander of the armed forces. This statement is nothing short of a U-turn: earlier, Haftar had flatly rejected the idea that the armed forces could come under the oversight of a body not directly elected by the Libyan people. The Haftar camp’s reversal is all the more surprising given that it has no obvious ally in the nominated line-up. Mnefi, the would-be eastern representative in the Presidency Council, is close to Tripoli-based politicians who defended the capital from Haftar’s military assault. Nonetheless, the field marshal gave Mnefi the red-carpet treatment when he travelled to Benghazi on 11 February. Mnefi is scheduled to tour the rest of eastern Libya in the coming days. 

Politicians aligned with the Tripoli-based authorities have not generally enjoyed a warm welcome in the east. But Mnefi could be an exception as he hails from the tribe of Libyan anti-colonial hero Omar al-Mukhtar. Dabaiba, for his part, has a broad network of business associates across the country, including in the east, and many consider him a pragmatist with whom one can strike deals. 

For now, the Mnefi-Dabaiba ticket appears to have the tacit support of important actors in western Libya, including armed groups in Tripoli that were relieved to see their fiercest adversary, Bashaga, lose the race. Yet should Dabaiba or Mnefi appear to be cosying up or conceding too much to Haftar, some anti-Haftar personalities who have supported them so far could be pushed to change their positions. 

International reactions have also been positive. An array of countries, including the U.S., the UK, Italy, France and Germany, who issued a joint statement, as well as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt, expressed support for the UN process and the newly nominated leadership team. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egypt’s President Abdelfattah al-Sisi made calls to the prime minister-designate, while French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov telephoned both Dabaiba and Mnefi. Diplomats express confidence that these gestures are not merely the usual courtesies. For its part, the UN Security Council issued a presidential statement welcoming the interim executive’s nomination as “an important milestone in the Libyan political process”. 

Broader Dynamics Build Momentum

The progress toward Libya’s political reunification has not happened in a vacuum. Several factors played a role in the breakthrough. Libyans across the country have grown increasingly frustrated with their leaders for failing to deliver basic services over the past few years. Living conditions have deteriorated steadily. Even though Libya’s political elites have a track record of resisting change, they have become conscious of the risk of backlash should they cleave to business as usual.

Several factors played a role in the breakthrough.

Another factor is the military stalemate that followed the assault on Tripoli. The defeat of Haftar-led forces in their attempt to seize the capital, marked by their withdrawal from its outskirts in June 2020, dealt a blow to their ambitions to impose their own Libyan government by force. Similarly, stakeholders in western Libya have become increasingly conscious that it would be hard for them to seize Haftar’s eastern strongholds by force without triggering an even greater conflagration fuelled by foreign sponsors of both sides. In addition, many Libyans have become weary of external interference in their affairs, particularly the presence of foreign forces, whether the Turkish officers and Syrian proxies openly supporting Tripoli or the Russian private security contractors covertly on Haftar’s side. A sense of urgency about cutting ties with foreign sponsors became palpable during the UN-backed negotiations between representatives of Libya’s two military coalitions that have been taking place since October. All these interests converged within the political class to push forward the negotiations over a new executive. 

Another important element that is making the leadership team more palatable, at least in some easterners’ eyes, is the progress in addressing financial disputes that have tarnished relations between Tripoli and its eastern rivals for years. In early February, the Tripoli government agreed to shoulder all the expenditures of the parallel authorities in the east, including the Haftar-led forces’ salaries and operating costs, and to incorporate these outlays into the 2021 national budget. In exchange, the east-based government committed to stop resorting to parallel revenue sources, such as treasury bills, which they have been using since 2015. Moreover, also in early February, the Central Bank of Libya agreed to offer a zero-interest credit line to a group of banks, for the most part based in eastern Libya. The region has been badly affected by a financial crisis triggered when the central bank, along with the country’s other institutions, split in 2014. 

Financial considerations could also factor into pro-Tripoli constituencies’ acceptance of the new executive. Authorities in western Libya know that only a unified government will enable oil revenues – the country’s main source of income, now sequestered in an account managed by the National Oil Corporation – to revert to the state.

What Next? 

For the time being, Dabaiba and Mnefi are only prime minister-designate and Council president-designate, respectively. They are not yet de facto heads of government, even though outside accounts, including the UN Security Council presidential statement, which referred to them incorrectly as the “new interim authority”, commonly misrepresent them as such. Parliamentary approval and a formal transfer of power still need to take place. According to the UN-backed roadmap, Dabaiba has until 26 February to present a cabinet line-up to the House of Representatives. From that moment, the latter has 21 days to approve or reject the government. In case of rejection, the 74 forum members could in theory decide to ratify the government unilaterally, a fallback option designed for the eventuality that the House, divided since 2014, proves unable or unwilling to meet or reach the minimum threshold needed for a confidence vote.

Parliamentary approval and a formal transfer of power still need to take place.

Full and proper parliamentary approval is important, however, at the current juncture. Without it, the east-based authorities would probably keep operating as a parallel government, while the new interim Government of National Unity, as Dabaiba proposes to call his executive, would lack the legal basis to work. The problem is that House members split into two factions in 2014, one based in Tobruk, where the House formally took its seat, and another in Tripoli. On the surface, dynamics between these two groups still appear confrontational, with one faction calling for the confidence vote to take place in Tobruk and the other demanding that it proceed somewhere in western Libya. A middle-ground position has started to emerge, however. In a 10 February statement, the two deputy House speakers, Fawzi Nuweri and Hamid Huma, called for a plenary session to take place in any city to which a UN-backed commission representing Libya’s two rival military coalitions would agree. Sirte, the city in central Libya where the military commission has its headquarters, would be a natural choice. The issue remains unresolved for now. 

House members should capitalise on developments to hold a vote on the proposed executive and cabinet when the latter is ready. The UN should actively support such efforts. As Nuweri and Huma wrote in their statement: “Let’s begin a new phase that closes the chapter of the past and proceed toward a better future”. A symbolic meeting in Sirte, where a conference hall for this purpose is available, would indeed be a welcome step. But it would require the joint military commission to guarantee all parliamentarians’ safety and to secure access to the city’s airport, which has been off limits, including to the commission itself, allegedly because Russian private security contractors and fighter jets are there. The UN could offer to facilitate such a session and help ensure that flights are authorised to land in Sirte, should parliamentarians make such a request.

The situation remains fragile; all the welcome progress thus far could still be reversed.

The situation remains fragile; all the welcome progress thus far could still be reversed. For the good of the country, Libyan and foreign stakeholders need to build on the forum’s accomplishments and resist the temptation to revert to spoiling tactics based on their longstanding zero-sum calculus.