Diplomacy in Distress in Libya: Twelve Years of Failed Mediation

Twelve years have passed since Libyans, buoyed by the Arab Spring, took to the streets demanding regime change after more than 30 years of authoritarian rule under the late president Muammar al-Qaddafi. The uprising soon turned into a civil war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) initiating bombings and naval blockades.

The NATO intervention in Libya occurred at a time when UN envoy Abdul Ilah al-Khatib and the African Union were exploring the potential for a negotiated settlement, with various scenarios, that included the possible exit of Qaddafi from the political scene and the establishment of a transitional power sharing arrangement with the opposition. The intervention torpedoed this mediation effort, as France and the United Kingdom, supported by the United States, pushed for regime change at any cost, using the contested United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 as a cover to legitimize their action. This ultimately set the stage for 12 years of foreign interference in Libyan affairs and mediation efforts.

A plethora of UN and Western-led mediation efforts emerged, facilitating political forums and agreements aimed at bringing warring parties together, and an inclusive political transition. However, these efforts have largely been perceived by Libyan stakeholders as lacking legitimacy, and driven by foreign political agendas. Furthermore, these mediation initiatives have often been chaotic and with little coordination, and thus have had little impact. As Younes Abouyoub wrote in our first edition of Diplomacy Now: “The crisis in Libya continues unabated, with successive interim arrangements, transitional governments, and legislative bodies having lost their legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyan constituency.” While the international community is pushing for elections, what do they effectively mean, in a country still racked by violence and divided between East and West, in which there are essentially “two governments and no state.” And after more than a decade of mediation, why has the international community, led by the UN, failed to help usher in a stable political transition in Libya?


International mediation efforts from Libyan perspectives

The International Center for Dialogue Initiatives has sought to answer this question through a new report. Libya: An Assessment of Twelve Years of Mediation, authored by Libyan scholar Youssef Mohammed Sawani, offers a deep dive into the failures of 12 years of UN-led mediation, drawing on interviews with stakeholders, including Libyan politicians, scholars, and civil society members, who have participated in UN-led and international mediated dialogues, and Special Representatives to the Secretary General (SRSGs) and heads of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

Through tracing the diplomatic approaches of four SRSGs and Heads of UNSMIL and the key dialogues they initiated and facilitated that ultimately led to the Libyan Political Agreement signed in Skhirat, Morrocco in December 2015, Sawani and ICDI explore the gains and shortfalls of each era, through interviews with some of the SRSGs and Libyans who participated in the initiatives they led.

“As the report lays bare, 12 years of UN mediation has failed to transition Libya to stability and democracy. In fact, the landscape has become more fragmented and intractable. The risk of renewed conflict is ever present,” said Jamal Benomar, Chair of ICDI. That the Libyan Political Agreement is heralded as UNSMIL’s primary achievement, when it may have deepened the crisis, should give pause for thought. Is the UN’s approach to post-conflict mediation fit for current purposes? Is the UN learning from past mistakes or perpetuating instability and fragile situations? The plight of the Libyan people demands a rethink of how the UN operates in such situations,” he added.

International mediators should take a supporting rather than leading role

The report recommends the UN Secretary General establish an independent review of UN-led mediation efforts to determine whether it has been conducted in conformity to UN standards – a practice the ICDI believes should be more common during and after long-term mediation efforts. ICDI also calls for the UN to refrain from dictating the terms of the political process, and support genuinely inclusive and new Libyan-led dialogues, with the UN and others providing only financial and technical support, rather than hand picking participants, and dictating the terms of discussion. The participation of women, which has been abysmal in UN-led dialogues, must also be addressed, and Libyans must address the lack of representation of women in politics in general.

UNSC countries must comply with their own resolutions

The report calls on UN Security Council members to abide to their own commitments under the arms embargo resolution, and thus stop arming their military allies, while at the same time playing a role in facilitating political dialogues. The report concluded that disagreements and competing interests between UNSC countries have played a negative and divisive role in the conflict, “impeding the efforts of UN to find a durable settlement to the conflict,” and preventing consensus. International actors must put their political and military interests aside, if Libya is to achieve sustainable peace. International actors should not pressure Libyans to pursue elections, until the necessary legal and security positions are in place.

Foreign interference must make way for a Libyan-led dialogue and process  

This report illustrates the urgent need for more solid commitments to ending foreign interference, and the designing of an inclusive, Libyan-led national dialogue that puts reconciliation, rather than just ceasing hostilities, at the forefront. Furthermore, dialogues and initiatives must also be based on an understanding of Libya’s specific socio-economic and historical contexts.

Libya’s neighbors should also desist from unilateral, competitive, and uncoodinated interference in Libya and not use it as a political playground or a theatre to settle old scores. Rather neighboring countries should develop a genuine mechanism for regional support. Ultimately foreign actors in Libya, whether it be the UN, representatives of UNSC countries, or regional powers, must support Libyans leading the way in all dialogue, peace, and negotiation initiatives if the conflict is to end and Libya’s political transition is to be a success.

“The path seems thorny and fraught with dangers due to the widening gaps, the continuation of external interference, and the division in the UN Security Council especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said Sawani. “The experience of a decade proves that power-sharing arrangements have, and will only lead to more conflict and a continuation of the crisis that threatens everything that binds and unites Libyans. The clear lesson learned is the necessity to proceed from the path of comprehensive national reconciliation, and to agree on the values ​​and principles that govern the new state, without any exclusion.”

ICDI’s report Libya: An Assessment of Twelve Years of Mediation can be read here.

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