UN Musical Chairs and a Stalemate in Libya

The resignation of Abdoulaye Bathily, the United Nations envoy to Libya, marks another blow in the ongoing efforts to stabilize a country still grappling with the aftermath of the 2011 uprising and the NATO military intervention that overthrew Colonel Gadhafi. Appointed in September 2022, Bathily’s 18-month tenure was marked by failed attempts to mediate between feuding factions and to steer Libya towards free and fair elections.

Bathily cited “stubborn resistance, unreasonable expectations, and indifference to the interests of the Libyan people” as obstacles to progress, highlighting the difficulties in achieving reconciliation and unity in a landscape divided by competing regional and international interests. The UN’s mission in Libya continues to be a critical component of the international community’s efforts to support the country’s journey to peace and stability. Yet, its performance and mandate are coming under increased scrutiny.

Scandals, political stalemates and a high turnover hinder UNSMIL

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has faced significant challenges in its efforts to stabilize the country and facilitate a political process. Established in 2011, UNSMIL’s mandate included assisting Libyan authorities in their post-conflict reconstruction efforts, helping to consolidate governance, security, and economic arrangements, as well as supporting economic reform in collaboration with international financial institutions. But the mission has been criticized for its inability to effectively address the complex political and security dynamics in Libya. Despite some achievements, such as the Libyan Political Agreement in 2015 and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in 2020, UNSMIL has struggled with a lack of long-term commitment, rapid turnover of personnel and SRSGs/Special Envoys, and scandals that have tarnished its reputation and undermined its credibility in the eyes of those it is supposed to serve, the Libyan people, as a report published by ICDI last year illustrated.

Critics argue that the mission’s approach has not adapted to the evolving conflict, leading to calls to amend or even dissolution of UNSMIL. The situation in Libya remains precarious, with the country divided and foreign interference exacerbating the conflict. The UN’s efforts, while well-intentioned or not, have not yet resulted in a durable resolution, highlighting the need for a reevaluation of strategies and objectives to better serve the Libyan people. To be fair, UNSMIL has increasingly had to face a multitude of challenges in its mission to assist Libya’s transition towards stability. One of the primary challenges has been the political impasse caused by the shortsighted approach which favored quick fixes and power-sharing agreements over state-building. The lack of vision for re-establishing Libyan’s sovereign statehood resulted in a chronic rivalry between the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, which has diverted focus from the underlying issues driving violence and insecurity, i.e. the absence of a Libyan State. This stalemate has hindered the progress of the UN-endorsed framework established by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. Additionally, the mission has faced difficulties due to the uncertain trajectory of mediation efforts, human rights concerns, the rapid turnover of Special Representatives to the Secretary General (SRSGs) and Special Envoys, and the impending expiration of its mandate, necessitating a recalibration of international support.

Another significant challenge for UNSMIL has been the absence of systematic development planning and an approved national budget in Libya, which has led to minimal investment in sustainable development. The mission’s broad and weak mandate, while allowing for continued engagement, has not been sufficient to overcome the deepening political polarization exacerbated by the indefinite postponement of national elections scheduled for December 2021.

Foreign forces and lack of unified approach among Libyans remains an issue

Today, and despite the relative calm, the security situation in Libya remains volatile, with armed confrontations threatening to escalate, further complicating UNSMIL’s efforts. The mission’s role is also complicated by the need to coordinate with a multitude of international actors and stakeholders, each with their own interests and agendas in Libya. The turnover of personnel and leadership within UNSMIL, such as the regular search for a new SRSG adds another layer of complexity to the mission’s operations and undermines continuity and institutional memory. The fact of the matter is that the situation in Libya has been marked by a complex interplay of international interventions, which have had a significant impact on the country’s political landscape and the efforts of UNSMIL. The aftermath of the 2011 NATO intervention did not lead to a comprehensive stabilization process, resulting in a rapid deterioration of conditions and allowing external actors to pursue competing interests. These interventions have often exacerbated existing factional rivalries as proxies of foreign powers, weakening the UN-led negotiation process and complicating UNSMIL’s mandate to support an inclusive Libyan-owned and Libyan-led political process, including facilitating the conduct of elections.

UNSMIL’s efforts to stabilize Libya, initiate political dialogue, and foster reconciliation have been persistently challenged by the presence of foreign forces and the lack of a unified approach among Libyan institutional stakeholders, as well as weak UNSMIL leadership at times. The Security Council has reiterated the need for the withdrawal of all foreign forces, fighters, and mercenaries, in line with the 2020 ceasefire agreement and subsequent resolutions, but these calls remained in vain. While the UNSC continuously underscores the critical role of UNSMIL in facilitating an inclusive political process and has emphasized time and again the importance of an inclusive national reconciliation process, urging all actors in Libya, as well as relevant foreign countries, to support this process with UN assistance, the mission’s success remains contingent upon the cooperation of Libyan stakeholders and, most of all, the cessation of external interference that fuels the conflict.

Elections are no panacea

The establishment of a high-level panel for elections has been proposed as a mechanism to advance consensus around contentious issues, such as the development of a constitutional framework for elections and a road map with specific timelines for the holding of elections. This panel aims to provide a platform to move beyond the institutional process undertaken by the House of Representatives and the High State Council, which has been a point of contention. Yet, elections are no panacea. UNSMIL’s approach should have a more serious vision, one which involves frack discussions with regional and international partners to seek their genuine commitment to address the political impasse and stress the importance of the withdrawal of foreign forces, foreign fighters, and the cessation of foreign interference in Libya’s internal affairs.

As the international community observes the situation, it is increasingly clear that a concerted and renewed effort is required to support Libya navigate towards a stable and peaceful future. Considering these challenges, it is high time for a strategic reassessment of UNSMIL’s role and approach. The mission’s credibility in the eyes of the Libyans and its future effectiveness depends on its ability to adapt to the evolving situation on the ground, secure long-term and genuine commitment from the international community, and work towards a unified political strategy that can address the multifaceted nature of Libya’s challenges. UNSMIL should critically revisit its engagement with Libyan actors to identify a consensual pathway towards a durable peaceful solution far from competing foreign interests. Short of this, it will sink even deeper down this negative spiral, with rotating UN envoys without any tangible results, while Libya will continue to be locked in this no-peace-no-war stalemate for decades to come.

Mohamed Alhadi Balatif is a Libyan lawyer, civil society activist and leader of a development NGO in Southern Libya. 

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