Can we finally agree that UN’s Libya mission is not working?

Can we finally agree that UN’s Libya mission is not working?

Can we finally agree that UN’s Libya mission is not working?
People walk in Martyrs' Square, Tripoli, Libya. (Reuters/File)
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Nearly a decade and a half after a supposed “awakening,” Libya is still paralyzed by division, conflict and the pursuit of narrow self-interests by a range of actors disguised as well-intentioned support.

Today, the North African country remains suffocated by quarrelsome rival administrations: the internationally recognized Government of National Unity in Tripoli and the eastern-based Government of National Stability. The last notable effort to bridge this divide culminated in the creation of a joint committee by the House of Representatives and the Government of National Unity-aligned High State Council, which aimed to pave the way for national elections.

Although initial drafts of the electoral legislation were agreed upon and approved, the proposed laws soon became the latest point of contention due to their controversial provisions and technical issues, as identified by both the UN and Libya’s own elections watchdog. Additional amendments only led to further disarray, with the High State Council firmly rejecting the revised legislation and stalling all progress.

The UN Support Mission in Libya, led by Special Envoy Abdoulaye Bathily, found itself yet again in the challenging position of having to mediate a political process among squabbling Libyan institutional stakeholders. Bathily resolved to invite said actors to a series of sit-downs to hash out resolutions to the contested provisions and discuss the possibility of forming a unified government that could oversee progress toward elections.

Inevitably, that initiative also fizzled out, stifled by irreconcilable differences, conflicting conditions and demands from the involved parties, which were keen on hijacking any process threatening their grip on power. It effectively closed the book on the UN mission’s eighth attempt at steering Libya’s ruling elites toward elections and national reconciliation.

Moreover, parallel dialogue initiatives — i.e., a meeting in Cairo under Arab League auspices in March and efforts by the African Union to organize a national reconciliation conference in early February — though aimed at supporting the political process, did not help further the UN Support Mission in Libya’s objectives. Historically, parallel discussions outside of Libya tend to prioritize the elevation of foreign interests and elite bargains among the Libyan actors they support, legitimizing their entrenchment. 

Bathily’s next move was simply resigning, becoming the eighth UN envoy in just 13 years to hang his hat.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

These are just the latest developments that highlight some of the challenges facing the UN mission as it tries to navigate a frustrating stalemate, with outside influences and conflicting internal proposals hindering mediation efforts. Thus, it came as no surprise when Bathily’s next move was simply resigning, becoming the eighth envoy in just 13 years to hang his hat, while Libya remains in limbo.

Bathily’s departure, like those of his predecessors, is a testament not to individual failings but to systemic inadequacy in the UN mission’s design, ambition and capabilities. His departure signals the need for an overdue rethink of the international community’s disappointing approach toward Libya, if the ultimate goal is the realization of a stable and unified state free of corrosive influences.

From its inception, the UN’s Libya mission was kneecapped by a limited mandate — attributed to the international community’s hesitancy and fragmented engagement. Initially given a mere three-month authorization, the mission has ambled along for more than a decade without the assurances of enduring commitments from influential global actors that still demand progress. Despite notable achievements, such as the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement in 2015, the framework has been fundamentally limited by an inability to compel concessions from rival factions or assert significant influence over external parties responsible for Libya’s paralysis.

Critically, the mission has been shackled by the very nature of its creation and the shifting dynamics it was designed to navigate. Rapidly evolving from a need to stabilize post-revolution Libya into addressing deep-seated political divisions and external interference, its mandate has consistently proven ill-suited to the complexities of the Libyan context. It has devolved into merely managing failure, rather than being a well-orchestrated attempt at resurrecting democratic governance in a post-Qaddafi Libya. Its emphasis on mediation and political dialogue, while noble, has failed to account for the leverage that will be necessary to fully enforce ceasefires, manage the transition to governance or curb the influx of arms and mercenaries bolstered by self-interested external meddlers.

The fracturing of the Libyan body politic, with the emergence of dual governments and empowered militias, has posed perhaps the most significant challenge. An enduring stalemate remains underpinned by a lack of consensus on constitutional and electoral frameworks, deepened by the entrenchment of local and international stakeholders in the status quo. These conditions have rendered the UN mission’s efforts to foster reconciliation and pave the way for national elections increasingly quixotic.

Besides, the repeated renewal of its mandate, with only incremental adjustments, reflects a persistent underestimation of the complexity of Libya’s political dynamics and the level of intervention required. This cycle of temporary leadership, envisaged as a bridge to Libyan autonomy, has instead translated into a lack of continuity, authority and, ultimately, effectiveness. 

It has devolved into merely managing failure, rather than being a well-orchestrated attempt at resurrecting democratic governance.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Addressing the litany of challenges requires a rethinking of the international engagement strategy. Reengaging global actors must revolve around a holistic reimagining of the UN Support Mission in Libya’s mandate, capabilities and goals to align with the current realities of Libyan society and politics. Such a recalibration necessitates an empowering of the mission — or its successor entity — with a robust mandate that includes explicit provisions for security reform, disarmament and the integration of armed factions into a unified national framework.

Moreover, the international community must confront the realities of foreign interference by establishing mechanisms for accountability and enforcement against those who flout sanctions or continue to fuel the conflict. Enhanced coordination and pragmatic engagement with regional actors are crucial to reconciling divergent interests and reining in external influences that are increasingly weaponizing their reach to undermine painstaking dialogue on state-rebuilding.

Finally, the UN mission must evolve to facilitate a genuinely inclusive political process, one that transcends elite negotiations to incorporate a broader spectrum of Libyan society. This involves not only mediating between political factions but also bolstering civil society, local governance and mechanisms for grassroots participation that targets engaging disaffected youths.

The road to a stable, unified Libya is fraught with complexities that have stymied eight UN envoys. It has left even more Libyans convinced that the status quo may just be preferable, rather than an “end state” that the global community cannot properly define. However, what lies ahead requires not the abandonment of international mediation but its reinvention. Acknowledging and adapting to the multidimensional nature of the Libyan crisis, underpinned by a steadfast commitment to Libyan sovereignty and self-determination, is paramount. Only through a concerted, reconfigured approach can the international community hope to catalyze a sustainable resolution to Libya’s turmoil.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

X: @HafedAlGhwell

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