One year later, the UN action plan for Libya is dead

If Salame could not achieve unity among international actors in 2017, there is little hope he can now.
Sunday 23/09/2018
A destroyed building at Al-Sabri area, the region at war for more than three years, in Benghazi, on September 17. (Reuters)
House of cards. A destroyed building at Al-Sabri area, the region at war for more than three years, in Benghazi, on September 17. (Reuters)

In September 2017, Ghassan Salame, the UN secretary-general’s special representative to Libya, presented an action plan for addressing Libya’s political stalemate. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on all parties to seize the moment to move the country forward.

One year later, however, Libya has witnessed further deterioration and insecurity.

Salame’s action plan was ambitious. The first stage involved convening Libya’s major factions — the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) and the High State Council, a consultative body for the western-based and internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA) — to discuss amendments to the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). The HoR’s refusal to ratify the LPA severely hampered the legitimacy of the GNA and was a central sticking point in Libya’s political stalemate.

Salame envisioned a UN-sponsored national conference that would bring together those two political bodies as well as marginalised groups to foster inclusivity ahead of the final stages of the action plan. The conference would be tasked with amending and approving a draft constitution to be voted on in a referendum, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections.

The national conference, in Salame’s words, would be a “synthesis of the hopes of the Libyan people” and avoid past mistakes in mediating Libya’s conflict. The main criticism of the LPA was that it insufficiently represented the Libyan people.

Salame’s national conference featured dozens of meetings and town halls across Libya meant to inform a report with conclusions and recommendations. In this way, Salame avoided the challenges of convening a huge forum, including security and perceptions of fair representation. Yet it also reflected the persistent difficulty in physically bringing Libyans together in a single venue in the country’s fractured and insecure environment.

The most ambitious aspects of the plan were the assumptions it implicitly made about the international context. Since 2014, the Libyan conflict has been influenced by outside actors, in effect making Libya the arena for a proxy battle. This reality was apparent well before September 2017.

In July 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron convened a summit in Paris with the GNA’s Fayez al-Sarraj and eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar. The two pledged to work towards a political agreement and elections; yet Haftar continued to accuse the GNA of complicity with terrorist actors. One month later, then-UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson met with Haftar in Libya.

These summer 2017 meetings with Haftar elevated his position to that of a legitimate player in Libya’s conflict and ensured that he would have a say in Libya’s future.

Thus, while key international players backed Salame’s action plan, they were separately pursuing their own interests in Libya and they have continued to do so throughout 2018, effectively paralysing Salame’s plan. In May, Paris was the site of another meeting between Sarraj and Haftar and it was announced that presidential and parliamentary elections would take place on December 10. Salame’s plan had not set a date for elections.

In effect, Paris was positioning itself as the key mediator. Italy bristled at Macron’s actions and expressed emphatic opposition to elections in December and took unilateral steps to leverage its influence in Libya. In July, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that Italy would have its own Libya conference and Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi recently met with Haftar in Benghazi to boost ties.

Salame’s action plan has fallen victim — predictably — to the interventions of foreign actors. If Salame could not achieve unity among international actors in 2017, there is little hope he can now, especially given recent turmoil in Libya.

Indeed, attempts by external actors to leverage their positions in Libya have exacerbated internal tensions as local armed groups seek to benefit from lucrative relationships with foreign powers. Appeasing militias while pushing for rushed elections, rather than working to disarm Libya’s many armed groups has not worked.

On September 5, Salame accused the HoR of favouring its “own longevity” over its duty to produce legislation for a constitutional referendum and elections. Salame said he has been “exhausting the traditional avenues” to move the process forward and that if no progress is seen soon, he would embrace “other ways to achieve political change.”

Salame did not say what those avenues would be. More ominously, he said: “When the political process grinds to a halt, some will believe there is opportunity to force change through the barrel of a gun.”

The United Nations has failed to develop a strategy to deal with this fact of Libya’s civil war. Discussions of national unity figure prominently, dealing with armed groups goes largely unaddressed.

The fundamental problems that undercut Salame’s action plan remain and are likely to hamper any UN-led attempts unless those international actors intervening in Libya are brought to heel. In the absence of that condition, which seems unlikely, there is little reason for optimism.