UN leadership is latest casualty in Libya
Last month marked the sixth anniversary of NATO’s intervention in post-uprising Libya. More than half a decade later, the country is mired in lawlessness and instability exacerbated by proxy fighting. The threat of all-out civil war driven by armed conflict between opposing factions in the east and west of the country is tangible.
The international community has failed to take decisive and unified action to reach a sustainable and peaceful negotiated settlement in Libya. Worse, Libya has become a stage for competition among world powers.
Amid the chaos in Libya, the United Nations’ leadership is faltering. In 2015, the UN Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) spearheaded a negotiations process that produced a Libyan Political Agreement and established a Presidential Council and Government of National Accord (PC/GNA).
Despite expressing support for the UN-backed process, international actors, including Russia, actively supported those opposed to the PC/GNA, namely Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his eastern-based Libyan National Army.
UNSMIL has been headed by Special Representative of the Secretary-General Martin Kobler since November 2015, following the disgraced departure of former mission head Bernardino Leon. The controversy surrounding Leon’s departure damaged the credibility of UNSMIL and, despite laudable efforts by Kobler over the past year-and-a-half, the Libyan Political Agreement has not been fully implemented and the PC/ GNA remains critically weak. The mission, whose mandate is valid until September 15th, needs new leadership.
However, the appointment of a new UN special representative for Libya, which requires the unanimous backing of the UN Security Council, seems to have fallen victim to narrow interests and competition among key international actors in Libya.
In February, the United States objected to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s choice of former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad to lead UNSMIL. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley cited “unfair bias” on the part of the United Nations “in favour of the Palestinian Authority to the detriment” of US ally Israel. Haley said the United States did not support “the signal this appointment would send within the United Nations”.
Later Russia derailed senior World Food Programme official Richard Wilcox’s appointment by Guterres to lead UNSMIL, citing “concerns” over his fitness for the position. A dual US-German national, Wilcox previously held high-level positions with the United Nations, including envoy of the UN secretary-general to Serbia and director of UN political affairs on the US National Security Council staff.
The blocking of Guterres’s appointment of Fayyad and then Wilcox demonstrates the elevation of self-interest above responsible international leadership in Libya. The United States’ 11th-hour decision to torpedo Fayyad’s appointment was short-sighted and misguided and undermined UNSMIL’s efforts to solve the crisis in Libya. Fayyad was a uniquely qualified candidate whose experience negotiating between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as his tenure at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, would have served him well in this important diplomatic role.
Russia’s derailment of Wilcox’s appointment was more insidious. As some UN and US officials have speculated, Russia’s actions were likely aimed at sending a message to the West: That it can assert its authority over Libya-related affairs and is willing to interfere in international efforts aimed at moving the UN negotiations process forward. Russia, which has emerged as a major backer of Haftar and his forces, has an interest in weakening the UN-backed PC/GNA and the overall UN process in Libya.
US leadership in Libya has been notably absent. Former US president Barack Obama was loath to engage in Libya following the 2011 NATO disaster, although US air strikes in Libya against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the fall of 2016 did help root the terror group out of its stronghold in the city of Sirte.
The conflict in Libya is not a priority for the Trump administration. Many have speculated that some within the Trump administration would prefer a shift in US support from the UN-led process and the PC/GNA to Haftar. However, in rejecting Fayyad’s appointment, the United States politicised this critical diplomatic role and set the stage for Russia’s reciprocal rejection.
The biggest casualty in this situation is UN leadership in Libya. The Trump administration reportedly did not object to Russia’s derailment of Wilcox’s appointment and the acquiescence to this power play by Russia is a clear demonstration of the lack of urgency, or even disinterest, with which the Trump administration views the need for a negotiated settlement in Libya.
With Kobler a lame duck without a clear successor, it is unlikely that the United Nations will succeed in brokering a peaceful settlement between Libya’s east and west. Rather, it is more likely that Russia’s move has strengthened its proxy Haftar, leaving the prospect of peace in Libya ever distant on the horizon.