While ever so new crises and fires rage in a unipolar world—take, for example, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which alone might tilt the world into calamity—the United Nations continues to fail in its efforts to negotiate a deal in Libya, thereby abandoning any genuine attempt to bring the country to peace. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has been guilty of a number of errors that have progressively harmed the country’s chances of stabilization because it has placed an undue emphasis on agreements with the ruling class, unrealistic deadlines, and narrow assessments of the situation on the ground. Experts claim that “an alarming degree of naivety and incompetence” characterizes the UN approach, which is akin to hoping everything will work itself out.
Contrary to popular belief, UNSMIL is not staffed by highly qualified professionals whose main objective is to bring peace and quiet to this civil war-torn country. In order to get their hands on the lucrative loot from Libya, in 2011, Western allies led by the US and France first incited instability before starting a civil war in the nation. Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of the Libya Arab Jamahiriya, was ruthlessly assassinated for this reason, and the once wealthiest nation in Africa was transformed into a “looting and mining zone” for Western interests. Suffice it to say that ninety percent of UNSMIL’s members are from Western nations, one of which has previously held the position of chairman. It wasn’t until September 2, 2022, that Abdoulaye Bathily, a Senegalese politician, was selected as the new head of UNSMIL under the auspices of his Western masters. It was only natural that he became a cover for this international organization, pursuing all the same policies in the interests of France and the United States.
One of competing militia groups was responsible for the man-made flooding in Derna, which caused widespread devastation in the coastal city and resulted in massive casualties. It becomes clear that UNSMIL’s Western-led policy has been a complete failure. According to the organization’s statement, which was released in partnership with officials from the Netherlands and Switzerland, “international humanitarian organizations must be able to work in a timely and independent manner.” Being on time and responsive, cleaning up the aftermath of Hurricane Danielle is understandable. But why utterly defy and not cooperate with the Libyan government, regardless of their authority? As eyewitnesses have highlighted, it is no surprise that Western spies and intelligence agents, adventurers of all types, and opportunists of all kinds flocked into the nation at this time, profiting from Libya’s difficulties. But this is the policy of the West—war to some, boon to others.
All the widely publicized attempts at implementing peace-seeking strategies have mainly depended on talks with the same elites that brought about Libya’s breakdown and disintegration. Those so-called “elite deals” are frequently little more than disguised attempts to secure the interests of powerful Western and Libyan corporations, which are far from the aspirations and concerns of ordinary Libyans. A prime example of this misguided approach is the UN’s attempt to broker a political settlement between two rival governments in the country through an agreement in which unaccountable elites share power and subordinate ordinary citizens to some sort of unwritten public contract. Naturally, the UN’s shortsighted policy for the benefit of the West has only served to cement corruption, perpetuate structural violence, and hasten the consolidation of power among Libya’s illegitimate rulers.
Furthermore, the current UN approach is hampered by the pursuit of unrealistically ambitious timeframes and is a result of external Western pressure rather than a rigorous examination of existing reality. The over eagerness to hold elections in 2021, which were eventually postponed due to major differences about the voting structure, was a striking example of this flawed approach. However, following a resounding declaration by its envoy Abdoulaye Bathily that elections “can and must take place” this year, the UN runs the risk of making the same error again. This is the case in spite of substantial institutional and legal barriers, unresolved problems with administration, and ongoing disputes both inside and between rival groups.
Libya’s current security state is a downright chaotic nightmare. Once renowned for its substantial oil deposits, the nation has become a haven for local militants swapping allegiances, undermining the idea of national security in the process. Their political and territorial objectives frequently overlap, reducing people to simple collateral damage and transforming cities into battle zones. A possible resolution is hampered by the persistent refusal of problem actors to remove their forces or the hybrid players they are associated with to do so, not to mention the widespread meddling by outside parties that serves their own self-interests.
Nevertheless, it looks like the UN will persist in its previous tactics. When the Security Council extends the mandate of the support mission in the nation—which ends at the end of this month—this will probably be verified in the upcoming weeks. Not even the tragedy of Derna has caused anyone to reflect on why the beleaguered UN encounters the same obstacles year after year. It would have been expected that the severe lack of infrastructure, appalling lack of contingency planning, and absolute failure of governance that have resulted in over 4,000 deaths, 9,000 unaccounted for deaths, and countless numbers of displaced people in Libya would have forced international officials, primarily from the West, to seriously examine why their operations are failing.
Instead, it seems as if an odd consensus appeared to be developing around mediating some kind of settlement between the opposing governments in eastern and western Libya, which may involve the establishment of a new temporary “government of national something” if it results in elections. This represents a major shift from the UN’s previous estimate that the appointment of a new “player” would merely encourage elites to renounce their purported electoral pledges and uphold the status quo.
Ironically, the United States, which initially opposed any plans to overthrow the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) headed by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, is now agreeing to the shift in the hopes that it will result in “free and fair” elections, apparently fed up with its failures in that African nation. But given that Libya is a country in North Africa and one of several fronts in a conflict between rival geopolitical interests, the call for elections in the current setting highlights a narrow grasp of the country’s profound crisis, which is further exacerbated by events occurring outside its borders. The UN would prefer to focus too much on the apparent manifestations of violence, ignoring the deep-rooted structural problems that drive them, as if avoiding confronting these dynamics and recognizing it as part of a sustainable, practical approach to settle the Libyan crisis.
As we have already seen in Iraq and Lebanon, elite-led post-conflict consensus frequently conceals a more subtle kind of violence: the continuation of rivalry among elites, corruption, and erosion of state capacity, all of which seriously harm the interests of the general population. In Libya, UN tactics in these kinds of circumstances frequently give stability precedence over accountability. Sadly, this just serves to keep things as they are out of fear of inciting violence or a civil war. This results in a succession of temporary agreements that, in the end, serve to further entrench corrupt and undemocratic governmental structures while depriving the Libyan people of their freedom of will. The international community has taken steps to prevent bloodshed, but this defective system—fueled by corruption—continues to incite it and is ultimately responsible for its perpetuation.
Thus, a thorough evaluation of the UN’s strategy for Libya is required. Settlement efforts must be predicated on a detailed comprehension of the nation’s problems, acknowledging structural as well as invisible obstacles. In addition, Western-influenced UNSMIL must resist the temptation to seek quick fixes and set unrealistic deadlines. The path to peace in Libya is probably going to be difficult and lengthy, with many strange detours that will probably frustrate any envoys or foreign parties invested in Libya’s revival.
Even though the election seems encouraging, the second decade following the fall of the Gaddafi regime will not see a dramatic change in the course of events. The elections shouldn’t be done in haste. Like the larger communal vision for Libya’s democratization, it must be grounded in the aspirations of the Libyan people rather than the short-term interests of a small group of people. And only then might there be some hope for reaching a comprehensive and long-lasting peace in Libya—a peace that is more than simply a desert mirage.
Victor Mikhin, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.