Exclusive: Security Woes Dog U.N.’s Libya Mission
Last October, with security concerns in Libya mounting, the United Nations dispatched a high-level delegation to Tripoli to determine whether U.N. staff could function safely in a country beset by Islamist extremists and renegade militias that had killed America’s top envoy, attacked foreign embassies, raided the country’s oil resources, and temporarily abducted both the Jordanian ...
Last October, with security concerns in Libya mounting, the United Nations dispatched a high-level delegation to Tripoli to determine whether U.N. staff could function safely in a country beset by Islamist extremists and renegade militias that had killed America's top envoy, attacked foreign embassies, raided the country's oil resources, and temporarily abducted both the Jordanian ambassador and the former Libyan prime minister.
Last October, with security concerns in Libya mounting, the United Nations dispatched a high-level delegation to Tripoli to determine whether U.N. staff could function safely in a country beset by Islamist extremists and renegade militias that had killed America’s top envoy, attacked foreign embassies, raided the country’s oil resources, and temporarily abducted both the Jordanian ambassador and the former Libyan prime minister.
The answer was a resounding no, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent an urgent letter to the U.N. Security Council asking for help assembling a 235-man security force that would be charged with guarding the world body’s small mission in Libya. Seven months later, with security deteriorating so badly that the State Department is warning American nationals to leave Libya, the U.N. has yet to establish the force — though U.N. officials say they are gradually reinforcing their own security detail to address the shortcomings.
The Jordanian government, which had been the sole country seriously considering supplying the guards, dropped the idea in February because of concern about the safety of its troops, according to U.N. and Arab officials disclosing the move to Foreign Policy for the first time. Former Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who had led the negotiations over the force’s deployment with U.N. Special Representative Tarek Mitri, was ousted by Islamist lawmakers and forced to flee the country, removing the initiative’s most ardent and energetic advocate.
The Jordanian safety concerns and the "sacking of the prime minister pretty much sealed the fate of the Jordanian guard force," one U.N. official said. Another senior diplomatic official said the Jordanians got cold feet because of the "overall very difficult internal situation in Libya."
In New York and Tripoli, U.N. officials have downplayed the importance of the breakdown in planning for the Jordanian guard force, saying they still have every intention of pressing ahead with plans to deploy a security team in Libya, only they concede it would be much smaller — around 80 people — than the guard force initially proposed by Ban, and it would consist primarily of U.N. security officials recruited from its existing, far-flung peacekeeping empire. The U.N.’s main budget committee is currently considering whether to authorize the $23 million required to fund the security mission.
"Everything regarding the security team is still going on smoothly despite the recent upsurge in violence," said one U.N. official in Tripoli. Another senior U.N. official said that "we are currently recruiting guards ourselves — and it’s going well." But the official cautioned that "the current situation, which is worsening, may provoke us to reevaluate."
Security in Libya has been a hot-button issue for the United States and its allies in the U.N. since September 2012, when Islamist militants attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American nationals.
Fighting has escalated this month as a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, launched an offensive against the Islamist groups operating in eastern Libya and mounted a recent attack on the Libyan parliament.
On May 27, the State Department advised American citizens to leave the country, warning that foreign travelers, especially Americans, "may be targeted for kidnapping, violent attacks, or death." The Pentagon, meanwhile, has ordered 1,000 Marines on the USS Bataan into the Mediterranean Sea, raising speculation that Washington is preparing for the possible evacuation of American diplomats in the event that the situation worsens.
"Extremist groups in Libya have made several specific threats this year against U.S. government officials, citizens, and interests in Libya," according to the State Department advisory. "Because of the presumption that foreigners, especially U.S. citizens, in Libya may be associated with the U.S. government or U.S. NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], travelers should be aware that they may be targeted for kidnapping, violent attacks, or death. U.S. citizens currently in Libya should exercise extreme caution and depart immediately."
A State Department official said the statement was "the result of ongoing instability and violence that we’ve seen in the last few weeks."
The U.N.’s efforts to shore up its own security in Libya come against a background of searing lapses that began with the August 2003 attack on the U.N. compound in Baghdad. The bombing killed the U.N.’s special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 other U.N. staffers and associates.
Following the Baghdad attack, the U.N. mustered a guard force of nearly 400 Fijian and Nepalese peacekeepers to protect U.N. officials in Iraq. But the U.N. continues to be tested.
Nearly one year after enduring a bloody terror attack in Somalia that left eight U.N. employees dead and further exposed its vulnerability, the U.N. is seeking to harden its defenses. In Somalia, Uganda has deployed 410 troops since April to provide a guard force for the U.N. political team. Morocco this year sent 560 soldiers to Central African Republic to protect U.N. staff.
But the effort to stand up a guard force in Libya has posed greater challenges. For Libya, Ban sought a guard force that "would provide perimeter security and access control for United Nations facilities and installations in Tripoli. It would act as a deterrent against possible attacks by extremist elements who are not welcoming of foreign personnel. The guard unit would also be able to relocate United Nations personnel under imminent threat of physical violence to safer locations."
But the U.N. immediately encountered resistance from Libyan authorities, who feared that the deployment of a heavily armed guard force would highlight the government’s own failure to maintain security and protect foreigners on its own soil.
During the negotiations, Mitri agreed to a Libyan request to reduce the size of the mission to about 100. The Libyans also sought assurances that the guard would not wear the iconic blue berets of U.N. peacekeepers, that they would not be permitted to leave the U.N. compound, and that they would not provide an armed escort for the U.N. special representative when he traveled through the country.
Bruce Jones, a scholar at Brookings and former U.N. official, said the U.N.’s quest for greater security reflects a deeper shortcoming by the international community.
Jones, who argued in favor of establishing a multinational peacekeeping force in Libya after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, said that "cost fatigue" and political "overload" had prompted the U.N. Security Council to dispatch U.N. civilian teams into deadly conflict zones without proper backup.
"For me the core lesson in the 1990s is if you want to send peacekeepers you need a substantial force. We’ve backed away from that lesson," he said. "We’re deploying in places which are more dangerous and we’re doing so with less U.N. power. This equals more attacks."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said "civilian crisis management is appealing in theory" but that "civilians often end up trapped in their compounds and are unable to get out and meet local people. Guard units add to this bunker mentality."
(Foreign Policy Diplomatic Reporter John Hudson contributed to this
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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