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Can the United Nations Save the Day in Libya?

Now that Libyans have voted in another parliamentary election, the United Nations is gearing up to pave the way to a national political dialogue. Last month the UN’s efforts to bring the country’s political factions to the negotiating table broke down amid criticisms of the way the United Nations Special Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) ...


Now that Libyans have voted in another parliamentary election, the United Nations is gearing up to pave the way to a national political dialogue. Last month the UN’s efforts to bring the country’s political factions to the negotiating table broke down amid criticisms of the way the United Nations Special Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was preparing for the talks. The controversy forced UNSMIL to postpone a planned meeting that was supposed to launch the dialogue. The UN issued a statement chiding unnamed forces for derailing the talks, adding — with uncharacteristic frankness — that "such attitudes are not helpful in launching a dialogue under the current circumstances." UNSMIL’s initiative met its strongest opposition from nationalist and tribal factions. (The image above shows Libyan election officials counting ballots after the parliamentary election last month.)

The latest efforts to jump-start talks among the most important political players started on June 5, in the wake of General Khalifa Haftar’s military campaign against extremist militias in eastern Libya. The retired general started his campaign, which he has dubbed "Operation Dignity," in response to two years of terrorist attacks targeting the army and security forces as well as judges, journalists, and political activists. Given the central government’s failure to improve the security situation, Haftar has managed to garner significant popular support for his military campaign, which is currently seen by many Libyans as the only viable way to rein in terrorist groups. But western diplomats worry that Haftar’s campaign might lead to renewed civil war.

UNSMIL’s initiative is supported by the United States and the British, represented respectively by special envoys David Satterfield and Jonathan Powell. Yet all those involved in the effort seem to have been caught off guard by the storm of criticism it has prompted. A range of politicians have denounced it as biased and poorly prepared, claiming that UNSMIL hadn’t done enough to consult with important figures in Libya’s political scene. Some even denounced the effort as going too far to placate the Islamists.

The role of UNSMIL and Libya’s friends in the international community is crucial at this juncture in the country’s affairs. The past two years have thrown into sharp relief the inability of the various political factions to come together and discuss a path forward from the current crisis. Theoretically, at least, a well-planned from the UN could provide just the stimulus needed.

As welcome as their efforts may be, however, the UN and other countries need to proceed carefully. Any moves by international players should be well thought-out and carefully designed to counter possible perceptions of undue bias against particular factions.

One of those charging the UN with impartiality was ex-health minister Fatima al Hamroush, a member of the current National Dialogue Preparatory Committee, who is currently leading efforts for reconciliation among the Libyan diaspora, which includes large numbers of Libyan expatriates living in the neighboring countries of Tunisia and Libya. Another key politician to criticize the UN initiative was ex-Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril. Jibril, who emphasized that he doesn’t oppose the dialogue initiative, criticized the preparatory document issued by UNSMIL as "one-sided" and "biased."

Why? Largely because UNSMIL’s draft document on the initiative expressed strong criticism of Operation Dignity, which has significant support among Libyans, especially in the eastern part of the country. In addition, the document seemed to imply enshrining the role of militias in the security and defense sectors, an idea that Libyans have been publicly demonstrating against for the last two years, demanding that professional army and police forces should be based on proper vetting procedures and a clear chain of command. These two distinct issues were enough to make Libyans doubt UNSMIL’s neutrality.

In its statement announcing the initiative, UNSMIL was at pains to emphasize its neutrality toward all factions and its respect for Libya’s sovereignty and stability. But that didn’t stop the storm of criticism and demonstrations, prompting the mission to call off the meeting scheduled for June 18-19.

The critics didn’t attack UNSMIL only for alleged bias. They also attacked it for the way UN and western diplomats invited delegates to the meeting. This was dramatized by a June 12 TV interview with Tayeb al Sharif, a key figure in eastern Libya’s tribal politics — he’s a member of the council of elders for the Obaidat tribe, the biggest in the East — who was invited to participate in the first round of the dialogue. In addition to raising similar concerns about pro-Islamist bias in the initiative’s draft, al-Sharif scolded the UN for failing to send him an agenda for the meeting or a list of participants, despite repeated requests. "I obtained all this information [about the initiative] through my own contacts and from other sources." al-Sharif said. He also faulted the UN initiative for failing to address the roots of the problems that now plague the country. "To my huge surprise," he said, "I found out that the point of the invitation was not to discuss the present situation in Libya and the future of Libya, nor was it about what should be done in order to save Libya from the current crisis."

There are several reasons why UNSMIL and the British and American special envoys encountered these problems, but one of the most important is their failure to consult with important political players outside of Tripoli. Indeed, any initiative by the international community is likely to run into trouble if it relies solely on contact with the political elite in Tripoli and neglects to broaden its base of communications to include the full range of forces across the country’s diverse regions. Allowing militias and their political backers in Tripoli to dominate the dialogue process will almost certainly undermine it — and it was precisely such an approach that derailed the process last month. Libya’s friends should not take the current reality of Libya as a given by glorifying the role of militias and their alleged role in the revolution that toppled the Qaddafi regime, thus giving them unlimited legitimacy and impunity.

UNSMIL and Libya’s friends in the West must study the results of the parliamentary elections, engage with key groups and players on the local level, and widen their information and communication base. If any dialogue initiative by the international community is to succeed, it must learn from the failures of the Libyan interim parliament and government over the last two years. The politicians in both of these institutions promised an inclusive political process, reconciliation, and transitional justice. It was their failure to deliver on these promises that contributed to the problems that bedevil Libya. The UN and Libya’s friends in the international community have to do better.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

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