Report

U.N. Libya Envoy Abruptly Resigns Ahead of Critical Elections

Libya still reeling from proxy war between rival foreign powers.

Jan Kubis, United Nations special envoy for Libya
Jan Kubis, United Nations special envoy for Libya, addresses a press conference after talks with the German foreign minister in Berlin on March 18. Kay Nietfeld /POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations special envoy for Libya, Jan Kubis, abruptly tendered his resignation from his post as the top international troubleshooter in the North African country, leaving a diplomatic vacuum just weeks before Tripoli’s controversial presidential and parliamentary elections. The announcement deals a blow to the international community’s efforts to stabilize Libya and facilitate elections in a bid to end a decade of chaos and violence. 

The move comes after world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris pressed the Libyans to proceed with “free, fair, inclusive and credible presidential and parliamentary elections” on Dec. 24.

“The international community is putting all its eggs in this election, so it needs to go well,” said Thomas Hill, an expert on North Africa issues with the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Having [Kubis] drop out now could be an indication that things are falling apart behind the scenes.”

The United Nations special envoy for Libya, Jan Kubis, abruptly tendered his resignation from his post as the top international troubleshooter in the North African country, leaving a diplomatic vacuum just weeks before Tripoli’s controversial presidential and parliamentary elections. The announcement deals a blow to the international community’s efforts to stabilize Libya and facilitate elections in a bid to end a decade of chaos and violence. 

The move comes after world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris pressed the Libyans to proceed with “free, fair, inclusive and credible presidential and parliamentary elections” on Dec. 24.

“The international community is putting all its eggs in this election, so it needs to go well,” said Thomas Hill, an expert on North Africa issues with the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Having [Kubis] drop out now could be an indication that things are falling apart behind the scenes.”

The U.N. Security Council, riven by big-power divisions between the United States and Russia, has been struggling for nearly two years to maintain consistent U.N. leadership in Libya. The country has been plagued by civil war, corruption, and political disunity since the U.S.-led NATO intervention in 2011, which resulted in the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, who was executed in the streets by militias.

Since Gaddafi’s ouster more than a decade ago, Libya’s warring parties have failed to form a stable government, sometimes violently jousting for power despite Western and U.N. efforts to steady the oil-rich country. After the dust settled from the Libyan dictator’s fall, the internationally recognized Government of National Accord was left with little effective control beyond the capital of Tripoli, and it was besieged by warlords in eastern Libya who set up a rival government. With covert backing from Russia and the United Arab Emirates, military forces in the east launched an ultimately fruitless assault on Tripoli in 2019.

In March 2020, Ghassan Salame, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter, resigned from the top U.N. post, citing ill health and frustration with the role that key member states, including Turkey and Russia, played in fueling the conflict. The effort to find a replacement who could garner support from the U.N. Security Council’s big powers, as well as African countries, played out over nine months, as one after another potential candidate got vetoed by a divided council. Kubis, a Slovakian diplomat who had previously served as the top U.N. official in Lebanon, was appointed to the post in January. It remains unclear why Kubis, who operates out of Geneva, decided to resign, and it is unclear who will come next; the U.N. Security Council could shift the role to a U.N. special representative in Tripoli. 

A fragile U.N.-brokered cease-fire in June 2020 ended over a year of conflict that left hundreds of civilians dead and thousands more displaced. The conflict was exacerbated by a flood of foreign fighters and mercenaries, and foreign powers including Russia, Turkey, France, Italy, Egypt, and wealthy Gulf countries backing rival factions in the country in a drawn-out proxy war.

The U.N.’s chief spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, confirmed that Kubis had tendered his resignation and that the U.N. secretary-general “has accepted it with regret.” He added that the U.N. chief is working on finding a replacement,

“We are fully aware of the electoral calendar and are working as quickly as possible to ensure continuity of leadership,” Dujarric told reporters Tuesday.

Dujarric said Kubis would remain in his post for the time being and that he intended to brief the Security Council on Wednesday on developments in Libya: “Mr. Kubis will not leave the seat and leave the mission hanging.” But Dujarric did not say whether Kubis would remain on the job through the election or until a replacement is found.

Kubis may have stepped out of bounds in navigating Libya’s tricky politics. One senior diplomat said that Kubis clashed with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres over the organization’s approach to elections. Kubis publicly backed an electoral law adopted by the Libyan House of Representatives, one of two rival Libyan parliaments, without having secured the support of Libya’s opposing factions, a move that some believe constrained the U.N.’s flexibility considerably.

Experts said that Kubis’s support of the electoral law gave one of the factions—the eastern one led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar—momentum after his rebuffed effort to take Tripoli by force. “They’ve recovered from the clear defeat that they suffered having lost Tripoli,” said Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Libya director on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

Experts said they expect the U.N.’s selection of its next envoy to be more careful after Kubis’s surprising resignation, and that the world body could be setting up for some tweaks to its Libya game plan–even if those efforts have to get through stonewalling from major powers. Raisedon Zenenga, a Zimbabwean diplomat who has the senior post in the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, could replace Kubis in an acting capacity, while the seasoned British diplomat Nicholas Kay is also under consideration for the job.

“What has happened with Kubis, in many regards, is quite unprecedented,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “I expect the U.N. to pick Kubis’s successor in a more methodical, more careful way compared to the shambolic circumstances that allowed Kubis to emerge as a Geneva-based envoy earlier this year. The next one will be based in Tripoli, but having that new person approved by the Security Council will not necessarily be easy or swift.”

Harchaoui told Foreign Policy that there is now a “distinct possibility” the elections could be postponed given Kubis’s departure.

Elections in the politically polarized North African country have fed concerns among some observers about the prospects of renewed violence or even civil war. The slate of presidential aspirants includes Saif al-Qaddafi, the son of the late Libyan dictator, and Haftar, the leader of a rebel army in eastern Libya, as well as Libya’s transition leader, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah.

Hill said the abrupt resignation of a seasoned U.N. envoy leaves a power vacuum that undermines the international community’s standing in Libya. 

“It means the U.N. seat at the table cannot speak authoritatively,” he said. While foreign powers wield the most influence over developments in Libya, the “U.N. nevertheless provided the appearance that there was a neutral international effort working on behalf of the Libyan people.”

“That veneer is gone now,” he said.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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