Russia Blocks Brit From U.N. Libya Envoy Role

Diplomatic spats could undermine U.N. position ahead of key national elections.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at a U.N. Security Council meeting on global terrorism during the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24, 2014. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Russia has blocked the appointment of a veteran British United Nations troubleshooter, Nicholas Kay, as the U.N. special envoy to Libya, contributing to diplomatic turmoil ahead of the North African country’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, two diplomatic sources said.

The move comes less than a week after the U.N.’s outgoing envoy, Slovak diplomat Jan Kubis, abruptly resigned from his job following a clash with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres over the U.N.’s handling of pre-election preparations. It also follows ongoing tensions between Britain and Russia, the latter of which previously blocked the renewal of appointments for several U.N. sanctions experts. Moscow protested what it sees as the proliferation of British nationals, many of them with dual citizenship, landing influential U.N. jobs.

Guterres had hoped to move quickly to fill the top U.N. spot before Libya’s elections, proposing Kay, a former British diplomat who served as the U.N. special representative for Somalia. Diplomats said Guterres is mulling the prospect of appointing Stephanie Williams, a U.S. diplomat who served as the acting U.N. special representative for Libya and deputy head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, on an interim basis, thereby avoiding another contentious vote in the U.N. Security Council.

Russia has blocked the appointment of a veteran British United Nations troubleshooter, Nicholas Kay, as the U.N. special envoy to Libya, contributing to diplomatic turmoil ahead of the North African country’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, two diplomatic sources said.

The move comes less than a week after the U.N.’s outgoing envoy, Slovak diplomat Jan Kubis, abruptly resigned from his job following a clash with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres over the U.N.’s handling of pre-election preparations. It also follows ongoing tensions between Britain and Russia, the latter of which previously blocked the renewal of appointments for several U.N. sanctions experts. Moscow protested what it sees as the proliferation of British nationals, many of them with dual citizenship, landing influential U.N. jobs.

Guterres had hoped to move quickly to fill the top U.N. spot before Libya’s elections, proposing Kay, a former British diplomat who served as the U.N. special representative for Somalia. Diplomats said Guterres is mulling the prospect of appointing Stephanie Williams, a U.S. diplomat who served as the acting U.N. special representative for Libya and deputy head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, on an interim basis, thereby avoiding another contentious vote in the U.N. Security Council.

But some diplomats said such a move is unlikely to succeed, since it would provoke the Russians. Moscow had previously blocked Guterres’s plan to make Williams his official special representative and objected to his contingency plan to extend her mandate as acting chief of mission. In 2017, Russia also blocked the appointment of a German American national, Richard Wilcox, a senior World Food Program official who once served on the White House’s National Security Council.

The U.N. mission was plunged into uncertainty after Kubis’s sudden resignation, which followed the surprise resignation of his predecessor just over a year earlier. Ghassan Salamé stepped down as U.N. special envoy in March 2020, citing personal health reasons and mounting frustration with how rival regional powers were stifling efforts to bring stability and a democratic transition to the conflict-torn North African country.

Kubis, who tendered his resignation on Nov. 17, was appointed to the top Libya job in January. In his final Nov. 24 briefing to the U.N. Security Council, he offered to remain on the job through the country’s election to assure a smooth transition. But in accepting his resignation, the U.N. chief decided to terminate Kubis’s mandate on Dec. 10, two weeks before the scheduled election.

The constant churn in leadership underscores the United Nations precarious position in Libya ahead of the country’s elections and contributes to a growing sense among Libya watchers that the international body isn’t able to chart a government transition in Libya.

Libya has been mired in conflict and civil strife since the ousting of former longtime Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi over a decade ago. The conflict morphed into a proxy war, with rival powers—including France, Italy, Russia, wealthy Gulf kingdoms, and Egypt—backing opposing Libyan factions vying for control of the country.

The United Nations, Washington, and European powers have pinned their hopes on Libyan elections providing an opportunity for the country to turn a new leaf and draw a line under the decade of turmoil it has suffered since the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya that led to Qaddafi’s fall. But many experts doubt whether the elections can fix the country’s deep-seated political factionalism and have voiced concerns that competition between rival powers could spark renewed violence.

The interior minister for Libya’s U.N.-backed government, Khaled Mazen, warned this week that continued threats of violence ahead of elections could undermine the process and ultimately lead the government to push back the vote.

The continued obstruction of security plans and worsening violations and abuses will directly impact the conduct of the elections and our commitment to holding them on time, Mazen said. We must not continue on a path that would lead to the deterioration of the security situation until it is out of control.

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

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

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