A change in the UN’s approach and strategy is needed, not its personnel.

The sixth UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, resigned in his role early March this year, after nearly three years in the post.

Salame was appointed Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) on 22 June 2017, as the sixth envoy in six years. The UN Secretary General has asked Salame’s deputy, Stephanie Williams, to continue as acting Special Representative until a new envoy was appointed.  

Stephanie Williams has continued in the role since, attempting to implement the January 2020 Berlin Conference outcomes through the Libyan political dialogue process, after a nationwide ceasefire was signed in Geneva in October.  

Ms. Williams is due to leave her role soon and a new envoy (the seventh in nine years) was expected to be confirmed, the ex-Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov, but he has declined the position.

Whoever takes over, it will be at a time when the nature and dynamics of the Libyan conflict have evolved dramatically. Previous envoys had to deal with obstacles far less challenging than those faced today and they had far less success. 

The question now is whether a change in UN personnel is required or indeed a change in the UN's approach and strategy? 

The UN’s envoy carrousel 

Looking back at previous envoys, we find that immediately after the start of the Libyan revolution in 2011, then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appointed the Jordanian diplomat Abdelelah al Khatib as his first special envoy to Libya.

Khatib was tasked with mediating between the National Transitional Council (NTC), the political leaders of the revolution, and the Gaddafi regime to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The biggest challenge for Khatib was to convince Gaddafi to give up absolute power and accept the will of the people through a peaceful political transition. His attempts failed as Gaddafi was adamant to hold onto power and continued to suppress the uprising, causing many more lives to be lost with widespread destruction across the country.

On 26 April 2011, just a few weeks after appointing Khatib, Ban Ki-Moon then appointed British national Ian Martin as a special advisor on Libya with a remit to begin post-conflict planning, serving alongside Khatib. 

A few months later and with the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Martin arrived in Tripoli and took charge of setting up the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

In February 2012, Martin took over from Khatib as the first head of UNSMIL, with high expectations of providing critical support needed in the vital areas of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) and Security Sector Reform (SSR), to the first transitional government after the revolution.

If Martin had succeeded in supporting Libyans with DDR and SSR programs, then a security vacuum may have been filled quickly to stabilise the country, and the phenomena of civilian armed militias who emerged to fill the vacuum could have been avoided.

In October 2012, Ian Martin was replaced with Tarek Mitri, an academic from Lebanon with government experience and, critically, an Arab. Mitri tried to complete the work started by Martin, proposing a new power-sharing agreement to avoid clashes erupting between the different power centres established in the country after 2011.

Unfortunately this proposal was not accepted, and in the summer of 2014 Libya’s turbulent transition witnessed the first heavy clashes between armed groups who had previously worked together to topple the Gaddafi regime.

Those clashes meant that the role of UNSMIL had now changed from helping with the transition to democracy and state-building to a role focused on peacemaking and conflict resolution. There was also a change in envoy, yet again, and Mitri was replaced with Spanish diplomat Bernardino Leon.

Leon took over in August 2014 and instantly worked to launch a fresh inclusive political dialogue process. The process culminated with the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015 and the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA).

However, Leon was not there to witness the final outcome of his efforts after resigning two months earlier over allegations that he had been influenced by the Emiratis. These allegations have since tarnished the reputation and credibility of UNSMIL as an independent impartial broker in Libya.

Martin Kobler, a German diplomat, was appointed in October 2015 and started his job a month later, as the fifth UN Special Envoy to Libya. Kobler’s task was to oversee the implementation of the LPA on the ground and to move Libya from a state of conflict to one of peace. Although the GNA managed to take a seat in Tripoli, little progress was made by UNSMIL in implementing the rest of the LPA.

It can be argued that the UN is failing Libya, and many will question whether the appointment of a seventh envoy to Libya in nine years will make any difference.

Ghassan Salame, who spent nearly three years in the post, failed to get the international community to prevent a major military attack on the capital Tripoli, where the UN-recognised GNA was based and failed to condemn outright the horrific war crimes committed by Haftar’s forces during the now failed military campaign against Tripoli.

As has been the case in the past, appointing a new special envoy to Libya is unlikely to make a marked difference. UN special envoys are not usually in control of the factors needed for success, as detrimental interference by several countries continues to prolong the conflict and instability in Libya.

The UN has failed in its mission up to this point, and a major shift in approach and strategy is needed. One critical factor for success will be if the UN  can ensure international alignment and mobilise political will to curtail foreign interference, in order to bring an end to the military conflict. 

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