In an article, the two former UN envoys to Libya, Ghassan Salame and Stephanie Williams, recount, for the first time, how the disintegration of the international system helped destroy an already torn Libya, and how a renewed international consensus could help the state’s return.
“For the first time in many years, Libyans are celebrating the blessed month of Ramadan with relative peace,” the article published by “newlines” magazine said. The guns are so far silent. There is a unified national government that resulted from a peaceful transfer of power and its handover by the two competing governments that have ruled the country since 2015. National elections are scheduled to take place in December.
The two envoys stated that they had not imagined such developments in the dark days between April 2019 and June 2020 when they were working for the United Nations, and set an important date because it captured the mood of that turbulent period.
In their joint article, the two former envoys narrate the details of the Berlin conference, and said: “It was late in the afternoon of January 19, 2020 in Berlin, after a long day of official speeches at the German capital. After five months of meetings at the level of senior officials in the participating countries and organizations, we and our German hosts prepared the Berlin Conference, in the presence of a constellation of world leaders, including from countries that directly intervened in the Libyan conflict. We were ready to review and approve – with the two Libyan sides invited to attend at the last minute – the 55-point statement that was painstakingly drafted in many of the preparatory meetings.”
But where was General Khalifa Haftar, who has repeatedly acted as the number one president at international meetings, including earlier in the same month when he rejected the Turkish-Russian bid to sign a ceasefire agreement in Moscow? Haftar, who launched his offensive on Tripoli in April 2019, was the impetus for the rally in the German capital, where a number of world leaders met, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, with apparently unconcerned former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the background – trying to figure out what to do, and how to lure Khalifa Haftar from his hotel to the conference venue. By contrast, the kind and observant Head of the Presidency Council, Faiz Al-Sarraj, was standing politely, ready to attend the closing session. Haftar did not attend.
The article described the scene in Berlin as “surprising”, as if it captures the global chaos of the final years of Trump’s presidency. It is clear that world leaders, including most of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, were not concerned that Haftar turned them down. Haftar’s foreign supporters, however, have not been so upset.
In their article, the two former envoys stated, “At first we might have thrown the towel, or we could have complained loudly, and perhaps ineffectively, about the treachery of the so-called international community, but we lived in Tripoli. We have seen first-hand the suffering, the targeting of ambulances and health clinics, the strikes on civilian infrastructure, the brutal targeting of a detention center housing defenseless migrants, and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes in the southern suburbs of Tripoli. We had to do what we could to stop the bloodshed.
A plan to stop the war
“We decided that a new strategy was needed, one that would end the war and reopen the way for political talks. Whereas our previous plan was an internal one, with the primary focus on gathering Libyans on Libyan soil, away from the intervening foreigners, the new plan was from the outside in. We needed to try to rebuild even a fragile consensus and commitment to ending the conflict before we could return our focus to the Libyans. We needed to build a process that transcends a fractured and divided Security Council. It was necessary to invite regional states that intervene directly in the conflict.”
Thus was born what became known as the Berlin process. Ghassan spent two hours with Merkel in mid-August 2019, heading to Berlin in the wake of a horrific terrorist attack that killed three of our UN colleagues in Benghazi in another sign of the continuing disintegration of Libya. They were ready to reconsider their investment.
The article added: “Germany was a logical choice to lead the operation. Libyans considered it a neutral actor and abstained from voting on the United Nations Security Council Resolution (1973) that was adopted in March 2011 and formed the legal basis for the subsequent international military intervention. In 2019, Germany was also a member of the Security Council and chairs the Libya Sanctions Committee. Merkel was a principled and resolute leader, and Germany was a country with close ties to regional actors who were directly interfering in the Libyan conflict.”
Success of Berlin process
Salame and Williams emphasized that despite the skepticism and cynicism of many Libyan observers and analysts, the Berlin process has proven worthwhile. It is clear evidence that the international “soul” is willing to do the right thing even if the occasional national “body” is weak. The statement signed in Berlin was codified in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2510, which the Security Council adopted in February 2020.
Preserving this international gathering must be a top priority for the United Nations and the main international actors. It provided an umbrella for the United Nations to launch the three Libyan tracks – military, political and economic – as well as a comprehensive track focused on human rights and international humanitarian law. The Berlin process committed the international community to support the inclusive process through a deliberate follow-up mechanism at all levels – labor, senior officials, and ministers. It is still one of the only international forums where the Emiratis and Egyptians meet with the Turks, according to the text of the article.
Force stopped force
The article stated, “The folly that began with the use of force was stopped by the use of force. The red carpet that Haftar raised for his international supporters translated into the introduction of more weapons, advanced military systems and foreign forces on the ground, in a country that was already awash in weapons. (At some point in the past two years, opposition forces in Libya have been involved in the world’s largest drone war.)
In the fall of 2019, the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, fearing that Tripoli would fall within weeks, formally turned to Ankara for help. It was Turkish aid, combined with the largest mobilization of Libyan armed groups since the 2011 revolution, that turned the tide. After advancing to the gates of Tripoli, Haftar’s forces were forced to withdraw from western Libya by June 2020. Then the hostilities ceased in central Libya, supported by the UN-facilitated ceasefire agreement signed in October 2020, which is still holding until today.
The cessation of hostilities and the ensuing calm on the ground allowed the UN mission to work directly with the Libyans on the three Libyan tracks established in January 2020 under the umbrella of Berlin. “The Libyans quickly demonstrated their eagerness to regain their agency, their sovereignty, in an effort to work together to save what was left of their battered country.”
The article continued, “In a remarkable display of the Libyan spirit, led by army officers whose continued foreign presence constituted an assault on their dignity, the Joint Military Commission unanimously agreed in October to a ceasefire and called for the withdrawal of foreign forces. Their calls for national unification and the revival of the Libyan identity have caused the political class to shame the status quo.”
The economic track worked quietly and effectively towards unifying Libya’s sovereign financial and economic institutions. They supported a unified budget. An international review of the two branches of the Central Bank, the results of which will be published in the coming weeks. The bank’s board of directors convened after an absence of five years to adjust the exchange rate.”
The political forces gathered at the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), to initially agree on the date of the elections, and later, in February of this year, to choose an interim executive. We have ensured a transparent selection and certification process for executives watched live by millions of Libyans, adding significant domestic legitimacy and a sense of acceptance that was sorely lacking in previous international efforts. After that, the next executive authority, the government of national unity, was approved by a majority of the members of the House of Representatives and was widely welcomed by the international community.
Security Council action
Ghassan Salame and Stephanie Williams said, “There is still a lot of work to be done. In contrast to their silence in 2019, the Security Council acted well on April 16, and adopted Security Council Resolution 2570 that called on member states to demand that foreign fighters and mercenaries leave Libya and allow the deployment of the United Nations ceasefire monitoring team.
The text also calls on the relevant authorities to facilitate presidential and parliamentary elections on December 24, 2021, and welcomes the new national unity government. This decision is an important signal to the Libyan people of international resolve and commitment to support them on the way forward.”
The two former envoys said, “Libyan authorities in charge of facilitating the national elections should pay attention. The two houses – the fractured House of Representatives and the High Council of State – have long since passed their terms. The first was elected in 2014, and the second in 2012. The Libyan people have spoken repeatedly, making clear their demands for new elections to enter a new parliament, to elect their representatives again, to elect a president, and to renew the democratic legitimacy of their institutions. The two councils must expedite the establishment of the legislative and constitutional foundations necessary to enable Libyans to go to the polls at the end of this year.”
Salame and Williams called on the government of national unity to respect the contract it signed with the LPDF, the Libyan people, accountability and the international community to respect the roadmap approved by the LPDF in Tunisia, which includes holding elections on December 24, and providing the immediate needs of the Libyan people, including services for municipalities suffering from Long-term hunger, strengthening COVID-19 prevention measures, and urgent reform of the overstretched electricity sector.
The article stressed the need for the Presidential Council to focus on national reconciliation, the return of displaced persons, and transitional justice, protecting the wealth of the Libyan people – the country’s oil revenues – through effective and transparent governance and fighting corruption at all levels should be a top priority lest those in this government, like their predecessors, lose the confidence of the governed.
Role of international community
Salame and Williams called on the international community to send a strong signal to internal Libyan actors, including Haftar, that this time the world will not stand idly by if they seek, once again, a military option. The international diplomatic network created by the Berlin process to guide and constrain the Libyan parties must continue to be used. The United States must once again play its traditional role – using its leverage to ensure compliance with the established and rules-based international order – including actively assisting the United Nations in its challenging mission to maintain the momentum that has been created.
Salame and Williams concluded their article by stating that “global turmoil allowed the upturn in the previous United Nations peace process in Libya in 2019; rigorous reaffirmation and adherence to global standards can help ensure that the current process has a happier fate – one that the Libyan people clearly deserve.
The article argues that Haftar’s behavior was based on the assumption that he would win militarily in his quest to rule Libya by force. The previous year, he had amassed impressive international material and political support for his attack, and the last feather in his hat was a “green light” phone call from US National Security Adviser John Bolton just days before the attack.
The article reads, “Haftar launched the attack on April 4, 2019, while our president, Guterres, was in Libya to support a comprehensive national conference under the auspices of the United Nations, and it was no coincidence that it began on April 14. He asked him to cancel the attack and withdraw his forces. But the warnings of the UN Secretary-General were rejected. That Haftar launched such a daring attack while Guterres was still in the country, and would vehemently reject the UN leader’s call for restraint, were other manifestations of global turmoil.
Haftar’s attack would injure and kill thousands of Libyans, and displace hundreds of thousands. Horrific human rights violations, including mass killing, would be committed in Tarhuna. The attack would herald an increase in unprecedented and already illegal foreign interference in the Libyan conflict. Today, there are no less than 20,000 mercenaries and foreign forces in Libya, partially or completely occupying Libyan military installations.
The article added, “It is not surprising that Haftar’s attack also killed the UN political process that we spent more than a year building. We were aware of Haftar’s ambitions and threats to rule the country by force, cleanse Tripoli of militias, and eliminate “political Islam.” He hung his threat to use force on our necks like the sword of Damocles and made our efforts urgent to seek a peaceful solution.”
Impotence of Security Council
The article stated, “The April 4, 2019 attack changed all that. Sharp differences over policy toward Libya have been exposed in the United Nations Security Council, which have so far been covered by empty statements, reflective of the SRSG’s support and the UN political process. During the following weeks and months, the Security Council became utterly sterile, unable to issue a simple statement condemning this astonishing violation of the international order. The biggest shock was the silence of the United States, a startling reflection of the United States’ long-standing policy toward Libya. We will never know what would have happened if senior American commanders had instead chosen to warn Haftar of his attack, or warned his regional supporters – among them close allies of the United States – or even went so far as to threaten him with air power. We have been grateful for the principled stance taken by professional American diplomats in Washington and in the field to correct policy and their strong support for the work of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya over the past year.”