Negotiations have given a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel but with wildcards like Haftar still empowered by foreign powers, there is a real risk to Libya’s long term security.
Libya has been mired in chaos since the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 after mass protests against his rule turned into civil war.
The near decade of conflict that followed has claimed the lives of tens of thousands and increased instability in North Africa and the Sahel.
Recent talks held in Tunisia have nevertheless made some progress, according to the United Nations acting envoy in Libya, Stephanie Williams, raising hopes that there is a viable route towards elections set to take place in December, 2021.
The meeting has reached a preliminary agreement on a road map to “free, fair, inclusive, and credible parliamentary and presidential elections” that also includes steps to unite institutions, Williams said.
During the opening ceremony of the peace conference, Williams had stated that “the road to the agreement will not be paved with roses and it will not be easy to achieve a good outcome.
“The conference, however, is the best opportunity in the last six years to put an end to civil war”.
The UN has been engaging in the country since the beginning of the Libyan revolution in 2011.
Following NATO intervention, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), set up in September of the same year, became the main international body seeking reconciliation between different groups.
The UN has been supporting diplomatic efforts for close to a decade, but the failure of past initiatives, the arms build-up, and Haftar’s record of threatening political solutions, has made it harder for any credible diplomatic effort toward resolving the conflict.
Since August, rival Libyan parties to the conflict have agreed on a ceasefire, despite a number of violations by pro-Haftar militias.
In a positive development despite the efforts to disrupt it, the ceasefire has so far succeeded in preventing fighting, and oil production has resumed.
This return to the negotiating table has increased hopes of reconciliation and resulted in the lifting of the oil blockade. More importantly, it has enabled rival parties to sign a permanent ceasefire during the fourth round of talks of the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) in Geneva.
This is the first time military leaders have met face to face since Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, Russia, France and the UAE, launched an offensive against the UN-backed government in April 2019. The offensive was only prevented after Turkey intervened with military support to the internationally recognised government.
The UN seems to believe that the current deal could provide fresh momentum to political and economic negotiations taking place in a parallel process. The JMC reportedly will resume talks within weeks to work on unifying their armed forces and bring about the withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries.
However, the situation remains fragile, particularly in Sirte, a key city in Libya’s ‘oil crescent’ region, which provides 60 percent of Libya’s oil exports. The ceasefire agreement is viewed as a move toward broader political talks and a way out of the conflict. However, the threat of renewed violence still exists.
The UN Libya mission is also leading the military talks near the ceasefire line in Sirte. The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) warned the current truce could be in peril, saying their Moscow-backed opponents had started live-fire exercises, further accusing Russian mercenaries of preventing their delegation from landing at an airport near Sirte.
In response, on Thursday, the military command of the UN-backed GNA stated: “We do not want these moves to cause the failure of peaceful dialogue and we will not accept to negotiate under the duress of mercenaries and their air defences.”
Obstacles to Peace
Haftar has played the role of chief disrupter over the last two to three years and has broken every single agreement and ceasefire brokered by the international community. Haftar’s heavy losses in western Libya have caused fractures within his eastern camp, as a result, he has lost a lot of support internally and externally. Nevertheless he still has significant support from the UAE and therefore enough international backing to disrupt efforts to find peace.
The power shift is apparent in eastern Libya, where Aguila Saleh, a speaker in the Tobruk based Parliament, has become the new political representative of the eastern bloc. The present truce further reduced Haftar’s strength and empowered Saleh’s rise, therefore, the European Union recently decided to drop sanctions against Saleh, thereby allowing him to further consolidate power within the country.
A sustainable settlement is presumably not in the interest of some foreign actors such as Russia, Egypt and the UAE because it could undermine their influence and may even threaten its military presence in Libya. Therefore, none are likely to stop supporting their Libyan proxies and neither will they pull their foreign fighters out of the country despite the agreement.
Justice and accountability are also major issues in the country, as militias in Libya have committed a number of crimes. Most recently, prominent Libyan lawyer Hanan al Barassi was gunned down in the eastern city of Benghazi. Her killing in an area that is still under the control of Haftar’s LNA took place just a day after she shared comments on social media criticising the warlord’s son.
According to the UN, she was widely known as a vocal critic of corruption, abuse of power, and human rights violations.
Hanan Salah, researcher at Human Right Watch, has commented that “What the agreement does not provide is a clear commitment and a pathway to accountability for the serious crimes and other abuses perpetrated by the conflict parties with support of their foreign backers. This includes indiscriminate attacks that killed civilians, destruction of critical infrastructure, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and unlawful killings”.
The international community should ensure the security and justice required in which the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum can prepare for new elections without fear of getting killed. Similarly, the need for security and stability will encourage the majority of Libyans to engage in the process of peace and to support paths of reconstruction and development.
There is a viable political track that exists for the Libyan situation to move in a positive direction but at the same time a lot of factors could undermine the process.