Libya, the international community and the risk of spiralling chaos

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On Saturday night, the body charged with delivering a new Libyan government announced it had ‘a green light’ for the government to start work, and that it intended to take power in Libya.

There were only two problems.

First, it made the announcement from Tunisia, where it sits because Libya’s two powerless and illegitimate governments, backed by heavily-armed and ruthless illegal militias, remain in Libya itself.

Second, it actually had nothing like a ‘green light’ to commence work as a government, even by the rather low standards set for it by the United Nations.

As noted in several previous pieces, the Presidential Council appointed by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) exists solely to form a so-called Government of National Unity, which should guide Libya through the process of drafting and enacting a constitution, and paving the way for full elections by 2017.

As proposals go, this should be uncontroversial.

It is now more than five years since the first shots were fired in Libya’s first civil war – the conflict in which Ghaddafi was killed – and yet in that time, despite two democratic elections, almost no progress has been made.

Not only does the state have two governments – neither with any legitimacy or power – each backed by illegal warlords, and no constitution, it is also well into the 24th month of its second civil war, in which four militias are now fighting.

In its West the ‘General National Congress’ (GNC) sits in Tripoli, backed by Libya Al Fajr (Libya Dawn) despite having twice outlasted its mandate (in December 2013 it voted to extend its own mandate to the following June. This deadline has been utterly ignored).

In its East, the House of Representatives sits, backed by ‘Operation Dignity’, a force led by former General Khalifa Haftar, whose actions started the second Libyan Civil War in May 2014. The HoR, currently based at Tobruk, has been ruled illegitimate by Libya’s High Court, and has also outlived its own mandate, which expired in October 2015.

But Libya is not just divided between ‘Dawn’ and ‘Dignity’. In Benghazi, Libya’s second city, the Shura Council, led by Al-Qaeda-affiliates Ansar Al-Sharia, is battling for control against Dignity. And in my former hometown of Sirte, IS in Libya has taken control. As in all its iterations, it is fighting against literally everyone – armed or otherwise – who is not a member of IS. (Detailed analysis of this disastrous situation, and how it came about, are included in my book, The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis)

Sadly, even against this backdrop, the so-called ‘Government of National Accord’ proposed by UNSMIL is impossible to fully support.

The reasons for this have been noted in more detail elsewhere on this site, but the major problem is that the newest GNA proposals – and in fact all concrete progress on it to date, including the creation of the Presidential Council – have been made only to prevent an alternative agreement, which was announced in early December 2015, being developed by the GNC and HoR.

That is, the United Nations, faced with an unprecedented negotiation process between Libya’s opposing ‘governments’, chose to dismiss their proposals and new signs of a united approach, preferring instead to impose the ‘GNA’ on Libya from afar.

There has to date been absolutely no indication from UNSMIL about why it has chosen to take the almost unprecedented step of forcing a third government on a nation state instead of helping smooth negotiations between Libyans which would result in just one. But behind the UN, an increasingly noisy group of states have made their opinions known.

Italy, France, the US and UK have all, in recent months, expressed growing concern about the existence of IS in Libya, and have been increasingly clear in their intention to commence airstrikes against the group*.

*some strikes have already been made on IS positions in Libya, including a strike last month by the US on Sabratha, where the state claimed IS was training and arming insurgents to operate in Tunisia. The US announced, however, that it had played no part in an airstrike on a suspected IS convoy close to Bani Walid on 28 February, in which 15 vehicles were reported to have been destroyed by three missiles.

As a result, they have increasingly pressured the UN to act – and to act in a way which will deliver a Libyan government which will invite some or all of them to bomb IS in Libya*.

*At a meeting of heads of state held in Rome in December – a meeting to which no Libyan was invited – US Secretary of State John Kerry was heard to shout demands that the UN ‘sort out’ the political situation in Libya, and deliver a ‘government we can deal with’

On 25 February, Italy felt it had to publicly resist pressure from France and the US to allow their manned aircraft and drones to attack Libya from its airfields. It fears that any military activity in Libya not specifically requested by Libya itself risks turning Libyans against all Western states.

And just one day later, France led claims that it would ‘enforce economic sanctions’ against anyone who opposes the GNA, naming Nouri Abu-Sahmain, the leader of the GNC, Khalifa Al-Ghwell, the GNC Prime Minister, and Aguila Saleh, the HoR’s President.

Effectively, France is either threatening sanctions against three individual men, or against the two ‘governments’ which have at least nominal control over all Libya’s finances and resources. In the latter case, France is calling for full sanctions against a nation state in order to force regime change upon it – solely to enable it to bomb Libya.

It also severely undermines the repeated claims that it is ‘extremists’ from the GNC and HoR who are ‘standing in the way of a political solution’. According to this proposal, it is both bodies’ most senior representatives.

The EU is expected to meet to discuss the proposal later this week. 

There are significant flaws in proposals to re-start airstrikes on Libya.

IS in Libya is certainly a violent and horrifying organisation, but at present it is the smallest of the four combatants in Libya’s second civil war, while two years of Western bombing campaigns against IS in Iraq and Syria have failed to make significant differences to IS’ activity in either state or internationally.

Equally, IS’ own ‘narrative’ relies on the falsehood that there is a war taking place between Islam and the West. A systematic bombing campaign in Libya – a state which already experienced prolonged aerial bombardment by NATO states in 2011 – risks actively feeding that untruth, and inadvertently strengthening IS’ recruitment process.

But even if the proposal were strategically watertight (and it is far from that) the rush to action has severely endangered Libya’s best chance of peace – negotiations between Libyan opponents – and ironically probably the best chance Libya has to remove IS from within its borders, as peace and a functioning state are the vital foundations to resisting a group which relies on war and the chaos it brings to recruit, gain cash, and lay its hands on weapons.

Not only that, but Western meddling in UNSMIL’s affairs has increasingly fuelled suspicion against the UN itself.

That suspicion is not yet terminal, but the transparent attempt to strangle Libyan-driven progress, and instead impose a third illegitimate government on a divided and precariously-balanced state simply to enable several other nations to start bombing Libya once more is polarising and destabilising the state even more – and, in the process, has offered extremists in Libya to claim the UN is simply a more acceptable face of Western interest.

The GNA has so far been a debacle, and risks damaging Libya, and the UN, even more than they already are.

And Saturday’s announcement highlighted the chaotic nature of the drive to impose it on Libya.

Because despite the Presidential Council’s claim that it had a ‘green light’ to take power in Libya, the HoR has still not voted on the proposal – a vote which is specifically listed as a requirement in the Libya Political Agreement, formulated as the process by which the GNA will take control (the GNC’s approval is considered unnecessary by UNSMIL, even though it is the GNC and Fajr which sit in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, from where the GNA would be expected to govern).

And the Presidential Council’s announcement on Saturday included demands that: ‘all Libyan sovereign and public institutions and the heads of financial bodies (should) start communicating immediately with the Government of National Accord to hand over power in a peaceful and orderly manner”.

“The Presidential Council also calls on the international community and international and regional organisations … to stop dealing with any executive power that does not follow the Government of National Accord.”

But within hours, it emerged that the Presidential Council in fact had received not an endorsement by the HoR, but instead a document containing around 100 signatures of HoR members and other politicians approving the GNA.

By Sunday afternoon, many members of the Libya Dialogue – the group hastily created by UNSMIL in December to rush the GNA into existence – pointed out that to regard such a document as binding or conclusive actually contradicts the terms of the Libya Political Agreement.

At present, Libya is split four ways, with two illegitimate and powerless governments forced to watch as the state tears itself to pieces.

The international community’s response is to try to force into existence a third, equally unpopular and illegitimate government, and in the case of France at least to attempt to use sanctions to force regime change in order to allow it to start bombing Libya again after a five-year hiatus.

The GNA is less an attempt to end war in Libya than to alter the type of war being fought there, and to increase the number of combatants within it. No-one has yet indicated how long the new conflict is likely to last, or how many Libyans must die before it is considered a success.


Misleading dispatches

Any readers of this blog based in the UK (from where I most often write it) or elsewhere in the ‘West’ are very likely to have come to Libyan current affairs under the influence of this sentence, or one very much like it:

‘Libya has had rival parliaments and governments since 2014, after an Islamist-led militia alliance overran Tripoli and forced the internationally recognised administration to flee to the remote east of the oil-rich nation.’

It is unclear who first used this formation (in the last week, it has appeared in The Guardian and on Yahoo’s news website, but the point is that it and other very similar sentences are used over and over again in reports about Libya – meaning it was likely to be a news agency, possibly repeating ‘guidance’ given to a journalist by a trusted political or UN contact. This is where such things most often begin) and it is something you will read again and again.

I am also aware that compared to the combined total of all those who read news websites across the world, the number of people who read these posts is extremely small (thank you, by the way, for being part of that number).

But it is important to point out that the sentence above is not only misleading, it is actually wrong.

In order to be correct, it would first have to be more specific in its opening: ‘Libya has had rival parliaments since August 2014.’

This might seem like a cosmetic change, but in fact it is central to the current Libyan situation. Because Libya held a general election on 25 June 2014, which was supposed to officially end the tenure of the General National Congress, and which elected in its place what was to become the current House of Representatives. At no point prior to August 2014 did Libya have ‘two governments’.

This is important because it is so central to the second part of the statement: ‘after an Islamist-led militia alliance overran Tripoli and forced the internationally recognised administration to flee to the remote east of the oil-rich nation.’, almost all of which is simply incorrect.

Tripoli has been ‘overrun’ by militia organisations since its first civil war of 2011 (the conflict which ended when Muammar Ghaddafi was shot outside Sirte). No militia should have been allowed to remain in Tripoli – or indeed, in existence – following the end of that conflict, but it is unacceptable to imply that any ‘militia’ ‘overran’ Tripoli at any time after 2011, when several different groups did so.

It is correct to state that the House of Representatives (which was elected in the June 2014 poll – an election with a national turn-out of 18 per cent) is in the remote east of Libya – at Tobruk, to be precise – and to argue that it would not be there if not for the ongoing warfare which is taking place in Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte, Derna and in fact most populated areas of Libya. But even having accepted that, it is a stretch of logic to claim the government ‘fled’ to Tobruk.

The government had never once convened at Tripoli – the (entirely unjustified) excuse used by the General National Congress for its reconvening in Tripoli despite no longer having a mandate to govern. And many HoR members are from the East of Libya, as should be expected of any representative political organisation. The government did not ‘flee from’ Tripoli to the East. Not even all of the HoR’s members ‘fled’ to the East.

In fact, the HoR quite justifiably decided it could not convene in Tripoli not because of one militia ‘overrunning’ the city and ‘forcing’ the HoR to leave, but because the second Libyan Civil War was by August 2014 in its fourth month and Tripoli was one of its two major foci. It was too dangerous for the HoR to meet there, so it never did.

It’s also important to note that not only did an ‘Islamist-led’ militia (Libya Fajr, or ‘Dawn’) not ‘force (the HoR) to flee’, it was not even the illegal armed group which started the conflict.

That dubious honour belongs to the ‘Operation Dignity’ force led by disgraced former Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar’s own force attacked an Al-Qaeda affiliated militia in Benghazi, while simultaneously another illegal militia (the Zintan khetiba) followed Haftar’s direct orders by opening fire with rocket and grenade launchers, assault rifles and smaller hand-held guns on the Libyan government.

This unprovoked attack on unarmed politicians was the opening salvo in Libya’s second Civil War, and took place in May 2014, a month before the elections which created the HoR took place, and almost three months before the HoR        HoR was formed. Haftar’s force is the illegal militia which today claims to support the HoR.

A final mention must be made of the phrase ‘internationally-recognised administration’. Those three words are almost beautiful in their simultaneous neutrality and intense meaning.

It is certainly true that the international community recognised the HoR, and it is equally true that there is absolutely no sense in which anyone could argue the GNC has any legitimacy.

But the problem with the description is that it fails to mention that the HoR won an election in which less than one in five eligible voters took part, that the Libyan High Court in November 2014 declared the HoR as having no legitimacy in Libya, and that in October 2015, even the worthless mandate it still claimed to have received from ‘the people’ ran out. It voted to extend it, without any consultation.

I understand that all of this might seem of limited importance, but when one considers that the sentence is the sole attempt most news stories make to ‘explain’ the extraordinarily complicated – and for most people dangerous – situation in Libya, simply copying and pasting:

‘Libya has had rival parliaments and governments since 2014, after an Islamist-led militia alliance overran Tripoli and forced the internationally recognised administration to flee to the remote east of the oil-rich nation.’

Is unacceptable, colouring everything which precedes and follows it with a bias which is unnecessary at best and deliberately misleading at worst.

Space is limited in news stories, so a far more sensible – and more importantly, accurate – line might read: ‘Libya has had rival parliaments and governments since 2014, after the outbreak of its second civil war.’

Given more space, one might write: ‘Libya has had rival parliaments and governments since 2014, after the outbreak of its second civil war split politicians and associated illegal militia groups. One government is based in Tripoli, the other in Tobruk, in the far East of the oil-rich nation’.

In times of intense pressure, chaos, confusion and violence, accurate reports are all we have to attempt to make sense of what is happening.

It is important – in some cases, few things are anywhere near as important – to know what led us to where we are today, so we might begin to untangle the messes we are left to face.

There is of course a place within all of us where biases are nurtured. But it should not be the role of international news reports to feed or encourage them.



Justified criticism of the GNA and the self-interested motives of those attempting to rush it into position should not, however, detract from a central fact: the war in Libya is slaughtering people, forcing many thousands from their homes, and causing men, women and children to endure outrages that no human ever should.

Bringing an end to the conflict should be the priority of all international actors.

Late last month, a six-member United Nations team issued a report which indicates that all sides in the second Libyan Civil War should face trial for war crimes.

The report is the result of almost 18 months’ work, and includes interviews with more than 200 witnesses and victims.

It concludes that ‘most major armed groups (in the conflict) have carried out unlawful killings, including executing prisoners and assassinating those who dissented against them.’

It contains testimony from people who have been beaten with lengths of electrical cable, plastic pipes, who were electrocuted, suspended in stress positions, and deprived of food.

One woman described how she and others were kidnapped, drugged and repeatedly raped for six months. She is now pregnant.

The team found that many groups – including, but not only, IS – have forced children to join them, and also found bodies including of people taken captive by Operation Dignity, bearing the marks of rape and torture.

The UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein commented: ‘A multitude of actors, both state and non-state, are accused of very serious violations and abuses that may, in many cases, amount to war crimes.’


A note to mark an anniversary

Today – 15 March 2016 – is the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict.

Five years ago, the Syrian government opened fire on street protestors. It was not the first to escalate the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, but the war it began has been the longest of those to have originated in that ‘Spring’.

I have written at length about the Syrian conflict, and am in Turkey as I write this. My next post is very likely to be a collection of refugees’, government ministers’ and aid workers’ stories relating directly to this longest of the Spring conflicts.

But to end today, I just wanted to note a few facts about the Syrian civil war.

In five years, the war has killed up to 550,000 people (it has also created such chaos that the United Nations has ceased even attempting to keep count), including 300,000-350,000 civilians killed by bombs or starvation by their own government.

Of a population of 22 million, almost five million men, women and children are now refugees – 2.7m in Turkey, 1.067m in Lebanon, 640,000 in Jordan. Just over 500,000 are in the EU.

Added to that, a further seven million people are still in Syria, but have been forced from their homes by violence and/or destruction, meaning significantly more than half the pre-war population of Syria have lost their homes and lives as a result of this conflict.

Roughly 5.1 million people are living in regions described by the UN as ‘highly contaminated’ by land mines, and 13.5 million people within Syria itself are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance – food; water; shelter; medicine; hygiene and sanitation kits; blankets.

The majority of Syrians do not want Bashar Al-Assad, who is responsible for up to 350,000 civilian deaths in Syria, to remain in charge of their state. But those who do, have logical reason to fear what happens if he goes. Both of those points must be at the forefront of any negotiations in the weeks that follow.

This is an anniversary which should be marked, and will be noted in media across the world. If we use it as a moment to reflect on what has gone before, it will not be wasted.


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