Reality check: Europe, Libya, refugees and the nature of truth…

Refugees

The third section of this four-part blog, all of which was written on Saturday 23 January, deals with the United Nations’ proposal for a ‘Government of National Accord’ which is – as I point out – not a government, not ‘national’ in the sense of belonging to or being ‘Libyan’, and is not the focus of any ‘accord’ within Libya.

Today (Monday 25th January), the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) – one of Libya’s two illegitimate and powerless ‘governments’ (the General National Congress, GNC, is the other), resoundingly rejected the proposed Government of National Accord by 89 votes to 15. (the GNC has not voted on the GNA, having already rejected the proposal outright).

The ‘parliament’ did vote to accept the principle of ‘a Libyan Political Agreement’, (once again, by a vast majority – 97-7) which has the GNA at its heart, and members of the body claimed the rejection was not of the concept but of the 32 proposed ministers of the new government.

But this in itself is to reject the entire starting-point of the GNA: that a nine-person Presidency Council (see below) should name the ministers it deems sensible to lead the new government.

And the HoR’s objections go far further, as members also demanded that the new government should not have control over military appointments. This is a clear move to try to ensure the HoR can appoint as head of the new Libyan army the warlord Khalifa Haftar, who started the second Libyan Civil War by ordering armed men allied to his illegal militia to open fire on Libya’s Tripoli parliament in May 2014.

That act of questionable morality, combined with Haftar’s conduct since then – which has included ‘offering’ to lead a ‘transitional government’ making him the de facto military president of Libya, manifestly failing to defeat the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia militia in Benghazi (his sole justification for the war he began and has sustained for 20 months), and regularly denouncing all his opponents including non-combatant politicians as ‘terrorists’ and ‘Islamic extremists’ – have made him a figure of ridicule and in some cases hatred for roughly 50 per cent of the Libyan state.

His appointment to lead the Libyan armed forces would destroy the GNA.

In effect, the HoR has explained that its vote means it will accept the proposal the UN is desperately attempting to force through only if the HoR itself is allowed to choose the new government’s members, and the new government of Libya is not allowed to choose who heads the state’s military. There are no circumstances under which – by those rules – one could pretend the GNA was a ‘government’ of any kind.

As noted below, the GNA is itself a bad idea – an attempt by the international community to foist a third powerless and illegitimate government on Libya for motives which are themselves deeply flawed.

Today’s vote, and the reasons given for it, simply demonstrate the extent to which many Libyans oppose the proposal – even as they claim to support the principle behind it.  


It is comforting to believe that a new year brings with it new ideas, new resolutions, desires to be better – and to make things better – than they were in the previous 12 months.

The World Economic Forum, which took place from 20-23rd January at Davos, Switzerland, seemed a perfect opportunity to prove that.

There was absolutely no doubt that the international refugee crisis – the gravest crisis of the modern world – would be discussed, and with the eyes of the world upon it, there could be no better place to announce a new approach, which would engage cause and effect at its source and in the places to which desperate people are fleeing.

Reality, however, is seldom so positive.On Friday 22nd January, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced at the conference that the crisis is ‘putting Europe at great danger’, and that the EU must ‘protect its own borders’.

To put this declaration into perspective, in the last year somewhere in the region of one million men, women and children entered the EU in an attempt to escape death, oppression and terror at home.

One million is an extremely large number. It would, for example, take more than eleven and a half days to count from one to one million at exact intervals of one second, with no breaks allowed for eating, drinking, sleeping, or for anything else.

In the face of such a number, it’s easy to understand how one can become carried away: ‘One million people,’ Mr Valls and others may murmur. ‘What an enormous number. What a threat to our existence and way of life…’

And it is possible to understand how, meditating on this number alone, Mr Valls and others might become fixated, increasingly convinced that this is a problem and must be urgently addressed.

But there are a number of serious problems with this line of thinking.

For example, it would be extremely foolish to believe that any group of one million people is unified in outlook, belief or ambition. It is important to remember that the people who have come to Europe have come from sub-Saharan Africa the Middle East, and Asia; from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan.

There is no reason to believe they are a unified ‘bloc’ with a shared aim. In fact, the only things we can guarantee they have in common are the need to flee war, oppression, shortage and terror in their homelands, and a real and intense desire to reach the safety of the EU.

Once here, most have shown they also want a safe place to stay, and a way to earn enough money to feed, shelter and clothe themselves and their dependents. The number ‘one million’, then, is wrongly thought of as a bloc: it is a number which describes individual human beings, each with their own thoughts, ideas, beliefs and ambition.

That is exactly what another number – the number of residents of the EU – also represents. It is simply foolish to judge ‘one million’ as a ‘threat’ to anything the EU stands for, or anyone within it.

In reality, those individuals are a mere extension of exactly what the EU already is – a group of people gathered together because being united is better, on balance, than being divided, and each working in their own way to help make their society succeed. One million more people does not change that.

And although one million is an extraordinarily large number, when we place it in the context of the EU, it is in fact miniscule.

Those of you who have followed this blog through its reporting on the international refugee crisis have seen the figures which follow before. But on the other hand, everyone in Europe has heard Mr Valls’ words – or others very much like them – many times since early 2015, too.

So, I hope I may be forgiven for mentioning again that the European Union has 581 million people living within it.

The reason that is important is that this means that the one million or-so people who have entered the EU have added to the total population of the region by just 0.0017 per cent. Even if we were to ignore the fact that the people entering Europe are, as a group, almost exactly the same as those of us already here, the ‘one million’ is no longer a large number. It is an extraordinarily small number against which we are being told we must ‘defend Europe’*.

*It may be worth noting here that of course nobody is arguing that the EU should take one million new people in from outside its borders every year forever. We must hope that the wars, terror and shortages which force people from their homes will be ended, both by local and international action. But that was not the point made at Davos, where Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte added: ‘We need to get a grip on this issue in six to eight weeks.’

Another figure that should be repeated in this context is that Mr Valls’ France is the sixth richest nation in the world. It has more money than 141 other states combined. The UK, also an EU member, is the world’s fifth-wealthiest country, and Germany the world’s third.

The EU is the richest political bloc the world has ever seen, and when presented with desperate, scared, tired and hungry men, women and children, it is ill-becoming of it to pretend it ‘cannot’ help, or that it is ‘under threat’ from a group of individuals who together equal less than 0.0018 per cent of its population.

The stark, simple truth is that it can help, and it is not under threat.

Mr Valls is not alone. But his announcement was extraordinarily poorly-timed. Overnight on 21-22 January, two boats carrying refugees sank in the eastern Mediterranean, killing 17 women, 17 children and 11 men.

The 45 deaths, one off the Greek island of Kalolymnos, the other close to Farmakonisi, mean that with nine days remaining, the month of January 2016 became the deadliest January in the decades-long history of refugees crossing the Mediterranean.

Nor is this irrelevant to Mr Valls’ statement. Because this month, it is estimated that 35,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to enter the EU – some ten times more than did so the previous January. Every one of them knew that by boarding a boat, they were literally risking their life. But they did so anyway.

The reasons are simple. Because the alternative – certainly to risking everything to reach a safe place, but in some cases even to drowning – is far, far worse.

It is difficult for most of us, in the peace and security of the EU, to imagine life in a war-zone.

It is even harder to understand what it must be like to know your own government is bombarding your home with missiles, that its police and soldiers, who are supposed to exist to protect you from harm, are just as likely to shoot or torture you, your partner, your parents or your children.

Or that they are joined in this by the governments of Russia (more on which below), the USA, France and the UK, not to mention Al Qaeda, IS, the Free Syrian Army, Hizbollah and the Iranian army.

In Libya immediately after its first civil war, I experienced some of what war delivers – the ruined schools, damaged hospitals, homes and businesses reduced to rubble. And I met those who had fought in the war – as well as those who had been chased from their homes by it. But even then, in the ruins of a state which had been at war just days before, the fire, bullets, bombs and missiles – as well as the threat of arrest, kidnap, torture and execution – were not possible to imagine.

But the fact is that we – including European politicians – do not really need to imagine. Because we can hear about it first-hand. The stories told by refugees and those who fought in the first Libyan Civil War are at the heart of my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis.

And the Syrians (and Afghans, Iraqis, Eritreans, Somalians and people from a depressingly-long list of other nations) who have experienced this are here, willing and able to share with us what they have seen and been through.

Elsewhere on this site there are testimonies of people at the Jungle, in Syria and in Turkey, who openly talk about what they left, and why they left it. And among the stories I have helped set down on paper are one man’s experience of losing half his family when a boat they had been locked in sank off the Turkish coast.

The point is that we do know why people flee. We know that it is because of how terrible their life is at home – from the threat of starvation, or being forced to watch, helpless as a family member dies of a preventable disease because they cannot afford basic medicine, to war, fire, torture and oppression.

And we do know that we can help – both because the number of people entering the EU are not particularly high, and because the EU has more than enough money to do so.

But even if we disregard all of the above, there are simple, practical reasons why the EU must do better than ‘closing its borders’ (not to mention its eyes, and ears), and equally simple, practical ways in which it can.

First, because the international refugee crisis has so far been an embarrassment for the EU. Not simply because it is refusing to help people (because in some cases, it is actually trying to help) but because it is failing to do so.

Because it has not organised a continent-wide response, individual states have taken it upon themselves to ‘respond’. And so for every state like Germany or Sweden, who have welcomed refugees, there is at least one like the UK and Hungary, who have put up walls, set dogs and/or fired upon desperate men, women and children.

And the EU’s failure to take the initiative from a central point has also prevented piecemeal measures from being introduced, which would certainly have helped. Its failure to come to an agreement on a quota system for refugees has at its root the refusal of member states including the UK, Spain, Hungary and Poland. The poorly-considered, knee-jerk actions of the few are plunging the whole continent into chaos and panic (France, it should be noted, has agreed to take just 24,000 refugees this year. This is still far more than the UK’s pledge to allow 20,000 people to enter by 2020).

A centralised approach could also immediately reduce the rate of deaths on the Mediterranean.

If the EU provided safe transport, and safe places for people to stay while their applications were processed swiftly and efficiently (and with regular contact with applicants regarding the stage their application had reached – few things cause people concern more than no news at all), it would not only prevent the chaos caused by boatloads of shivering, desperate people arriving without warning, it would also remove the need for people to get into unsafe vessels to begin with, meaning far fewer deaths at sea, if not actually none at all.

And this is the point. At present, the EU is in chaos, not because of the international refugee crisis itself, and not because of its inability to respond sensibly – in fact, few organisations have the capacity to do so better than it can – but because it simply has not yet tried to.

With the relatively simple step of centralising its response, the EU can at a stroke massively cut deaths at sea. It can operate a system in which it knows how many people are likely to enter, and when; and it can make sure that they are registered, and have safe places to live in which they can work and contribute to regional, national and supra-national success.

From there, with the chaos and perceived (and non-existent) ‘threat’ removed, the world’s richest political bloc can start working at the other ‘end’ of the crisis – helping to end wars, and perhaps more simply, working to make people’s lives better in states which are officially or actually at peace: in short, making sure no-one is forced to leave their home.

This is not an impossible dream, and in the end, that is why Davos was a spectacular, albeit predictable, disappointment.

Because there are solutions to the chaos in which the EU finds itself, and they will help save and improve lives here and in other parts of the world.

We have every right to expect that our politicians engage in reality, rather than wallowing in self-pity and pretending to be helpless in the face of an imaginary threat posed by some of the world’s most desperate people.

If they cannot, we may need some better politicians.

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In Libya, too, hope and reality have clashed in the last week.

On Sunday (17 January) the state was struck by violent weather, ranging from blizzards in the state’s North-Western Jabel Nafusa mountain region, and sub-zero temperatures and huge hailstones in Misrata, to extensive floods in Tripoli, and in the state’s far East, a vast sandstorm at Tobruk, which turned the sky red and orange for several hours.

Poor weather strikes every state at some time or another, but Libya is a nation which has been embroiled in a four-sided civil war for almost 21 months, and its people, already suffering the violence and horror – as well as the damage to shelter and property – that comes with conflict, are not at all well-placed to cope with its effects.

And in some cases the suffering has gone on far longer than others.

The Tripolitan floods were a reminder of one of the ‘forgotten’ stories of Libya’s first civil war – the destruction of Tawergha.

The full story of Tawergha’s devastation by NATO and the anti-Ghaddafi rebel forces – and the subsequent hunting and extermination of the town’s residents – is told in my book, The Toss of a coin: voices from a modern crisis.

It is the only proven war-crime to have taken place in the conflict of February-October 2011, and meeting and speaking to some of the survivors about the smashing of their town and subsequent attempted genocide carried out against them exposed me to some of the most harrowing stories I heard in all my time in Libya.

Those stories, and the background to them, are documented in The Toss of a Coin, but one photo from last week’s storms stands as a particular reminder of one too-seldom considered truth of modern Libya – that even when its second civil war ends, it cannot recover fully Airport campfrom it without first recommencing its recovery from the first.

The photo is of a young girl at the Airport Road Camp, Tripoli. She is holding her shoes in her hands while splashing through ankle-deep water. It is hard to be sure how old she is – perhaps as old as six, maybe as young as four – but whichever is the case, she has certainly lived the majority, if not all of her life, at Airport Road Camp.

Airport Road Camp, as its name suggests, is not a town, village or city. It is a camp for Tawerghans who were chased from their homes, and then hunted across Libya, in 2011. More than four years later, those lucky enough to have survived have still not been able to return home. Instead, they live in makeshift accommodation in Tripoli and Benghazi – at Airport Camp, whole families have spent the last four years sharing rooms intended for military cadets to stay in while they attended training.

This is Libya’s reality – a state close to failure, and in which recovery will be from not one, but two devastating and divisive civil wars.

Even for those fortunate enough to have relatively, or entirely, undamaged homes, the discomfort of the Libyan storms was compounded by other results of the state’s ongoing war, as within hours lasting and widespread power failures struck several major cities.

Within Tripoli, where the strikes hit on 19th January (Tuesday), they began political debate, with opponents of the illegitimate General National Congress (and the illegal militia which claims to support it, Fajr, or ‘Dawn’), which is based in the city, blaming leading politicians from the ‘government’ for the cuts.

But the previous day, in Bayda, Libya’s fourth largest city, in its north east, the municipal council demanded Libya’s other illegitimate government, the House of Representatives (which is ‘supported’ by the illegal ‘Operation Dignity’ militia) must leave the city, declaring that it was responsible for power cuts which lasted 14 hours.

The reality is in fact rather worse than either claim. Because if either the GNC or HoR was truly responsible for the power cuts, at least they could be blamed, removed and replaced with an organisation which could do a better job.

But they are not. The GNC and HoR are both equally powerless, and equally illegitimate. They have sat at either end of Libya, watching impotently as the illegal militias which claim to support them (but were in fact fighting before either ‘government’ existed in their current form) – and forces loyal to Al Qaeda and IS – waged war all over the state.

Libya’s power cuts were caused by neither the GNC, nor the HoR. They are the result of a bitter war, now in its 21st month, which has smashed the nation’s infrastructure and is tearing the state to pieces. The power cuts happened because the state, in effect, no longer really exists. The increasing concern is that soon, the words ‘in effect’ will become superfluous.

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IS in Libya are, like their contemporaries in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, working extraordinarily hard to misrepresent the reality of their ability, reach and power – and are benefiting in that aim from Western obsession with crushing them through force.

As noted previously on this site, the terror group has so far proven capable of actually operating in states which have already been fragmented by war. Though they are undeniably an organised and forbiddingly vicious organisation, they have so far neither the numbers nor the tactics to launch any serious threat to a state at peace.

This does not mean they should not be opposed, but it should raise serious questions and concerns about the concept that the way to defeat IS is to smash it from the sky – particularly in the context of a wider war taking place around it. The group requires conflict – and the violence, terror and chaos it creates – to exist and survive. Providing more of it, and doing nothing but that, is doomed to fail.

In Libya, however, IS is very much an operational threat. On Thursday, in a continuation of its attempts to seize oil from the deteriorating state (its attacks began on 4 January, as noted here), it attacked the Ras Lanuf oil terminal once again.

As a result, four storage tanks were set alight, and burned for more than 24 hours, while a pipeline connecting the terminal to the Amal oil field, in south east Libya, was also blown up.

The attack is a reminder – as if one were needed – of the kind of chaos and destruction of which IS in Libya is capable.

But it should also highlight the reality that – despite its claims to the contrary, and the wildest fears of the West; most of which are being given full reign and are steering policy on the Libyan crisis – IS in Libya is not the force it wishes to be.

It has once again failed to seize Libyan oil, and though its destruction is damaging to Libya, IS can at present only cause chaos, rather than make significant moves, even within a state as weak as Libya is at present.

Once again, IS in Libya should be opposed. It must be prevented from taking control of any more of Libya, and must be removed from the small area it already holds – including my former home town, Sirte.

But as noted on a number of occasions on this site, the best way to destroy IS – an organisation which not only thrives but in fact relies upon war to survive – is to create a peace in the states where it operates, including a police force and military which are organised, loyal and answerable to a government in which all of society holds a stake.

Under other circumstances, one might refer to such a government as a ‘Government of National Accord’.

Sadly, that name has already been co-opted for a quite different project.

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) – pushed quite heavily by Western states including the US, France, Italy and the UK – is continuing to attempt to push through its Government of National Accord (GNA) project.

It is discussed at length here, but in short the proposal is to create an interim government to replace the GNC and HoR and pave the way for full Libyan elections early in 2017.

For a number of months, the GNA was the sole proposal on the table, as the HoR and GNC refused to talk, and the illegal militias fighting one another showed absolutely no intention of moving towards peace.

Under those circumstances it seemed like progress – and UNSMIL deserved credit for encouraging members of the GNC and HoR to sit together and consider it.

But since late November, the GNC and HoR have worked on their own proposal for a new political agreement and future steps for Libya – a proposal UNHCR, under pressure from several NATO members (the above list, in particular) has not only rejected but has attempted to derail altogether.

The reason for this is simple. NATO is increasingly eager to bomb Libya in the hope of destroying IS in Libya, and preventing it from using the North African coast as a base to attack Europe – or indeed anywhere else.

It believes that a new government to replace the GNC and HoR, and which is entirely reliant on the international community for ‘legitimacy’ or indeed its existence, is far more likely than the HoR, GNC, or any replacement they might produce themselves, to request ‘assistance’ from outside – smoothing the way for the bombing campaign for which the US, UK, France and Italy are agitating.

It is an error. Because not only is IS in Libya incapable of launching any meaningful attack from – or even within most of – Libya, it is far less likely to be defeated by bombing than by a structured peace (as an example, the US has now been bombing IS in Syria since September 2014).

Even so, at the international community’s prompting, UNSMIL has pushed on with its ‘Government of National Accord’ plan, ignoring the proposal for Libya’s future which has been developed by Libyans.

This week, after missing a scheduled deadline by two days, the GNA’s Prime-Minister-delegate Faiez Serraj – appointed by UNSMIL, without consultation with the leaders of either the GNC or HoR – announced the 32 ministers he hopes will form the new government.

The announcement was not without problems, however. Hours before the list (seemingly drawn up to ensure each region of Libya is represented by a minister, even though each ministry has specific policy responsibilities) was announced, Deputy Prime-Minister-delegate Ali Faraj al-Qatrani and another of the nine-person ‘Presidency Council’ charged with choosing the members of the GNA, Omar al-Aswad, announced they had temporarily left the council in protest.

They stepped down because Serraj had failed to name Khalifa Haftar as head of Libya’s military and national security.

As previously noted, Haftar – the leader of the illegal ‘Dignity’ militia – is an extremely divisive figure, and began the current Libyan civil war by ordering troops to open fire on the Parliament in Tripoli. Serraj’s decision not to name him was probably sensible, and in fact the Presidency Council itself is to have responsibility for Libya’s military and security – though it remains to be seen whether it will prove capable of prising it from Haftar’s grip.

But this means the GNA itself was approved by only seven of the Presidency Council’s nine members – hardly an indication of Council, let alone national, commonality or unity. It also raises some concerns about the proposal’s legitimacy, as some – including al-Qatrani – claim that it needs unanimous agreement from the Council.

Even before the announcement, however, a potentially far more serious obstacle had arisen.

Because at present, the Presidency Council is based in Tunis, but the government itself hopes to convene in Tripoli. And on 16 January – the day the GNA’s members were supposed to be announced – Khalifa Ghwell, Prime Minister of the GNC, announced that any member of the security team charged with ensuring the GNA safely arrives in the Libyan capital who sets foot in GNC-controlled regions – including Tripoli – will be arrested.

And the situation is further complicated by the fact that despite UNSMIL’s best efforts, the GNA has, since 6 December, been approved by fewer than 50 per cent of the ‘stakeholders and groups’ deemed necessary for the project to succeed.

Neither the GNC, nor the HoR – which despite their illegitimacy are the only two democratically-elected governments in Libya’s history – have given their approval, though the HoR is set to hold an official vote on the matter by this Friday, 29 January.

It is certainly the case that the GNC and HoR are entirely illegitimate governments, with little right to claim any particular precedence over any of the other illegal or illegitimate claimants to power in Libya.

But the political reality in Libya at the moment is that the new ‘Libyan Government of National Accord’ was set up and announced in Tunisia, at the behest of the international community which has attempted to stamp out moves by Libyans themselves to develop agreement and a political solution to their second Libyan Civil War. In fact, it may never even be able to enter Libya.

It has the support of less than 50 per cent of those deemed by UNSMIL to be necessary to agree to it, and its own ‘legitimacy’ would come from nothing other than the fact that it is being imposed on Libya from outside.

In short, the Libyan Government of National Accord is not particularly Libyan, not a legitimate government, and is neither the result nor the commander of any ‘national accord’.

Instead, it is a third illegitimate government in a state which urgently needs peace and good governance.

And ironically, the reality is that the international community is actively promoting a continuation of the political and military chaos in which IS thrives.

The Libyan political response, designed and led by Libyans, could create exactly the conditions – stable government in which every stakeholder has an interest; loyal and organised police and armed forces; strong infrastructure and state structures – in which IS in Libya can be eradicated for good.

The Libyan reality is of a state on the brink of collapse. It is extremely important the international community recognises this and steps back – if only to give Libyans themselves the chance to continue their attempts to move forward.

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Reality in Syria can be very much a matter of perspective.

The ‘reality’ presented by Bashar al-Assad, for example, is that he is the legitimate ruler of Syria and that therefore anyone who fights against him is by definition a terrorist.

Many others disagree, arguing that Assad’s legitimacy is questionable at best, as despite the fact that Syria is not a monarchy, he simply took over power after the death of his father, that he has never won a legitimate election, and that his massacre of more than 250,000 civilians in the last four years and ten months would have stripped even a popular and elected ruler of any legitimacy.

And Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, is also at the centre of debates concerning reality.

Since it started bombing Syria on 30 September, Russia has consistently claimed to be targeting ‘terrorists’ – using the word in exactly the way Assad does, to mean ‘opponents of Assad’.

As noted on this site, however, it does so in the knowledge that most Western observers, when hearing the word ‘terrorist’ in relation to Syria, will immediately think ‘IS’.

The problem with this has been highlighted previously: in its first month of airstrikes, for example, only ten per cent were on IS positions; 90 per cent on other rebel groups and civilians.

And the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on Wednesday that Russian raids have killed 1,015 civilians in the last four months, along with 1,141 members of non-IS militia groups.

The reality of Russia’s involvement in Syria is that while it may target IS, it most certainly targets other ‘enemies’ of Assad, and that for it and Assad, those ‘enemies’ decidedly include civilians.

Russia is by no means the only state to have committed war crimes – and indeed this may well soon be used by it as a defence.

And the UK’s history – including its very recent past – contains episodes of which we should be ashamed.

But in Syria, Russia is committing those crimes as we speak. It is targeting innocent civilians – men, women and children – and has killed more than 1,000 of them in less than four months.

Reality is seldom what we would like it to be. But we must be aware of it, if we wish it to change.

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