UN leadership is latest casualty in Libya

2017/04/09 Issue: 101 Page: 12

The Arab Weekly
XXXXXXXElissa Miller

Last month marked the sixth anniversary of NATO’s intervention in post-uprising Libya. More than half a decade later, the country is mired in lawlessness and instabil­ity exacerbated by proxy fighting. The threat of all-out civil war driven by armed conflict between opposing factions in the east and west of the country is tangible.

The international community has failed to take decisive and unified action to reach a sustain­able and peaceful negotiated settlement in Libya. Worse, Libya has become a stage for competi­tion among world powers.

Amid the chaos in Libya, the United Nations’ leadership is faltering. In 2015, the UN Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) spearheaded a negotiations process that produced a Libyan Political Agreement and estab­lished a Presidential Council and Government of National Accord (PC/GNA).

Despite expressing support for the UN-backed process, interna­tional actors, including Russia, actively supported those opposed to the PC/GNA, namely Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his eastern-based Libyan National Army.

UNSMIL has been headed by Special Representative of the Secretary-General Martin Kobler since November 2015, following the disgraced departure of former mission head Bernardino Leon. The controversy surrounding Leon’s departure damaged the credibility of UNSMIL and, despite laudable efforts by Kobler over the past year-and-a-half, the Libyan Political Agreement has not been fully implemented and the PC/ GNA remains critically weak. The mission, whose mandate is valid until September 15th, needs new leadership.

However, the appointment of a new UN special representative for Libya, which requires the unani­mous backing of the UN Security Council, seems to have fallen victim to narrow interests and competition among key interna­tional actors in Libya.

In February, the United States objected to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s choice of former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad to lead UNSMIL. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley cited “unfair bias” on the part of the United Nations “in favour of the Palestinian Author­ity to the detriment” of US ally Israel. Haley said the United States did not support “the signal this appointment would send within the United Nations”.

Later Russia derailed senior World Food Programme official Richard Wilcox’s appointment by Guterres to lead UNSMIL, citing “concerns” over his fitness for the position. A dual US-German national, Wilcox previously held high-level positions with the United Nations, including envoy of the UN secretary-general to Serbia and director of UN political affairs on the US National Security Council staff.

The blocking of Guterres’s appointment of Fayyad and then Wilcox demonstrates the eleva­tion of self-interest above respon­sible international leadership in Libya. The United States’ 11th-hour decision to torpedo Fayyad’s appointment was short-sighted and misguided and undermined UNSMIL’s efforts to solve the crisis in Libya. Fayyad was a uniquely qualified candidate whose experience negotiating between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as his tenure at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, would have served him well in this important diplomatic role.

Russia’s derailment of Wilcox’s appointment was more insidious. As some UN and US officials have speculated, Russia’s actions were likely aimed at sending a message to the West: That it can assert its authority over Libya-related affairs and is willing to interfere in international efforts aimed at moving the UN negotiations process forward. Russia, which has emerged as a major backer of Haftar and his forces, has an interest in weakening the UN-backed PC/GNA and the overall UN process in Libya.

US leadership in Libya has been notably absent. Former US president Barack Obama was loath to engage in Libya following the 2011 NATO disaster, although US air strikes in Libya against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the fall of 2016 did help root the terror group out of its stronghold in the city of Sirte.

The conflict in Libya is not a priority for the Trump administra­tion. Many have speculated that some within the Trump adminis­tration would prefer a shift in US support from the UN-led process and the PC/GNA to Haftar. However, in rejecting Fayyad’s appointment, the United States politicised this critical diplomatic role and set the stage for Russia’s reciprocal rejection.

The biggest casualty in this situation is UN leadership in Libya. The Trump administration reportedly did not object to Russia’s derailment of Wilcox’s appointment and the acquies­cence to this power play by Russia is a clear demonstration of the lack of urgency, or even disinter­est, with which the Trump administration views the need for a negotiated settlement in Libya.

With Kobler a lame duck without a clear successor, it is unlikely that the United Nations will succeed in brokering a peaceful settlement between Libya’s east and west. Rather, it is more likely that Russia’s move has strengthened its proxy Haftar, leaving the prospect of peace in Libya ever distant on the horizon.

Elissa Miller is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East.

As Printed
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar


Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi


Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor at:editor@thearabweekly.com

Subscription & Advertising: Ads@alarab.co.uk

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262


Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved