UN Security Council Approves New Libya Envoy Despite Differing Economic And Security Interests

On Tuesday 15 December 2020, the United Nations (UN) Security Council approved the proposal by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to appoint a new envoy to Libya, marking another attempt to resolve the nearly decade-long conflict in the country. Guterres proposed Nickolay Mladenov of Bulgaria as the new Libya special envoy to replace Ghassan Salame, who stepped down in March 2020. Mladenov had been the UN Middle East envoy since 2015. Guterres proposed Tor Wennesland to succeed Mladenov as the UN Middle East mediator between Israel and Palestinians. The United States (U.S.), a permanent member of the Security Council, sparked disagreement amongst members when it pushed for a split to the Libya role: one person to run the UN political mission while another focused on conflict mediation. While the Security Council agreed to the proposal of the split role in Libya in September, permanent members Russia and China abstained. On Tuesday evening, the fifteen Security Council members approved the appointments. These appointments come after months of delays as the UN struggles to maintain a united front on the Libyan conflict, while key international actors delve deeper into opposing sides of the conflict, increasing the likelihood of a proxy war.

The present-day conflict in Libya began after dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi was outed in an armed uprising during the Arab Spring in 2011. The resulting transitional government did not restore order, and since 2014, Khalifa Haftar, the military leader of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), seeks to seize power from the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). International actors have increasingly become involved in the conflict out of economic interests and security concerns in Libya. Italy, Qatar, and Turkey supply military aid to the GNA’s armed forces. The LNA, which controls many areas in Libya’s east and south is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Russia. Russia’s aid includes blocking condemnation of the LNA at the UN, financing, and reportedly providing mercenaries. Unlike other European countries, France supports Haftar as the best defence against terrorist groups. Despite a UN arms embargo on Libya, Reuters reports that a panel of UN experts have cited that the foreign supporters of both sides have breached the arms embargo. Additionally, despite a ceasefire agreement reached in October, there have been multiple incidents since that have tested its endurance.

The lack of a united front by major UN members has resulted in limited success for peace negotiations in Libya. As Aljazeera reports, it has taken months to fill the position in Libya due to conflicting concerns on the Security Council, particularly with the U.S. wanting changes to the operation management. Additionally, Aljazeera reports that Russia has accused the U.S. of unnecessarily delaying the appointment while the U.S. has accused Russia of violating the arms embargo. Despite these disagreements, the Security Council managed to approve the new appointments. Quoted by Aljazeera, the Security Council stated, “The members…underlined the importance of a credible and effective Libyan-led Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism and looked forward to a comprehensive report by the Secretary-General on the proposals for effective ceasefire monitoring under the auspices of the United Nations.” One of the first tasks for the new envoy will be enforcing recent agreements to withdraw all foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya by January. A longer-term goal is to hold nationwide elections in December 2021.

Mladenov’s appointment brings both new hope and some disappointment. Mladenov is an experienced diplomat who carries with him years of experience in international affairs, including being the Head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq before serving as the Middle East envoy. While acknowledging his qualifications and experience, The Jerusalem Post reports the hesitation of South Africa’s Ambassador to the UN Jerry Matjila, “…the process had been delayed because African countries felt that the post should be held by a representative from their continent.” Although Matjila was reassured that the countries withdrew their objections and there was support for the appointment, his hesitation is especially notable as South Africa holds the rotating Security Council presidency for December.

This sentiment has been expressed before; in 2019, African members of the Security Council unsuccessfully attempted to appoint a joint African Union UN envoy to replace Salame. The denial for the post to be filled by a representative from the Middle East and African region or to work closely with the African Union has raised criticism. The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) talks, facilitated by the UN Support Mission in Libya, which seek to hash out the roadmap to democratic national elections, have been criticized for both excluding local key actors and attempting to introduce political reforms that will benefit international actors with a stake in Libya. Amanda Kadlec, who in 2019-2020 served on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts for Libya notes that the UN failed to “…include local political leaders, key tribal representation, and geographical diversity. The main criticism is of what is perceived as skewed representation of the same old players keen on repeating the same, ineffective game that benefits their own personal power interests, not those of the Libyan state.”

While the ceasefire agreements, the LPDF political talks, and recent appointments provide a glimmer of hope for a solution to the Libyan conflict, underlying issues make reaching a solution tenuous. Aside from some perceptions that the UN is an ineffective organization, the UN disagreements on Libya make it even more difficult to provide consequences, as demonstrated by the lack of consequences to Russia and Turkey for violating the arms embargo. Additionally, the lack of representatives from the African region gives rise to the speculation that the interests of powerful international actors will come at the expense of the Libyan people or that not having firsthand experience in the region might be detrimental to finding a solution. As the conflict drags on, the humanitarian crisis in Libya worsens. After nearly a decade of conflict between the GNA and LNA, state institutions have weakened and local armed groups and Islamist militant groups have emerged and operate throughout Libya. The conflict has also resulted in the injuries and deaths of hundreds of civilians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, with more than a million people needing humanitarian assistance.