Can the AU–UN efforts in Libya pave the way for elections in 2019?

The AU Commission, together with the UN, are planning an international conference on reconciliation in Libya.

In recognition of the dire situation in Libya, African Union (AU) leaders discussed the situation in the country at the recent 32nd AU summit in Addis Ababa. According to estimates by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are 170 490 internally displaced people in Libya. The humanitarian situation remains critical for both citizens and, particularly, migrants in the country.

The humanitarian situation remains critical for both citizens and migrants in the country

The AU summit requested, among others, that the AU Commission ‘take all necessary measures, in collaboration with the United Nations (UN), to organise an international conference on reconciliation in Libya in July 2019. It also asked the AU Commission to help with the preparations for presidential and legislative elections planned for October 2019. Doubt remains, however, about the viability of this deadline.

Following the summit, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergui met with Libya's Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, UN Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo and UN Special Representative and head of the UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Ghassan Salamé to discuss ways to support Libyan parties to unlock the status quo. According to sources, in all these endeavours the importance of inclusive reconciliation has been central to the AU's message.

A joint AU–UN delegation, led by DiCarlo and Chergui, travelled to Libya from 12–13 March 2019. They met several important Libyan stakeholders, including military strongman Khalifa Haftar, civil society groups and Khaled al-Meshri, the chairperson of Libya’s High Council of State. The visit sought to prepare the ground for the international conference on reconciliation.

Significance of the joint visit

Even though many actors have doubts about what the joint AU–UN visit can achieve given the complexity of the current situation in Libya, the significance of such a high-profile endeavour cannot be over-emphasised. First, the collaboration with the UN operationalises the AU's recent call for ‘synergy of action and joint efforts’ on Libya and is also in line with the 2017 joint UN–AU framework for enhancing partnership on peace and security.

The varying levels of leverage the AU and UN have with the different stakeholders in Libya could increase their collective impact through the joint mission. Working together, the AU and UN can push different actors to sit at the negotiating table, thereby rekindling the peace process while complementing each other’s legitimacy.

Working together, the AU and UN can push different actors to sit at the negotiating table

It also affirms the AU's role in the Libyan peace process, given perceptions that the continental body's contribution has been inadequate or that it has neglected the Libyan crisis. This perception exists despite the numerous initiatives the AU has taken in the quest for a political solution to the conflict. Both the AU High-Level Committee on Libya and the AU High Representative for Libya for the promotion of dialogue and reconciliation have interacted with Libyan stakeholders. 

Most importantly, the visit provided an opportunity for the AU and UN to examine possible actions that can be taken immediately to revive the peace process and secure buy-in from relevant political actors.

Areas of focus for the AU

The quest for peace in Libya should aim at two critical outcomes. Firstly, it should work towards securing the buy-in of the various regional, tribal and linguistic groups for the planned reconciliation conference. Secondly, it should seek to identify the right set of ingredients that can constitute a framework that will satisfy the various interests behind existing tensions in Libya. The content of such a framework should subsequently inform the agenda and approach of the planned reconciliation conference.

Achieving these outcomes require an appreciation of the prevailing challenges in Libya. According to Salamé, the country is currently seeing a ‘complex web of narrow interests, a broken legal framework and the pillaging of Libya's great wealth. At the heart of this reality are three challenges that need to be taken into consideration.

The country is currently seeing a complex web of narrow interests, a broken legal framework and the pillaging of Libya's great wealth

First is the lack of a viable political solution acceptable to the various factions, despite the numerous international attempts to bring the different parties to the negotiating table. The failure of successive agreements has been centred largely on the inability of political processes to secure the commitment and inclusion of powerful political and military elements in the country. The resultant divergence of positions on the means of implementing the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and the pending negotiation of its revision are major hindrances to the peace process.  

The lack of a political settlement has also been caused by the proliferation of armed groups in the country and the associated lack of internal cohesion among those groups. Even the two most powerful factions are themselves internally divided, thereby making it difficult to reach a political settlement that satisfies the interests of the bigger groups and the sub-interests within them.

Second is the contestation over access to Libya's resource wealth by the different factions in the country. The capture of the Al-Sharara oil field (located around 900 km south of Tripoli) by Haftar’s army in December 2018, for instance, illustrates the contestation over control of oil-rich territories in order to access oil revenues and other sources of revenue to finance war efforts. Successive peace agreements have failed to find an acceptable framework for resource sharing, which remains a major challenge.

The capture of the Al-Sharara oil field by Haftar’s army illustrates the contestation over control of oil-rich territories

Third is the lack of political will to change the status quo, which currently favours various factions that are taking advantage of the war economy. Consequently, some parties are content with the state of affairs and are not ready for the restoration of control to a unitary state, either through a peace process or through an election.

In addition to this complex mix of issues, there is the presence of extremist groups and external interferences. This underlines the need to find the right framework for discussions that addresses all these issues and secures the buy-in of all the stakeholders.

The visit and the 2019 elections

Despite the international push for elections in 2019, the prospects of their taking place are grim given the current lack of consensus, insecurity and deep-seated divisions in the country. However, the outcome of the joint AU–UN visit and successive actions could address these issues and pave the way for the 2019 reconciliation forum. The potential success of the forum could in turn create an environment more conducive to holding elections and meeting all the relevant milestones preceding such elections.

Options for the PSC

The joint AU–UN visit is an important opportunity for the Peace and Security Council (PSC) to follow up on the 32nd summit decisions by requesting a briefing on the situation. On the basis of the first-hand information received, the PSC can consider featuring the Libyan crisis for detailed discussion, taking into consideration ongoing UN processes and diplomatic engagements by Libya’s neighbours. Important issues such as the revision of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, the constitutional referendum and the need for AU member states to speak with one voice may be considered.

The PSC can consider featuring the Libyan crisis for detailed discussion, taking into consideration ongoing processes and diplomatic engagements

In addition, the AU’s role in the Libyan peace process and mechanisms to collaborate with the UN should be properly defined. Following these discussions, the PSC should remain involved in the situation in Libya, beyond addressing the plight of migrants in the country.

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