Libya: Open and Closed VTC on UNSMIL and Libya Sanctions
Tomorrow morning (19 May), the Security Council is scheduled to hold an open VTC and a closed VTC on the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and Libya sanctions. The Acting Special Representative and head of UNSMIL, Stephanie Williams, and the chair of the 1970 Libya Sanctions Committee, Jürgen Schulz, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany, are planning to brief. Press elements might be issued, in keeping with the latest agreement by Council members on working methods (S/2020/372), which indicates that the Council president will work towards issuing press elements after every open VTC meeting that is followed by a closed VTC meeting.
Williams is expected to focus her statement on recent developments in Libya and on the latest Secretary-General’s report on UNMSIL (S/2020/360).
Over a year ago, General Khalifa Haftar, head of the eastern-based militia known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), launched an offensive towards the capital Tripoli against the internationally recognised and UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) based there. The latest Secretary-General’s report refers to accounts of the supply of arms and military equipment, as well as foreign mercenaries, to the country, enhancing the combat capabilities of both conflict parties in breach of UN sanctions. Since the start of the assault, over 200,000 people have been displaced. In recent weeks, fighters aligned with the GNA have made significant territorial gains against the LNA.
On 27 April, Haftar dismissed the 2015 UN-brokered “Libyan Political Agreement” and declared his intention to rule the country. He further announced a unilateral truce on 30 April. A 4 May letter to the president of the Security Council (S/2020/357) containing a 30 April press statement by the Tripoli-based Presidential Council (headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj) rejects the truce. It states that “past violations and breaches make it impossible for us to have faith in any truce that he [Haftar] announces”. It seems that the GNA expected Haftar to use such a truce as an opportunity for his forces to regroup after their military losses. On 18 May, the GNA announced that it had gained control over the Al-Watiya airbase, located in the southwest of the capital and formerly used by the LNA to conduct military operations, constituting a major strategic gain for the GNA.
Despite the calls for and commitments made to a ceasefire in Libya, fighting has increased since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country at the end of March. According to Human Rights Watch, both the GNA and the LNA have committed unlawful attacks such as aerial bombardments and indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighbourhoods. On 7 May, shelling hit a Tripoli neighbourhood housing the embassy of Turkey and the residence of the Italian Ambassador, resulting in casualties.
In an 8 May statement, UNSMIL reported 15 deaths and 50 injured between 1 and 8 May as a result of increased indiscriminate attacks. Additionally, UNSMIL stated that the majority of those attacks could be attributed to forces affiliated with the LNA. A report by UNSMIL shows that the number of civilian casualties in the first three months of this year increased by 45 percent in comparison with the same period in 2019. The 131 civilian casualties were 64 dead (an increase of 113 percent compared to last year) and 67 injured (an increase of 11 percent compared to last year). 81 percent of those casualties were attributed to LNA-affiliated forces.
Health care providers continue to be attacked and caught in the crossfire of military engagements. According to OCHA, there have been 17 such attacks this year. The UN continues to condemn these crimes. In his 5 May report on UNSMIL, the Secretary-General repeats that attacks on civilian infrastructure, including health facilities, are a violation of international humanitarian law, possibly constituting war crimes.
Another issue that could be discussed tomorrow is the humanitarian situation in the country. Already dire, it is being exacerbated by movement restrictions on humanitarian items and personnel into and within Libya. According to a 13 May statement by the heads of IOM, OCHA, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, there were 851 such restrictions in March.
Other effects of the tenuous security situation on the UN’s work in the country may also be discussed. On 9 May, Mitiga Airport was hit by over 100 rockets, according to media reports. The LNA stated that the airport hosts a Turkish drone base. Turkey is the main foreign backer of the GNA. The GNA denies the existence of a base of that kind. According to the Secretary-General’s report, the repeated attacks on Mitiga Airport have resulted in UN flights having to use Misratah airport, which is about 220 kilometres away from the UN’s compound.
The issue of foreign interference in Libya is expected to feature in the meeting. Calls by the UN and several member states as well as other international and regional organisations to stop the breaching of UN sanctions have gone unheeded.
A confidential report by the Panel of Experts assisting the 1970 Libya Sanctions Committee, focusing on the issue of mercenaries, was leaked to the press in early May. The report, according to the media, says that the Russian private military company Wagner has deployed around 1,200 mercenaries to Libya, starting in 2018, in support of Haftar. The Kremlin denies ties to the Wagner Group against accusations to the contrary by various sources. The report further notes the recruitment of Syrian fighters by Turkey. The panel of experts also cites their ongoing investigation into the recruitment of Syrian fighters by Russia to serve the LNA.
As of 18 May, Libya had 64 confirmed cases of COVID-19. During a 7 May press briefing, the Spokesperson of the Secretary-General expressed the UN’s concern that the number of reported cases does not represent the actual figures, as Libya lacks testing capacity.
Williams might also be addressing the dangers facing vulnerable groups during the pandemic. According to the Secretary-General’s report, quoting the IOM (International Organization for Migration), the number of refugees and migrants in the country stands at more than 654,000. Measures taken to combat COVID-19—including closed borders in Libya as well as other countries starting 18 March—have halted voluntary returns of migrants and resettlements and evacuations of refugees.
Council members may be interested in hearing from Williams in more detail about any follow-up to the Berlin Conference on Libya in January. The conclusions of that conference were endorsed by the Council in resolution 2510 of 12 February (adopted with Russia abstaining). That resolution also requested the Secretary-General to submit a report “on the necessary conditions for, and proposals on effective ceasefire monitoring under the auspices of the UN, including reporting and dispute resolution mechanisms with a view to making detailed recommendations to the Security Council as soon as possible, when a ceasefire is agreed by the Libyan parties”. In his latest report, the Secretary-General states his intention to fulfil that request. It seems that Council members do not expect the conditions on the ground to be conducive to such a report in the near future.
Resolution 2509 of 11 February renewed the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 15 May 2021, and the measures related to the illicit export from Libya of petroleum until 30 April 2021. The Council also noted “with concern the reports of the illicit import of petroleum, including crude oil and refined petroleum products to Libya”. Language related to the illicit import of petroleum was criticised by Russia, which abstained in the vote. The report by the Secretary-General says that “parallel unrecognized authorities in eastern Libya imported fuel from the United Arab Emirates to Benghazi” on 13 March, bypassing the National Oil Corporation (NOC) based in Tripoli for the first time. The report argues that the NOC had provided “enough refined fuel for commercial purposes”.
A successor to the former Special Representative and head of UNSMIL, Ghassan Salamé, who announced his resignation on 2 March, has yet to be appointed by the Secretary-General. During a 13 May press briefing, the Secretary-General’s Spokesman stressed the involvement of member states, as well the Security Council, in the process. He also stated that the goal is to have a new Special Representative “that is supported by all the parties involved”. None of the possible candidates so far appear to have secured that support.
Last Friday, 15 May, the Libya sanctions committee held its first meeting since the UN took measures to address COVID-19 that included a partial closure of UN headquarters beginning on 16 March. The meeting was held in an “informal informal” format and focused on the new members of the panel of experts, their priorities for the next months and their latest reports to the committee.
Council members are expected to express their ongoing support for a political solution to the conflict in Libya. Some countries may point out the proxy nature of the conflict and the need for foreign countries to cease their support to the conflict parties, including by recruiting mercenaries.