What's In Blue

Libya: Open and Closed VTC on UNSMIL and Libya Sanctions

Tomorrow morning (2 September), Security Council members are scheduled to hold an open videoconference (VTC), followed by a closed VTC, on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and Libya sanctions. The Acting Special Representative and head of UNSMIL, Stephanie Williams, will brief. The Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany, Ambassador Günter Sautter, is expected to brief the Council on Libya sanctions in his capacity as chair of the 1970 Libya Sanctions Committee.

In early June, armed groups aligned with the internationally recognised and UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) halted an offensive against the capital, Tripoli, by General Khalifa Haftar, the head of the eastern-based militia known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), following 13 months of fighting.

According to the Secretary-General’s 24 August report on UNSMIL (S/2020/832), forces allied with the GNA and LNA are currently at a stalemate around the town of Sirte. The Secretary-General describes the mobilisation of forces by both parties with advanced military equipment, “including battle tanks and combat vehicles”. Sirte has strategic significance because of its proximity to Libya’s oil crescent (where most of Libya’s oil export terminals are located), which is part of the two-thirds of Libyan territory that remains under Haftar’s control. During an 8 July briefing to the Council (S/2020/686), Secretary-General António Guterres said that UNSMIL was working on solutions, including “a possible demilitarized zone”. That idea, for Sirte and Al-Jufra, has since been echoed by a number of Council members and the head of the GNA, Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. Williams might update Council members on the situation in Sirte and UNSMIL’s plans.

On 21 August, al-Serraj announced a unilateral ceasefire. Aguila Saleh, the head of the House of Representatives (HoR, the Libyan parliament aligned with Haftar and based in the eastern city of Tobruk), called for a ceasefire by both the GNA and the LNA. Williams is expected to repeat previous statements by the Secretary-General and UNSMIL welcoming the announcements. On 23 August, the LNA dismissed the announcement by al-Serraj, arguing that it was made in bad faith.

Williams is expected to reiterate the Secretary-General’s calls for non-interference in Libya’s conflict, likely to be echoed by Council members in their statements. The Secretary-General, in his report, describes a continuing military mobilisation in Libya, including “the uninterrupted delivery of increasingly sophisticated and lethal weapons to both parties” in violation of UN sanctions, which he calls a “great concern”. A number of proxy powers are involved in Libya in support of the GNA or the LNA. Turkey’s military support for the GNA eventually turned the conflict in its favour. The LNA’s largest military backer is the United Arab Emirates. The Secretary-General’s report mentions the continued recruitment of mercenaries by both sides, including accusations that Syrian mercenaries are fighting for the GNA and Sudanese and Wagner Group mercenaries are fighting on the side of the LNA. The Kremlin denies ties to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, despite accusations to the contrary by various sources.

Williams might also update Council members on recent protests in Libya and the GNA’s response to them. In late August, protests started taking place in Tripoli and Misrata against corruption and with demands for improved living conditions. During the demonstrations in Tripoli, some people were injured when armed men shot into the crowds in an apparent attempt to disperse them. On 24 August, UNSMIL published a statement calling “for an immediate and thorough investigation into the excessive use of force by pro-GNA security personnel in Tripoli yesterday”.

Council members might be interested in an update from Williams on the implementation of the conclusions of the Berlin Conference on Libya held in January. The Council endorsed the conclusions in resolution 2510 of 12 February; Russia abstained on the resolution, which was supported by the other 14 Council members. The resolution also requested the Secretary-General “to submit an interim report on the necessary conditions for, and proposals on effective ceasefire monitoring under the auspices of the UN […] with a view to making detailed recommendations […] when a ceasefire is agreed by the Libyan parties”. In his 24 August report on UNSMIL, the Secretary-General reiterates his intention to make such recommendations.

Williams is expected to repeat calls made by the Secretary-General for an end to the blockade of Libyan oil facilities. Since the beginning of the year, militias and mercenaries allied with Haftar have blockaded the country’s major oil facilities, resulting in a complete loss of revenue from oil products, according to the Libyan National Oil Cooperation. The Secretary-General reports that this has led to a loss of $7.5 billion for the country, worsening the economic strain caused by the conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another issue that might be raised in the meeting is the plight of refugees and migrants, who continue to die while trying to reach Europe through Libya. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 20,000 people have died that way since 2014. On 19 August, 45 people died in the worst shipwreck off the coast of Libya this year. According to the Secretary-General’s latest report, 6,500 people were rescued or intercepted at sea and returned to Libya between 1 January and 25 July. Those people returned by the Libyan Coast Guard are systematically placed in arbitrary detention or disappear. UNSMIL also continues to receive reports of “vessels failing to assist and pushing back migrant boats in the central Mediterranean”. The Secretary-General re-emphasises that Libya is neither a safe port of disembarkation nor of return and urges concerned states “to revisit policies that support the interception at sea and return of refugees and migrants to Libya.” According to IOM estimates, there are more than 600,000 refugees and migrants in the country, coming from more than 46 countries.

Williams might brief the Council on the latest developments regarding the pandemic in Libya. COVID-19 case numbers in Libya continue to rise sharply. As of 1 September, Libya had over 13,400 confirmed cases. In his report, the Secretary-General emphasises the country’s low testing capacity, pointing out that “the actual scale of the pandemic in Libya is likely to be higher”. There was one case of COVID-19 among UN staff during the reporting period.

The Secretary-General has yet to appoint a successor to Ghassan Salamé, who announced he was resigning as Special Representative and head of UNSMIL on 2 March. So far, candidates put forward by the Secretary-General have not been able to garner unanimous support from Council members. It also seems that the US is advocating a division of the role into two positions: head of UNSMIL and a Special Envoy for Libya. In his report, the Secretary-General emphasises that ”with the support of the Security Council, appointing my next Special Representative remains a top priority”.

Looking ahead, the Council will have to renew the mandate of UNSMIL before it expires on 15 September. In his report, the Secretary-General recommends a twelve-month extension of UNSMIL’s mandate.

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