8 February 2015

The chaos in Libya is also the responsibility of Europe

In December 2014, the United Nations reported that in the previous months hundreds of civilians had been killed in the struggle between armed militias in Libya, and that the acts of the militias might amount to crimes against humanity. It seems like a déjà vu. In February 2011, a popular uprising started in Libya and was brutally repressed by the regime of Colonel Qadhafi, who was eventually charged with committing crimes against humanity. The UN Security Council decided to authorize the use of military force on humanitarian grounds, in order to protect civilians. The ensuing NATO operation, which lasted from March to October 2011, resulted in the fall of the Qadhafi regime and in the establishment of a transitional government, which pledged full respect for human rights and international law. So, what has gone wrong – and what responsibility does the international community carry?

When Operation Unified Protector came to an end in October 2011, neither the transitional government in Libya nor NATO were keen to continue NATO’s involvement in the country. Just like the Arab League and the African Union, the Libyan opposition had been careful to prevent a ‘foreign occupation force’ on Libyan soil, ever since the start of the uprising. In the fall of 2011, the generally shared view was that it was up to the Libyans themselves to shape their own future. Given the fact that the Libyan population had been living under domestic or foreign oppression for most of the previous century, this did not seem an objectionable thought. A UN mission with a so-called ‘light footprint’ was established, in order to assist the Libyan authorities in building up the country and constructing state institutions. There was no question of installing a peacekeeping force.

In July 2012, the Libyan transitional government, supported by the international community, organized successful national elections. Many of those involved were relatively optimistic about the future of the country. The Libyan post-conflict model, which contrasted sharply with the large-scale interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, was even mentioned as a possible precedent for future post-conflict situations. However, while the construction of state institutions was already an enormous challenge in the case of Libya, without any civic traditions, creating a viable security sector proved to be a particularly daunting task. As transpired, the Libyan transitional government, as well as the international community, had seriously underestimated the problems in this particular area.

Apart from the fact that Libya had never maintained a well-functioning army under Qadhafi, the manner in which the revolt had been organized in 2011 turned out to have devastating consequences. The National Transitional Council, which was based in eastern Libya, was the political representation of the uprising and succeeded in securing international support for the revolt. However, the actual war was fought by local militias which operated for the most part independently, without much central or even regional coordination. According to estimates, between 100 and 300 militias were operating relatively autonomously in Libya in the course of 2011. Remarkably, this model, of a central political council and decentralized opposition groups, proved to be a successful formula for winning the war. The NATO intervention, as well as the direct foreign support a number of states provided to the insurgents, were of critical importance in order to secure this result.

Yet, after the conflict ended, many militias, especially the most experienced and battle-hardened militias which had fought prolonged battles in Misrata and the Nafusa Mountains, refused to hand in their arms and recognize a government they felt no connection with. This refusal was partially fueled by historically grown, regional divides. Since the transitional government had no professional national army, the country was quickly divided in different territories which were de facto controlled by non-state armed groups. Efforts to demobilize militias and integrate them in national armed forces yielded few results. The model which had been successful in order to win the war, was showing to be disastrous to keep the peace.

As a consequence, over the last two years Libya has been experiencing an ever deteriorating spiral of violence, which has resulted in a state of chaos, with two governments and two parliaments, each having their own armed militia; one based in Tripoli, and the other one in the city of Tobruk. The division of the country, largely along the lines of secular (Sunni) groups on the one hand, and Islamist factions on the other, does not only affect the Libyan population, but also has devastating consequences for the surrounding region. The enormous arsenals of arms, the ease with which criminal organizations and fundamentalist groups are able to operate, the porous borders and the lack of government institutions which are able to exercise effective control over the state’s territory, have led to a state of lawlessness. This should not only be of great concern to Libya’s direct neighbors, such as Egypt and Tunisia, but also to the countries in Europe.

In addition, the international community, especially the states who contributed to the intervention in 2011, should realize it bears a share of responsibility for the current situation. This does not mean that the intervention in 2011 should not have happened; but the international community seems to have been largely disregarding the situation which has been evolving ever since. Given the deeply rooted problems of the security sector in Libya, the mediation efforts currently being undertaken by Bernardino León, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Libya, can barely provide a sustainable solution. Even if the talks yield some results, inevitably additional measures – such as a peacekeeping force – will have to be considered in order to monitor the agreements, and to assist the legitimate government in establishing effective control over the country’s territory.

In August 2014, U.S. President Obama stated in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that he absolutely believed that the decision to intervene in Libya in 2011 to prevent a massacre had been the right thing to do. However, he immediately added that doing so without making a much more robust effort to support Libya’s democratic transition, may be his biggest foreign policy regret thus far. ‘Do we have an answer for the day after?’ was the crucial question, according to Obama. Let’s hope that European leaders have come to similar conclusions – and that they will muster the political will to address the situation in Libya before it spins completely out of control; in the interest of the Libyan population as well as the stability of the region – including Europe itself.

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