Skip to main content

ANALYSIS: UN peace talks aim to pull Libya back from the brink

United Nations envoy warns that Libya is close to ‘total chaos’, as talks to form a unity government face several challenges ahead
UN Special Representative for Libya Bernardino Léon said the talks in Geneva will last many weeks (AA)

United Nations peace talks for Libya opened on Wednesday in Geneva with the senior envoy saying it was a race against time to secure a peace deal before the country collapses.

With hundreds dead, the economy nose-diving, and fighting raging across the country, UN Special Representative for Libya Bernardino Léon said the country was cracking.

“Libya’s running out of time,” he said, opening the talks. “The governor of the central bank said financial and economic collapse might be a matter of days, weeks. How much time Libya will have, it’s difficult to say, but the general impression is that the country is very close to total chaos.”

To the dismay of some observers, only one of Libya’s two rival governments sent a delegation to Geneva, with members of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HOR) in attendance. Its rival, the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC), announced the day before the talks it would not attend, complaining it had not been consulted on the list of invitees.

Léon insisted that supporters of Libya Dawn, a militia organisation allied to the GNC, were in Geneva, saying: “We have many people from both camps here today.”

He said “the door is open” for the GNC, which he hopes will reconsider at a meeting this Sunday, to join the Geneva talks that the UN expects to last many weeks. “We are starting a process, it’s going to be a long process, it’s going to be difficult.”

Major task

Getting delegates to attend the conference has proved a major task for Léon, who was appointed last summer. Peace talks were due to begin on 9 December, but disputes about who would be invited saw the talks thrice delayed.

Geneva promises to be a difficult process, firstly because both rival governments refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the other.

The GNC ran Libya for two years until it was dissolved in the summer for elections for the HOR, its designated successor. But GNC officials say a supreme court ruling last November has invalidated those elections, cancelling the authority of the HOR. Members of the HOR, operating out of a hotel in the eastern city of Tobruk, have refused to recognise the court ruling, claiming it was made under threat of militia violence.

Last month, both parliaments said all sides must declare them as the legitimate parliament before they would sit down for talks. As such, the presence of Libyan delegates in Geneva represents a small victory for Léon, in part because he promised that no final decisions would be taken in Switzerland.

“The idea is that we will not take decisions here in Geneva; we will make proposals, they will agree on proposals that will be debated and should be supported by a majority of Libyans,” he said.

Those attending the first session included HOR members, some of them having boycotted the parliament in favour of congress, civil rights officials and several prominent former politicians.

Geneva’s objective is ambitious: to get both sides to agree not just a ceasefire, but to form a “unity government” that Léon said would supervise militia withdrawals and help repair the economy.

With that in mind, he announced that as of next week the list of delegates would be increased, to include members of Libya’s municipal councils, and also militia leaders. His plan may ensure that any peace deal enjoys broad support across Libya, but it could also see talks flounder with so many factions and interests demanding a voice.

Back in Libya, on front lines south of Tripoli, at the oil ports, and in the far south, scene of recent battles for control of the southern town of Ghat were reported quiet.

But the calm belies a country slowly falling apart. With two governments, two rival national oil corporations, and even two central banks, Libya’s economy is close to collapse. Oil exports have plunged after last month’s fighting around its largest oil port, Es Sider, sent 800,000 barrels of oil up in smoke following a huge fire started by rockets from a militia attack. Inflation has seen the national currency, the dinar, lose 30 percent of its value against the dollar, and power cuts and fuel shortages are shared by Libyan cities on both sides of the line.

Even the seemingly innocuous idea of a ceasefire is fraught with political problems, because it would be seen as cementing front lines both governments say should not exist. Violence, far from dying down, has spiked in recent weeks with Libya Dawn’s attack on the oil ports and Tobruk’s air force launching air strikes on Misrata.

Crumb of comfort

One crumb of comfort for Léon was the declaration by Misrata, which is one of the most powerful supporters of the Tripoli congress, that it supports the talks.

Hours after the GNC had declared it would not attend, the Misrata Municipal Council issued a statement saying it welcomed Geneva, and supported a process to re-establish constitutionality and the rule of law. “We heard today that Misrata municipality is participating,” said Leon. “Whatever the solution, it is important [a peace deal] has a very strong legitimacy.”

The talks have also received a strong show of support from the international community. A joint statement by Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States said they “applaud the extraordinary efforts of Bernardino Léon, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, and welcome his announcement of a new round of political dialogue in Geneva. We strongly urge the parties to engage seriously in this process".

Somewhere down the line, the question of international peacekeepers may come up, because there is no universally-acceptable “third force” in Libya that could take the place of the militias if they are to withdraw.

Italy has said it will consider contributing to such a mission, but only if other nations are involved under the UN banner. But Italy aside, few nations are enthusiastic of being embroiled in an operation that may last years. Britain and the US have only just extricated themselves from Afghanistan, and France is already committed to operations against militants in Mali.

There is also concern about whether the force will be dragged into conflict. “Monitoring is one thing, but peacekeeping only really works if there is already a peace to keep,” said one former NATO official.

Equally, outside nations are nervous that, if left to fester, Libya’s conflict will spill over its borders. Neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia have already reinforced units along the Libyan border, and the European Union is concerned that Libya’s lack of law enforcement is making it the most popular jumping-off point for tens of thousands of migrants heading for Italy.

Washington, meanwhile, says that the Islamic State (IS) group has established “training camps” in the country, worried that the movement will thrive amid the continuing chaos.