‘I defended Libya’s sovereignty more than the Libyans themselves!’, says Ghassan Salamé

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Monday, 9 August 2021 08:15, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 11:10

Ghassan Salamé, UN special envoy to Libya from June 2017 to March 2020 © MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP

In a two-part interview, Ghassan Salamé, the UN’s former envoy to Libya, spoke to us about all things relating to Khalifa Haftar's offensive, the fate of the Gaddafis, interference from great powers and the question of mercenaries.

This is part 1 of a two-part interview.

By the time he finally decided to throw in the towel in March 2020, Ghassan Salamé, the UN’s former envoy to Libya, was exhausted. Physically, as he has recurring heart problems – “I’ve been running from doctors all my life!” he jokes – but also morally.

Since April 2019, Libya had been tearing itself apart more than ever before as Marshal Khalifa Haftar had just launched an offensive against Tripoli, which brutally undid the efforts that Salamé had been leading ever since he was appointed in 2017.

But it was a sham resignation. From his hospital bed, then from his Parisian flat on Avenue d’Iéna, Salamé continued to fulfill his duties until a new government was introduced this past February, which is in charge of organising elections for December.

Lebanon’s former minister of culture (2000-2003) explains that he has lived through one of the richest periods of an already full life and that this experience will be at the heart of a book that he is preparing with his former American assistant, Stephanie Williams.

This front-row witness to the Libyan crisis agreed to sit down with us and answer our questions about the attack on Tripoli, the fate of the Qaddafists, mercenaries and interference from great powers.

You decided to leave your duties as envoy to Libya in March 2020 due to your “state of health”. How are you feeling today? 

Ghassan Salamé: I am feeling much better. During the second meeting of the Joint Military Commission in Geneva [in February 2020], I fell twice, at the Palais des Nations and at the hotel. I saw my cardiologist in Paris who said that I should take some time off, but we were in the process of launching the so-called “three-track” process. So I decided to resign but to keep in touch – 10 times a day! – with my small team. I only really left the mission when Jan Kubis arrived [in January 2021].

How did negotiations go during the Covid period?

Because of the fighting in Tripoli, but also because of how serious Covid became, there was a hiatus, a period of latency, from the end of March 2020 until August 2020. We then started to receive calls from Libyans who were willing to move forward.

The field of diplomacy benefited in some ways from Covid, in the sense that before, every time we had to bring the Libyans together, there were endless negotiations about where to meet. But this problem was solved with Zoom! We only met face-to-face to vote. All negotiations took place remotely.

You launched a “three-track” process – military, political and economic.

Yes, and I blame journalists and Libyans for not focusing enough on the economic aspect. The question of reallocating oil revenues is not just a technical issue, but the number one political issue! That’s why we created an escrow account at the Libyan external bank, to deposit oil revenues while waiting for a united government to form. This has allowed us to restart crude oil production. This account will remain blocked until the parliament votes on the government budget.

On the security front, there is the Joint Military Commission, the so-called “5+5” [five officers from each side are represented]. The ceasefire that they agreed to last October is still holding. They have also discussed a timetable for the mercenaries’ departure, the reopening of the coastal road, prisoner exchanges and returning displaced populations. This time, the political aim is to represent the whole country. In 2011, Libya was divided not into two pieces, but a thousand!

Will elections be held before the end of the year?

Libyan institutions have committed 57 cases of unconstitutionality. If the High Council of Justice had ruled in law, then it would have declared all these institutions invalid. It had the wisdom not to do so.

Even though I am not an election enthusiast, I do still believe that they should take place. Libyans chose this date, unlike what happened in 2018. Through the extremely elegant transfer of power from Sarraj to Dbeibeh, Libyans have proven that they can hold elections. We even managed to bring people who were outside the political process back to the table – Haftar as well as the Qaddafists – who are now committed to respecting the electoral calendar.

You have sometimes publicly expressed frustration about the Libyans and the international community’s lack of will. Did you feel supported during your mission?

The most difficult time was in the weeks following Haftar’s attack on Tripoli [in April 2019]. We had worked for almost a year on the Ghadames national conference, we had done everything! It felt like a huge slap in the face. I complained directly to the UN Security Council, saying that “you recognised a government in Tripoli, you ordered me to support it, but I know that half of you support Haftar’s operation. So when Libyans tell me that I don’t represent anything, they are right!”

That’s when I decided to change my strategy and organise a big international conference.

What happened from there?

In June 2019, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, called me. I went to see her on the following 15 August for a meeting that proved crucial for the history of Libya. I spent two hours with her. She was not very familiar with the situation, didn’t pretend to be, and wanted to know what I needed for this conference. She decided that it should be led by heads of state.

I told her that we couldn’t exclude Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or Egypt. But that the Security Council’s permanent members also had to be in attendance. If Berlin agreed, we would need a resolution right away, so that they could not claim to be surprised. I also mentioned that many other countries, including neighbouring ones, may be interested and that the best way to represent them was through their regional organisations.

And then we had a not very pleasant surprise. A few days before the Berlin conference in January 2020, the Russians and Turks tried to steal the show by reaching a ceasefire. But Haftar refused the conditions. Presidents Putin and Erdogan finally came to Berlin.

But at the last minute, the Russians decided that it would be a waste of time to talk about the operational plan. So I pounded my fist on the table and told them that I would not leave Berlin until this plan was adopted because otherwise, it was just empty words. Putin finally agreed.

You have been criticised for demonstrating a certain complacency towards the Tripolitan militias. You were also questioned by the Tripoli camp, which suspected you of being France’s man, itself accused of supporting Haftar. How did you take this? 

I have experienced this type of accusation everywhere I have been, it is every mediator’s fate, and I have never responded to it. The Libyans discovered that I was an independent man. I excluded all international actors, my German partner did not intervene in 2011 and had no interest in Libya.

I don’t care if I’m criticised for making certain statements or for having taught at Sciences Po Paris. But give me one example of a Libyan who has closed their door on me! Basically, the Libyans knew that I cared even more about their country’s sovereignty than they did!

A number of African countries felt that they were marginalised by the UN during the negotiations.

But the African Union (AU) was present in Berlin and at all the preparatory meetings! The AU wants to be an almost equal partner to the UN in all African conflicts. I don’t understand why. It even went so far as to ask the Security Council if the new UN envoy to Libya could be one of its representatives. But since they could not defend their position, the Security Council refused, which is understandable given that 1,000 other regional organisations would have asked the same thing.

I would like to add that I went to Addis Ababa half a dozen times, and at least twice to the home of the Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou-Nguesso [head of the AU High Level Committee on Libya]. We also sent a weekly report to the AU.

As the latter did not have the means to do so, the UN organised the travel arrangements of – numerous – AU representatives to Berlin. After the Arab summit in Tunis, we had to delay the UN secretary-general’s visit by two days so that we could make our security and transport services available to Moussa Faki Mahamat [the AU Commission chairperson], who was coming to Libya. And when Sassou-Nguesso’s representative came, he travelled on a UN plane! It was my driver who took care of him!

My conscience is clear, as I feel that I provided the AU with everything that the Security Council authorised me to give. But I could not take orders from Addis Ababa.

Hasn’t your mission been parasitised by untimely mediators?

No, I put them all aside. You can’t have too many doctors operating on one patient, you need a conductor. If every country, every organisation, wants to play mediator, then the Libyans won’t be any better off.

How do you respond to those who feel that the Qaddafists have not been involved enough in the political process?

Who can accuse me of that? At the beginning of my mission, I invited “all those who were excluded in previous years or who excluded themselves, to join the process.” The next day, I started meeting with Qaddafists. I did everything I possibly could to help the Gaddafi family, including Aisha, his wife, and his son, Saadi. We also established contact with Saif el-Islam and his enemies within the “green” movement. And the Gaddafists were present at the elections in Geneva!

Do you feel that Libya is nostalgic for Gaddafi? 

Libyans acknowledge his death and the fall of his regime. These former leaders know that if they want to stay in the political game, that they will have to come up with new ideas and take into account the events of the past 10 years. They have their place, provided they understand that they are not alone and that they do not resort to violence. Most of them are not in a revengeful state of mind.

Do you feel that Qaddafists who committed crimes under the former regime should be granted a form of amnesty? 

Former prime minister Abuzed Omar Dorda was released from prison in Tripoli and allowed to go to Cairo. This is a small gesture.

When we facilitated the return home of several exiles in Cairo, that was another gesture. When I saw that Sarraj had appointed dozens of them to positions within the administration, that was also a small step. But of course, we have to respect the law and be in permanent contact with the attorney-general.

As far as the ICTY is concerned, the UN has no influence on this court, but only a small number of people are involved. I believe that it might be difficult to grant amnesty. However, we have started to gradually normalise relations with most of the leaders from the Gaddafi era.

….Part 2 to follow

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