Russia plays spoiler in Libya mission renewal

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Monday, 31 January 2022 23:58, updated on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 16:56

Libya's unity government Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah looks on at Libya's mission to the United Nations in New York
Libya's unity government Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah looks on at Libya's mission to the United Nations in New York, U.S. July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Michelle Nichols

The Security Council went down to the wire on Monday and reauthorised the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) just hours before it was set to expire.

On Thursday 27 January, the council was scheduled to take up a comprehensive mandate renewal that addressed the delayed elections, but delayed action after Russia objected. Instead, the council voted unanimously for a short-term technical extension until the end of April.

“As penholder, the United Kingdom worked hard to try to achieve a substantive renewal of UNSMIL’s mandate,” said UK Deputy Permanent Representative James Kariuki. “It was disappointing that the council was unable to reach agreement on our proposed text.”

Today’s vote is a sub-optimal outcome for the Libyan people and a poor reflection on this council.

Other members of the council echoed disappointment over the council’s failure to come together. Established in 2011 as a political mission to help the country’s transitional authorities after the fall of Muamar Gadhafi, UNSMIL notably plays key roles supporting the High National Electoral Commission and implementing the October 2020 cease-fire agreement between the government in Tripoli and Khalifa Haftar’s self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east.

“Today’s vote is a sub-optimal outcome for the Libyan people and a poor reflection on this council,” said US Senior Advisor for Special Political Affairs Jeffrey DeLaurentis.

“Unfortunately, this council was not able to reach agreement on the balanced and strong mandate text provided by the UK,” he said. “We now must work with the technical roll-over mandate we have, to forge a way forward for Libyan-owned and -led elections.”

Russia by contrast favours a short-term renewal as Libyan authorities figure out a way forward following the postponement of the first-ever presidential election scheduled for 24 December 2021.

“We are convinced that continuing the mission for three months will allow us to respond to the development of the situation in Libya in the pre-electoral period,” said Deputy Permanent Representative Anna Evstigneeva.

American in charge

Much of Russia’s misgivings have to do with the absence of an official UN special envoy after Moscow-backed Jan Kubis of Slovakia stepped down in November after 10 months on the job.

Soon after, Secretary General António Guterres tapped American diplomat Stephanie Williams as his special adviser, following her earlier stint as acting special representative and head of UNSMIL. Williams has been acting as a de facto envoy and UN negotiator since 6 December, despite not having the council’s approval. The resolution adopted Monday contains one new provision noting the Secretary-General’s responsibility to appoint a Special Envoy to lead UNSMIL.

In her remarks on Monday, Evstigneeva urged Guterres to select a new envoy “to help with the re-establishment of the full functioning of UNSMIL, in line with its mandate”. Several other countries, including France and Gabon, also urged the rapid selection of a new envoy.

Guterres however appears in no hurry to do so. “The Secretary-General is extremely grateful for all the work that Stephanie Williams has done in her previous capacity … and what she continues to do on the Libyan file as special adviser,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Thursday when asked about the postponed Security Council vote. “We think that she’s done a very, very good job in the face of a very difficult situation.”

It was the most efficient way of getting somebody who’s functional and competent and knows the actors into place. There’s only a handful of people who have that knowledge.

Asked if Guterres was frustrated with the bickering on the council around Libya, Dujarric said it makes implementation of the UNSMIL mandate more difficult.

“Unity of the Security Council, clarity from the Security Council, helps us implement those mandates,” he said. “When those situations are not there, it doesn’t frankly help the situation.”

For his part, DeLaurentis urged council members to “engage constructively” with Williams “and support her efforts”.

Former US special envoy for Libya Jonathan Winer, now a non-resident scholar with the Middle East Institute, tells The Africa Report that naming Williams as an adviser was a clever way to work around the deadlocked council.

“It was the most efficient way of getting somebody who’s functional and competent and knows the actors into place. There’s only a handful of people who have that knowledge,” Winer says. “Everybody who wants to see the possibility of stability in Libya, which is almost everybody at this point, is happy to see her in that job.”

Rival goals

Russia may be the only exception, says Winer. According to him, Moscow has long rooted for the failure of the 2011 NATO intervention that toppled Muamar Gadhafi.

By supporting Haftar in the east, Moscow has also achieved its goal of gaining a military foothold on the Mediterranean, notably at the Al Jufra air base in central Libya south of Sirte. “Their agenda item is to increase their own influence,” says Winer. “They want to maintain their relationship with the (eastern) Libyan military, maintain that military base.”

Despite the divergent views on the council, he says, UNSMIL retains broad appeal as a neutral gathering place that houses expertise on everything from security issues to healthcare. The mission also helps handle international conferences, legal documents, and whatever else negotiators may need.

“The importance is to maintain as much international presence as possible in the country, gathering information, being a support for whatever needs to happen,” Winer says. “You get rid of UNSMIL, you’re going to be losing such capacity as exists.”

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