Libya

As Foreign Interference in Libya Reaches Unprecedented Levels, Secretary-General Warns Security Council ‘Time Is Not on Our Side’, Urges End to Stalemate

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With foreign interference surging, front lines between combatants shifting, tens of thousands fleeing their homes and the threat of COVID-19 looming large, a negotiated solution to the crisis in Libya — now in its tenth year — is more urgent than ever, Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council in a 8 July videoconference meeting* dedicated to the situation in the North African country.

More than 30 speakers participated in the meeting, convened by Germany, Council President for July, six months after the Berlin Conference on Libya where foreign leaders pledged not to interfere in Tripoli’s affairs, recommitted to the arms embargo that the Council established through resolution 1970 (2011) and reaffirmed their support for a Libyan-owned and Libyan-led peace process.

“Time is not on our side in Libya,” the Secretary-General said, explaining that the conflict has entered a new phase, with foreign interference reaching unprecedented levels, including in the delivery of sophisticated equipment and the presence of mercenaries engaged in the fighting.

Since 19 May, when the Secretary-General’s Acting Special Representative and Head of United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Stephanie Turco Williams, briefed the Council, units of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord, “with significant external support”, continued their advance eastwards against the opposition Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar. Those units now are 25 kilometres west of the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte and the situation on the front lines has been mostly quiet since 10 June.

“However, we are very concerned about the alarming military build-up around the city and the high level of direct foreign interference in the conflict in violation of the United Nations arms embargo, Security Council resolutions and the commitments made by Member States in Berlin,” he said. Given the gloomy context, all opportunities to unblock the political stalemate must be seized, he said, adding that UNSMIL is undertaking de-escalation efforts — including the creation of a possible demilitarized zone — to reach a negotiated settlement and save lives.

In eastern Libya, the political situation has registered some movements that indicate renewed support for a political solution, as seen by a 23 May initiative by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the 6 June Cairo Declaration, drafted by Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and leaders of the Libyan National Army, which called for a ceasefire. For its part, the Government of National Accord has called for national elections. The Secretary-General warned, however, that such openings are fragile, given the impact of military developments and support from external backers.

Meanwhile, he continued, developments on the ground have prompted an agreement to reconvene the UNSMIL-facilitated 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission, which held a third round of talks in June focusing on several areas of convergence, including the departure of foreign mercenaries, counter-terrorism cooperation, disarmament and demobilization of armed groups, and modalities for a ceasefire mechanism. “The United Nations will continue working with the parties to reach a ceasefire and resume a political process,” he said, adding that, in recent days, he has spoken by telephone with Prime Minister Faiez Mustafa Serraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, urging them to engage fully to ensure a ceasefire and advance the political process. At the same time, the United Nations, African Union and the League of Arab States, with others, will continue to work closely together, he said, urging the Council to lend its collective support, as well.

With respect to the process that emerged from the Berlin Conference on Libya on 19 January, the Secretary-General said a fourth meeting of the Plenary of the International Follow-up Committee is scheduled for July, with working groups already contributing to UNSMIL’s efforts to facilitate a Libyan-led and Libyan‑owned dialogue.

Turning to the humanitarian impact of the conflict, the Secretary-General said that almost 30,000 people fled their homes as a result of fighting in Tripoli’s southern suburbs and in Tarhouna, bringing the total number of internally displaced to more than 400,000. Many civilians were killed or injured by improvised explosive devices reportedly planted by the Libyan National Army and associated mercenaries as they withdrew. Between 1 April and 30 June, UNSMIL document at least 102 civilian deaths and 254 civilian injuries, an increase of 172 per cent from the first three months of 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) has meanwhile documented at least 21 attacks on medical facilities, ambulances and personnel. Expressing shock at the discovery of mass graves after the Government of National Accord retook Tarhouna, he welcomed the Human Rights Council’s decision to set up a fact-finding mission into human rights violations and noted the International Criminal Court’s readiness to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. The United Nations stands ready to advise on the conduct of investigations and the securing of mass graves, he said.

He went on to say that, one year after an air strike on the Tajoura Detention Centre killed at least 52 migrants and injured 87 others, migrants and asylum seekers in Libya still face arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, abduction for ransom, forced labour and unlawful killings. “I am also deeply concerned about the risks faced by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who continue to attempt to cross the Mediterranean,” he said, urging the authorities to find alternatives to detention, as well as more sustainable solutions for migrants and refugees. COVID-19 is also a growing concern, he added, with a seven-fold increase in cases in June alone. The true scale of the pandemic is likely much higher than the reported 1,046 confirmed cases and 32 deaths, he said, adding that Libya’s capacity to test, trace, isolate and treat people must be strengthened.

Turning to economic aspects, he said that the blockage of Libyan oil port facilities that began in January has so far cost more than $6 billion in lost revenues and created conditions for a budget deficit exceeding 50 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Noting that the National Oil Corporation is calling for all armed groups to exit Libyan oil facilities, he expressed confidence that the Council will support efforts to lift the blockade. He also called on the Council to ensure that an international audit of two branches of the Central Bank of Libya — obstructed by several key officials — begins soon. He concluded by saying that he is counting on the Council to expedite the designation of a new Special Representative, which would greatly facilities UNSMIL’s work.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers echoed the call for a halt for foreign interference in Libya, demanded an end to the fighting and urged the warring sides to resume peace talks under United Nations auspices. Several called for the appointment of a new Special Representative to succeed Ghassan Salamé, who took up the position in April 2017 and stepped down in March 2020.

Heiko Maas, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany, spoke in his national capacity, saying that, six months after the Berlin Conference, COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. While the rest of the world was fighting the coronavirus, hospitals in Libya came under bombardment, while weapons and mercenaries arrived in Libyan cities. “It is time to stop this cynical absurdity,” he said, explaining why all participants in the Berlin process were invited to today’s meeting. Foreign interference remains the main driver of the conflict in Libya and it must end. That means no more aircraft, tanks or ships full of weapons “and no more lies”. Targeted sanctions and other measures will be used to ensure that Libya is no longer the battleground in a foreign war. He added that backdoor deals that enable foreign actors to carve out spheres of influence must stop. Instead, the international community must unite behind UNSMIL and United Nations-led peace efforts to help Libya’s people find a political solution, achieve lasting peace, and preserve the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. “The current calm on Libya’s battlefields is more than fragile,” he said, emphasizing the Council’s duty to translate that calm into a negotiated ceasefire within the framework of the United Nations 5+5 talks. A de‑militarized solution for Sirte and Jufra could be an important first step, he said, calling on all parties in Libya — and all Council members — to unite behind that idea. “Today, the time has come to put our words into action,” he said.

Wang Yi, Minister for Foreign Affairs of China, said that the ongoing conflict in Libya opens the door to rampant terrorism, weapons proliferation and massive refugee outflows. The international community must translate consensus into action, turn vision into reality on the ground and bring peace to Libya’s people as soon as possible. Achieving a comprehensive ceasefire and cessation of violence should be the immediate priority, he said, adding that all countries must honour Council resolutions, refrain from getting involved in the conflict or meddling in Libya’s internal affairs, and strictly enforce the arms embargo. The principle of a Libyan‑led and Libyan-owned peace process must be upheld, with the United Nations serving as the main channel of mediation and the League of Arab States and African Union encouraged to play an important role. “What we can learn from the decade-long turmoil in Libya is that attempts aimed at so-called regime change only spark turbulence, and that military intervention only opens the door to endless trouble,” he said.

Kalla Ankourao, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Cooperation, African Integration and Nigeriens Abroad of Niger, said that respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity continues to be severely tested in Libya, where external interference is fuelling tensions and undermining international efforts to restore a Libyan-driven political process. Growing instability in the Sahel is due in part to the deplorable situation in Libya. All participants in the Berlin process must honour their commitments, refrain from interfering in Libya’s internal affairs and enable the conditions for a humanitarian ceasefire. “It cannot be said enough: Libya does not need weapons; it does not need mercenaries; nor does it need to be the theatre for the expression of the will to power of certain international actors.” What Libya needs is reconciliation, peace and prosperity, he said, underscoring the important role of the Council, African Union, League of Arab States, European Union and others, as well as the urgent need to appoint a new Special Representative of the Secretary-General. Particular attention must be paid to the situation of African migrants in detention camps, who are often used as combatants or human shields by armed groups. Hopefully, the European Union’s IRINI operation will continue to limit the flow of arms into Libya, including through land borders. “External interference will only exacerbate the crisis, thus further delaying the political solution, which is the only path of enabling the Libyans to take control of their country’s destiny,” he said, adding that only resolute action by the Council — aimed at establishing responsibilities and identifying the real culprits — will stop the consequences of the international community’s unacceptable inertia there.

Noureddine Erray, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Tunisia, said that the military escalation in Libya and the lack of progress in the political process represent a direct and serious threat to regional and global peace and security. Tunisia has been proactive in warning against the unfolding of the crisis, the deterioration of the security situation and especially the fuelling and prolonging of the conflict due to the external interference. He reiterated his country’s support for any comprehensive intra-Libyan dialogue under United Nations auspices, adding that, hopefully, the political path will soon be relaunched. The nomination of a new Special Representative would give the parties a fresh incentive to rebuild trust. He stressed the need to respect international humanitarian law and human rights law and called on all parties to ensure the safety of civilians, especially women and children. Due attention must also be given to the situation of migrants and refugees. He said that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the suffering of Libya’s people. Such a challenge cannot be faced and contained through individual efforts, he emphasized, calling for a humanitarian truce in Libya and the resumption of constructive dialogue.

Naledi Pandor, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, said that the increased military build-up, intensified by foreign intervention and coupled with ongoing hostilities, has killed and injured innocent civilians, in particular women and children. The recent discovery of mass graves in and around Tarhouna bares evidence as to the nature of the atrocities being committed, she said, welcoming that there will be an investigation into these atrocities. Urging the parties to the conflict to heed the call of the Secretary‑General and the African Union for an immediate ceasefire, she welcomed the bloc’s decision to convene an inter-Libyan Reconciliation Conference in Addis Ababa later in 2020. “There can be no military solution to the conflict in Libya and the continued political meddling and military interference by external actors in the affairs of Libya must come to an end,” she said.

James Cleverly, Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa of the United Kingdom, said that, six months after the Berlin Conference, some countries are still arming and supplying their proxies in flagrant violation of the arms embargo. Expressing shock at disturbing reports of mass graves in Tarhouna, he said that Libya’s authorities must secure those sites until a proper investigation can be conducted. “The persistent climate of impunity in Libya must be addressed.” He encouraged all parties to fully cooperate with the independent audit of two central bank branches and welcomed United Nations-led efforts to end the blockade of Libyan oil facilities. He went on to express concern at reports of the Wagner Group and other foreign mercenaries entering Libyan oil fields. “Wagner Group activities exacerbate the conflict, as does all external military support, including the provision of mercenaries and arms, and deployments of combat aircraft.” Nevertheless, there now is a window of opportunity to make real progress and change Libya’s troubled trajectory. Rather than emphasizing maximalist goals and red lines, the parties should engage constructively in talks to agree on a viable ceasefire, with international backers recognizing that their interests lie in meeting their Berlin commitments, he said.

France’s representative said that “the risks of regional escalation and a ‘Syrianization’ of Libya are real”, expressing worries that, despite the relative calm and the stabilization of the front line on the Sirte-Joufra axis, the military reinforcement of both camps continued. A further security deterioration would threaten Libya’s interests and risk destabilizing its neighbours and Europe. It would also undermine progress in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. Foreign interferences in Libya must stop and the arms embargo, established by the Council, must be fully respected. Expressing full support for the European Union operation aimed at ensuring the implementation of the embargo, he pointed to an urgent need to transform the current freeze of fighting into a solid truce and make progress towards a lasting and credible ceasefire in the framework of the 5+5 Military Committee under the aegis of UNSMIL. Any initiative in support of a ceasefire agreement and a negotiated political settlement must be fully inclusive and consistent with the principles of the Berlin Conference, which remains the only viable international framework. It is also important to establish a credible mechanism for monitoring Libyan oil revenues to ensure that they benefit the country’s people, not the militias, he said, calling on the Secretary-General to appoint a new Special Representative as soon as possible.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines expressed support for UNSMIL, calling on the Secretary-General to appoint his new Special Representative for Libya. Interference by external actors to advance narrow interests undermine constructive efforts and initiatives, she warned, emphasizing the need to respect Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while urging external actors to refrain from taking actions that compromise ongoing negotiations. Noting that Libya’s people, especially the most vulnerable groups, continue to be adversely affected, with migrants and refugees facing torture, sexual violence, forced disappearances and trafficking. She welcomed the creation of the international fact-finding mission to Libya by the Human Rights Council, to investigate atrocity crimes and ensure accountability.

Estonia’s representative said lasting peace can only be achieved through a Libyan-owned and led political process. “The fighting needs to stop,” he insisted, stressing that, despite progress made in the Berlin process, the reality in Libya remains grim, with foreign interference a blatant violation of the sanctions regime. Calling for an end to the flow of arms, private military operatives, fighter jets and drones in the country, he expressed shock over the discovery of mass graves in Tarhouna and advocated for a thorough investigation. It is imperative that all international humanitarian and human rights law violations be addressed and that the perpetrators of such crimes be held accountable. He also expressed extreme concern that, along with the spread of COVID-19, landmines and other explosives continue to be planted.

Viet Nam’s representative called the Berlin Conference “a silver lining” to the gloomy situation, with the subsequent adoption of resolution 2510 (2020) providing hope for the pursuit of an inclusive Libyan-led and owned peace process. He called on parties to immediately stop fighting and return to peace talks, urging the Berlin Conference participants in particular to support those efforts. He also urged parties to fully respect international humanitarian law, stop targeting civilians, ensure the safety of health-care workers and allow unhindered humanitarian access. All parties — both inside and outside Libya — must also strengthen their implementation to Council resolutions, he asserted.

Also participating were ministers, senior officials and representatives of Algeria, Belgium, Chad, Congo, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Libya, Morocco, Netherlands, Qatar, Russian Federation, Sudan, Switzerland, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the United States.

The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States and the African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security also spoke.

  • Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.