UN Envoy Ghassan Salame: Time is not on side of a unified Libya

Speaking to The National from the UN headquarters in New York, Mr Salame said the plan he has proposed for Libya seeks to widen the participation and opportunity for all Libyans to feel part of the process

Ghassan Salame, the UN’s envoy for Libya, recently unveiled plans to revamp the agreement to unify the North African country and pave the way for new elections. Emmanuel Samoglou
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The UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame warned that “time is not on the side of a unified Libya” and that the warring parties or those who benefit from the current status quo of fractured institutions will attempt to squander the current window of opportunity for a durable peace process.

Speaking to The National from the UN headquarters in New York, Mr Salame said the plan he has proposed for Libya seeks to widen the participation and opportunity for all Libyans to feel part of the process, yet he recognises there will parties seeking to spoil the roadmap.

His challenge is to get enough support, domestically and internationally, to amend the current Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) and build a framework for a renewed political process. Otherwise, the very existence of Libya would be in crisis.

And Mr Salame is no stranger to crisis. Born in Lebanon, he has throughout his life seen closely how war ravages societies.

In 2003, he escaped the truck bomb that hit UN headquarters in Baghdad where he was adviser to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.

Since his appointment as the special representative and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya in late June, Mr Salame has wasted no time, travelling between east and west Libya, garnering unprecedented international support at the UN General Assembly for a political process that will start this week in Tunisia ahead of a broader UN-sponsored meeting as soon as December.

Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya Ghassan Salame on the current situation in the country

Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya Ghassan Salame on the current situation in the country

Before heading to Tunisia, Mr Salame convened a high-level meeting in New York on the sidelines of the General Assembly and met with numerous foreign ministers to get backing for the plan. While Mr Salame's proposal has received resounding support, he is adamant that it is not his plan — rather, it comes from Libyans themselves.

“I did not make up this plan, it is a rationalisation of what I heard from the Libyans. I crisscrossed Libya, listened to hundreds in the political class, and to average Libyans,” Mr Salame said.

From his deliberations, Mr Salame found “the Libyans have an idea of what and where they want to go, but the problem has been sequencing, where to start”.

The start point and the steps forward were presented by the envoy to the General Assembly, while keeping in mind that Libya’s “political class doesn’t want to be deprived over its control of the process”.

As for the plan itself, it entails strengthening institutions and offering a political process that all Libyans can buy in to. It will be a two-step process. While the LPA reached in 2015 is the main framework for the talks, a meeting in Tunis to discuss a set of amendments to the agreement will mark the beginning this week.

Then a national reconciliation conference will be convened under the auspices of the UN to include all Libyan groups to pin down a roadmap for a constitution, institutional reforms, government power structure and elections.

On his Libya tour last month, Mr Salame made a point of visiting universities and meeting students in every city he went to, in addition to meeting political representatives and leaders of different factions. After weeks of consultations, and building on his experiences from Iraq to Myanmar, Mr Salame drafted the roadmap.


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He tried to organise Libyan requests to “focus on a constitution, a president, a parliament” based on the LPA signed in Sukhairat, Morocco in December 2015. He said this agreement is the “only legitimate point of reference we have that is recognised” by the UN Security Council Resolutions.

And yet that agreement failed in uniting Libyans or in quelling the violence. “If you look at it you will clearly see that it needs amendments” and Libyans realise the urgent need to do it.

The LPA lacks clarity on separation of powers, and “creates a government that is only an emanation of the presidential council.” But more critically, it falls short when it comes to strengthen institutional vehicles that provide the day to day services, the envoy said.

“You need a government that delivers on health on education, it’s not delivering … Libyans are extremely angry at the fact that they are poor in a wealthy country” a frustrated Mr Salame said. “They had social services and are losing them. That they have to queue for one day sometimes for two days in order to get their own money from the banks. And only a fraction of $25 at a time.”

He describes a “very surrealistic situation of a country on one hand producing a million barrels of oil a day, and on the other having a population living under such dire economic conditions.”

The first thing to do “is to have a public authority that answers those needs” which in his opinion requires amendments to the LPA. These amendments are mostly institutional, he said, and can happen from within the LPA mechanism.

In Tunis, he will attempt to “bring members from the house of representatives and others from state council" to work together on forming a joint committee assigned to draft amendments.

The specific amendments Mr Salame lays out would address ideas to “separate the presidential council from the government, to define the relationship between the military and civilian powers.” As critical, Mr Salame said, is expanding the political umbrella in Libya to make it more inclusive.

“We are extending the membership of the high state council to those who basically were punished for having accepted the results of the 2014 election.” These principles were agreed upon in the Cairo meeting ten months ago but the parties involved were not able to translate them into institutions, he said.

Once this is done, “we can go to the next step which is a national conference [under UN auspices] to which we invite all those who were reluctant to join political process either because of ideology or didn’t believe in it or because they didn’t get a seat in an institution once the LPA was agreed.”

Political participation and an inclusive process have become new obsessions for Mr Salame. “At the best of times since the 2011 revolution, where we have seen two rounds of elections, the participation has been extremely low,” he said. “In 2014, it was around 17 per cent, I want the 83 per cent to participate.”

The goal is so that Libyans “feel ownership of the process, that this is not done to replace one ruling clique with another. It is to replace a closed regime by an open one,” he said.

Acknowledging that this message has not gone through, Mr Salame hoped that the national conference would be the beginning of this road. “It will take a lot of work to get there no doubt, but on our [UN] side we are almost ready in terms of venue, organisation” for the conference, he said.

He said it would be great if the conference could take place inside Libya, but if not the venue would be at one of the UN headquarters such as Vienna or Geneva. He hoped it could be done “before the end of year, or in the early weeks of next year.”

Mr Salame is aware of the risks ahead and what would happen if his plan was to fail. Asked about the spectre of partition that haunts Libya, he said: “the [high] level of participation at the UN meeting is a unanimous expression of support for the UN plan and also a unanimous expression of fear.

“Everybody has come to the conclusion that the status quo is not tenable, it is unsustainable, and causing a lot of damage to Libyans and neighbouring places.”

On the ground, Mr Salame said “Libya can be a safe haven for extremist groups fleeing Syria or Iraq”.

He said: “We have seen that in Sirte, in Benghazi … there has been successful battles against that but it doesn’t mean the battle is over.”

Another challenge is in Libya becoming “a corridor for irregular migration that needs to be dealt with in a way” and “there is no single official legitimate political authority to handle this massive challenge”.

Adding to these woes is the deteriorating economic situation in Libya. “I have visited a hospital with not one single machine working, universities where one department was closing after another because foreign professors were leaving because the exchange rate is outrageous.”

The “struggles of the daily life of the Libyans and the fragmented institutions create fear,” said the UN envoy. This fragmentation is in having “a clone of every institution now in the east and the west — the central bank, the Libyan investment agency, everything.”

On this issue, Mr Salame gave a stark warning. “Time is not working for you if you want a united Libya. With time, these institutions will have their own budget, constituencies etc.”

Nevertheless, he said the international community realises these challenges and that the “status quo doesn’t mean things will stay as they are, it is fragile, it means more degradation in the ability to deliver services, security, and to defend the country.”

Mr Salame knows there will be those who will work against his plan — especially factions that will not want to give up the power of holding weapons. When asked about potential spoilers, he responded “the spoilers are there; I don’t know a single peace process — and I have been part of one or two — that doesn’t have spoilers … The Libyan peace process will have its spoilers.”

While he would not name individuals or groups Mr Salame said “I call them the status quo party, those who are taking advantage of the situation”. Fearing losing out on power, Mr Salame anticipates “they will try to derail the process, to keep the positions for themselves, to monopolise position, and prevent free and fair competition from public. They are happy there is no political participation”.

And in response, the UN envoy says there is an urgency “to wake up dormant institutions, unify the split institutions and [there are] captive institutions we need to free”.

The regional influence will also be a factor. “They all said publicly that they support me, we met with them and heard them and I take them to their word.” But Mr Salame sounded hopeful that “if the Libyans are conscious enough of the window of opportunity before them in their stability and prosperity, foreign interference can be neutralised.”

Asked what the Lebanese war and peace model that he intimately watched can offer Libya, Mr Salame said: “I see things from the Lebanese model, I don’t want to see in Libya.

“Elements of the agreement in Lebanon were clear in 1983, but it took us six years to reach that.”

The UN envoy laments that the Lebanese knew what the content of a peace agreement was in 1983 but “more than 50,000 died and half a million left the country in that period [1983-1989] because we did not seize the opportunity.

“I don’t want to see it in Libya,” he said, where elements of a deal are clear, but require a political will to see them implemented, rather than more years of bloodshed and missed opportunities.