Earlier this month, Ian Martin, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya, told the Security Council that a “light footprint” was needed for the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to help the country with the transition to democracy. This was reflected in resolution 2040 adopted last week by the Council, which extends UNSMIL for one year—subject to review within six months—and mandates the UN mission to support Libyan efforts in the areas of the rule of law, human rights, public security (including the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants), illicit proliferation of weapons, coordination of international assistance, national reconciliation, as well as the holding of free, fair, and credible elections.
While most of these priority areas had already been identified during the early UN planning phase, the format of the authorized UN presence is quite different from what initially had been envisaged. An August 2011 UN plan had called for the deployment of 200 unarmed UN military observers, with a protection force (“such as a multinational force under a lead nation command”), and 190 UN police to help stabilize the country. But although some observers continue to think that it may be necessary to deploy a peacekeeping operation to support the transition in Libya—and may have been encouraged by recent intermilitia clashes—the UN ultimately had to accommodate the Libyan authorities’ strong opposition to the deployment of international uniformed personnel in the current mission design.
• The next few months will be an important test for the “light footprint” UN civilian presence in Libya—albeit with an ambitious support mandate—which some UN member states and parts of the UN may be tempted to look at as a model for the future;
• Given its limited leverage, much of the success of UNSMIL may depend on its ability to demonstrate its added-value in support of Libyan authorities during the transition phase;
• UNSMIL will need to quickly adapt to a unique context (different from other post-conflict countries the UN is used to dealing with), an oil-rich host country, which many member states are ready to support on a bilateral basis, particularly in security-related areas;
• In this context, the UNSMIL “light and flexible” mission concept could usefully focus its initial efforts—helping Libyan authorities coordinate international engagement and providing technical expertise in a few strategic areas—towards establishing credible and legitimate institutions, and supporting the development of Libyan civil society;
• This will, however, not guarantee that the future elected government will welcome UNSMIL’s continued presence, no matter how small the UN footprint.
The next few months will be an important test for the “light footprint” UN civilian presence in Libya, which some member states and parts of the UN may be tempted to look at as a model for the future, at a time of financial austerity. UNSMIL’s support mandate is quite ambitious for such a modest UN political outfit, and some tasks such as “supporting the development and implementation of a comprehensive transitional justice strategy” (paragraph 6(b)) are simply unrealistic over a 12-month timeframe. Given the small UN presence on the ground and its limited leverage, much of the success of UNSMIL may depend on its ability to demonstrate its added-value in support of Libyan authorities early on during this transition phase.
The challenges for the UN are many. It will have to adapt to a context that is different from the many post-conflict countries it has assisted over the last two decades. Libya is an oil-rich host country that does not need the UN to mobilize large donor support. Furthermore, member states—many from the region—have already come forward offering direct bilateral support to Libyan authorities, particularly in the areas of border security and security sector reform.
Even though UNSMIL is a political rather than a peacekeeping mission, it is still operating under Chapter VII of the UN charter because of the residual investigatory tasks of the panel of experts and of the support UNSMIL is expected to provide with regard to the illicit proliferation of all arms—particularly man-portable surface to air missile, which were carried over from the earlier resolution 2017 of October 2011.
In the context of continued flows of arms and ammunition out of Libya—including to Mali— member states have already been providing bilateral support to both Libya and it neighbors to monitor borders. Chad, for instance, asked France to conduct aerial reconnaissance flights, while Tunisia asked the US to help guard its borders with Libya. Algeria, France, Jordan, and Turkey, among others, have also announced they will help Libya constitute and train its future security forces, including a border security force. Furthermore, Libya and its neighbors are increasingly recognizing the need to cooperate on regional security, as illustrated by the March 12 Tripoli summit attended by interior and defense ministers from Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya, Chad, Egypt, Mali, Niger and Sudan, and representatives from the European Union, Arab League, African Union and the UN.
Stability in Libya in the medium and longer term will, however, depend on the ability of the country to establish capable and legitimate institutions. The national elections planned for June 2012 may contribute to this. But a broader national reconciliation process may also be needed, which will be critical to the success of the above-mentioned security sector reform efforts. While UNSMIL’s mandate includes many tasks—including in public security—the mission may need to initially focus its efforts on accompanying the democratic transition by supporting the electoral process and Constitution drafting, but also by facilitating the relationships between central and local authorities, and between the government and its citizens. It is particularly interesting to note that the resolution (paragraph 6(a)) mandates UNSMIL to support “the further development of Libyan civil society.”
In this context, UNSMIL’s “light and flexible” mission concept could usefully focus its initial efforts in helping transitional Libyan authorities coordinate international engagement, and providing technical expertise in a few of these strategic areas where it can have the greatest impact and comparative advantage. This will not guarantee that the future elected government will welcome the UNSMIL’s continued presence. The future Libyan government may be more sensitive to criticism of its human rights record and less receptive to the UN expert advice, no matter how small the footprint.
Arthur Boutellis is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute
About the photo: Ian Martin (center), UN Special Representative to Libya, in Zawia, Libya in 2011. UN Photo/Iason Foounten