Interview with Ian Martin, SRSG and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya

In this interview, Ian Martin, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), discusses his recent experience of heading the United Nations’ efforts to help Libya during its transition from decades of dictatorship, a topic he briefed the UN Security Council on just after this interview finished.

Speaking about the upcoming elections, Mr. Martin acknowledges that “the challenges are really immense, because these are the first elections in Libya for some 47 years.” Absent any recent exposure to democratic processes, “there is almost no living memory of participation in real elections,” he said.

“State security forces are very weak,” explains Mr. Martin as he discusses the many security challenges that continue to riddle Libya as a result of the near-complete breakdown of state security institutions. Absent a functioning state security apparatus, the revolutionary brigades are “necessary for public security,” he says. However, as a functioning military and police are built up again, Mr. Martin believes that “there is a need to integrate or demobilize the revolutionary fighters.”

UNSMIL is a fairly small, so-called “light footprint” mission, which is focused on supporting the democratic transition, public security, and human rights, transitional justice, and rule of law. Mr. Martin explains the difficult balance that needs to be struck in Libya, which he said was “a very unusual combination of considerable financial and human resources, and yet very little institutional experience.”

“I believe that a classical mission that was not a light footprint mission would not be well received in a country that is not accustomed to strong engagement with the international community. But there is a real desire, across the board, to now have access to the kind of international experience from which Libya has been isolated.”

The interview was conducted by Francesco Mancini, IPI Senior Director of Research.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Francesco Mancini (FM): We’re here today at the Global Observatory with Special Representative of the UN Secretary General and head of the UN support mission in Libya. Ian Martin, thank you very much for being with us today.

Let’s start with your job in Libya. Next month, there are scheduled elections in the country. What role will the UN mission play in these elections, and, in your opinion, what are the key challenges for these elections to turn out in a good way?

Ian Martin (IM): The challenges are really immense because these are the first elections in Libya for some forty-seven years, and the last elections under the monarchy were very limited in their democratic nature. So there’s almost no living memory of participation of real elections in Libya, and of course no election machinery to inherit and so the election commission has had to be created from scratch.

First, the National Transitional Council had to agree on electoral law. The first role of the United Nations was to provide expert assistance as they were considering the legal framework for the elections. And then once the elections commission was established, our electoral team has been working closely with them as they take all the decisions about how voters are going to be registered, how candidates are going to be registered, political entities that are able to participate in the proportional part of the election, and set up administration: find offices, recruit staff, train them.

I think it’s really quite remarkable that when the election commission was only created in late January, on the first of May voter registration opened across the country. It’s now going on in more than 1500 voter registration centers, using schools. And I’m going to be able to tell the Security Council this afternoon that more than a million people have so far registered.

FM: Now focusing on security: how much are you concerned about the situation on the ground? I’m referring to a recent attack on an interim prime minister’s office. What are some of the main challenges for security sector reform, the mobilizations, and how the UN mission is supporting this process?

IM: Again, the challenges are great and the legacy a very difficult one. Libya today is only beginning to recreate an army. Gaddafi in fact kept the real state army weak and relied upon his own parallel brigades and security structure. The police force needs an enormous amount of training and development to become a robust body. So state security forces are very weak, and at the same time there’s a need to integrate or de-mobilize the revolutionary fighters who’ve been organized into a large number of brigades.

And in the short terms those brigades are both necessary for public security. They continue to be responsible for security in towns and cities and neighborhoods at vital installations, an auxiliary to the national army when there are local conflicts. And yet, of course, some of those brigades are also the threat to security.

What we saw with the incident in the prime minister’s office, which wasn’t the first such incident, came out of the discontent of some of those in the brigades regarding confusion around the treatment of war wounded, where’s there’s a lot of anger, but even more payments that the government announced for members of the brigades, but then clearly when an unreasonable number of people were coming forward stopped in order to put into place better controls. And of course some of the most disciplined brigades regard the undisciplined elements as taking advantage of the situation.

So those are very great challenges, and the dilemma I think is that the creation of a new army and a proper police force are inevitably long-term tasks, as we know from any post-conflict situation. And yet in the context of Libya, the need to integrate the revolutionary fighters into those state security forces and to bring them under state authority is urgent. There’s a very particular need to build effective border security, which is a huge challenge and one of great concern to both Libya itself because of illegal migration, but to Libya’s neighbors because of arms proliferation out of Libya.

FM: As you just said, the challenges are immense indeed. The last time you were in New York, in March, you told the Security Council that a light footprint was needed for the UN missions in the country to help Libya with the transition to democracy. Yet if we look at the mandate, it looks quite ambitious for a relatively small UN civilian mission. How will you prioritize your support to the Libyan authorities, and maybe you could also articulate your relationship with the Libyan authorities and how they see the contribution of the UN there.

IM: The mandate is really focused on three main areas: support for the democratic transition, which means, at the moment, the current elections, but beyond that, constitution making, constitutional referendum and the first elections under a new constitution; secondly, public security – the challenges we’ve just discussed; and thirdly, human rights, transitional justice and rule of law.

But beyond the focus on those three areas we have a general mandate to coordinate international assistance wherever the Libyans want that support. And they do want that, because relations between Libya and UNSMIL are actually extremely good. The United Nations has a very strong standing in Libya, not just because of a great deal of gratitude for the Security Council resolutions of last year, but going all the way back to the establishment of independent Libya.

Most people in New York have forgotten, if they ever knew, that the UN played a key role in the emergence of independent Libya in 1950 to ’51. But the Libyans certainly haven’t forgotten, so the relationship is a strong one, and we are able to do a lot with a relatively small team on the ground, and then bringing in additional expertise as the need is identified in different areas.

The Libyans never wanted boots on the ground of any kind from the international community. They do want international assistance to be, wherever possible, coordinated by the United Nations and are a little wary of bilateral assistance, even from those they view of their friends. I think we’ve been able to be effective in the very short lifetime of this interim government, but there’ll be a very important relationship beyond that with the new government that will come into existence after the elections.

And of course in addition to UNSMIL’s role in the areas I described, the UN country team will be strengthening its long-term contribution as longer term statebuilding can get underway.

FM: A novelty of the UNSMIL mandate is the support to the development of Libyan civil society. What are some of the challenges you foresee in implementing such a specific task?

IM: There’s been a wonderful outgrowth of civil society. Indeed it began during the revolution in the east and more recently elsewhere. But again, it’s somewhere where there’s no recent history. There was no independent civil society, and therefore there’s great enthusiasm, great commitment, great vibrancy, but very little experience, organizational experience. The United Nations is working in many different areas right now: voter education of course, and broader civic education is a priority. Our human rights team has been working with emerging human rights NGOs to encourage them to monitor the human rights situation and become internal advocacy organizations.

The role of civil society in the coming constitutional debate will be extremely important. Women’s organizations of course are seeking to promote women’s empowerment in a socially very conservative society. Young people are determined that the role of youth in the revolution should be reflected in future as well. So there’s a great interest in gaining from the experience of civil society elsewhere in the region and more broadly. The United Nations is only one group for providing that. There are many other international organizations, the European Union and others are also involved.

FM: If I can ask a last question which is based more on your own personal experience with the UN. Much has been said about how Libya is sort of a new experience for the UN. You have been in many places with the UN, from Bosnia to Ethiopia, Timor, Nepal. How is Libya different from previous cases? What’s if you have to identify the main difference between previous UN missions and the one you are leading now? What is the key difference?

IM: The first thing to note is that Libya is a rich country. It doesn’t need donors. So the term “donors” is almost irrelevant in the Libyan context. What Libya is conscious of needing is technical assistance. It’s conscious of having been isolated from the international community, from international best practice through the Gaddafi years. So while there are many extremely able professionals in different fields, many of them have been working out of the country. And there’s almost no institutional experience. So it’s a very unusual combination of considerable financial and human resources and yet very little institutional experience.

So on the one hand there’s determination that the future is going to be a nationally owned one. And I believe a classical mission that was not a light footprint mission would not be well received in a country that isn’t accustomed to strong engagement with the international community. But there’s a real desire across the board to now have access to the kind of international experience from which Libya has been isolated.

FM: That you very much for your time.

IM: You’re welcome.