As Peace Talks Resume in Libya, Is the UN’s “Light Footprint” Up to the Task?

A crowd of demonstrators participating in a protest against the ongoing use of weapons by rebel militias inside Tripoli and accompanying atmosphere of lawlessness, 07 December 2011 (UN Photo/Lason Foounten)

Today, Libya is arguably more divided than at any point since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Observers are hoping for a positive outcome from renewed peace talks between the two rival Libyan governments this week, after earlier discussions held in Geneva in January, but attempts to put the country back on a path towards democracy are fraught with difficulty.

Set against a chaotic backdrop, the fate of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is also now in question. Following intense fighting in Tripoli last summer, UNSMIL was forced to relocate to Tunisia, leaving behind only a skeleton staff. UN planners are expected to respond to the ongoing challenges by reconfiguring UNSMIL as part of a proposal to the Security Council in March. Some observers have called for a beefed-up international response, such as a UN peacekeeping mission or a European Union stabilization force, in order to prevent further escalation of violence. In one of his first public interviews, the new head of UNSMIL and Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Bernardino León, said that uniformed personnel would ultimately be needed in Libya, including military monitors, even if the current peace talks were successful.

In considering the future of UNSMIL, it is important to understand its origins. The mission was established in 2011 after rebels seized control of Tripoli and were rapidly descending on the Qaddafi regime’s last holdouts. Internal UN documents revealed an original proposal for deployment of 200 military observers, protected by a “multinational force” that could keep tabs on Libya’s various militias and monitor weapons caches. Instead, the Security Council opted for a “light footprint” special political mission with a broad mandate to restore public security, organize elections, protect human rights, and strengthen state institutions. UNSMIL was subsequently established with a small core of about 250 staff in Tripoli, bolstered by a team of standby mediators. It could also call upon external civilian experts to provide technical advice as needed.

This approach responded to Libyan authorities at that time asserting their sovereignty and objecting to an international military presence in the country. The aversion to foreign boots on the ground dovetailed with a strategic shift in thinking among UN member states and the Security Council itself, which increasingly called for “light-weight, non-military alternatives to [multidimensional] peacekeeping” run out of the Department of Political Affairs. International actors also wanted to avoid a large presence at a time when some states were accusing the West of instigating regime change and pursuing neocolonialism following the 2011 NATO intervention.

As well as politically expedient, the light footprint of UNSMIL was fiscally prudent. Indeed, some viewed the mission as a model for the future, especially at a time when the UN was under increased pressure from member states to rein in costs, reduce the size of its permanent staff, and “do more with less.” Libya’s vast oil reserves meant it could pay for its own rehabilitation without draining the coffers of international donors. With its minimalist design, a team of mediators who could intervene in brewing hotspots, and on-call experts who could supply technical knowledge, UNSMIL offered an alternative approach in an era of political and economic constraints.

Three and a half years later, however, it is unclear if the light footprint concept has added much to the UN-backed transition process in Libya. The question now is whether a political mission of this kind was the right tool for the job, given Libya’s impressive laundry list of challenges. Instead of being a model mission, UNSMIL has struggled with many of the same dilemmas that virtually all peace operations face. It underscores the difficulties of attempting to use a lightweight mission to implement an ambitious statebuilding mandate. This was complicated by the fact that international actors misjudged the capacity of Libya’s institutions—it was well known that they suffered from the legacy of 40 years of dictatorship, but their embryonic state was still surprising.

As Dr. Younes Abouyoub, a political adviser to UNSMIL, noted in this publication last year, the mission’s consultative and advisory mandate—and, no doubt, its model of parachuting in technical experts—has been of limited value in a country with few pre-existing institutions or a functioning government to implement its recommendations. The mission was neither able to build up the capacity of the government, nor ensure its credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of Libya’s militias, whose reintegration into the security sector depended upon having confidence in the transitional government.

UNSMIL has frequently struggled to influence the course of the transition process. According to a report by the International Peace Institute published last month, its advice to the host government often fell on deaf ears. As one UN official told me, the Libyan government repeatedly failed to take UNSMIL’s advice on board in such areas as elections, the drafting of a constitution, and the transitional roadmap, much to the frustration of international actors. Of course, national ownership is the cornerstone of any sustainable peacebuilding effort, and therefore any UN mission, yet a larger, more assertive presence might have convinced Libya’s government to take its advice more seriously.

Finally, UNSMIL was powerless to defend the transitional government in Tripoli against fighting last summer, let alone reintegrate the country’s various militias, slow the illicit flow of arms into the Sahel region, or prevent the kidnapping of the former prime minister. This is not to say an international force could have easily accomplished these ambitious goals, but in volatile conflict situations, missions without a military component have few coercive tools at their disposal.

There remains some hope that UNSMIL can garner a positive result from the current peace talks and any subsequent discussions, and that a democratic transition in Libya is still possible under the current approach. However, the optimism that surrounded the mission’s creation has undeniably worn off. As decision makers weigh various contingency plans to rescue Libya from the brink of chaos, the lessons of 2011 should be foremost in their minds. This would help resist the temptation to pursue solutions that, while seemingly politically and economically convenient, may ultimately prove too good to be true.