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Libya’s Legitimacy Crisis: Hostage to the Skhirat Agreement

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On 17 December 2015, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) joined Libyan delegations in celebrating the signing of the Skhirat agreement, or Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). Skhirat established the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and was supposed to end the institutional and political split that emerged following the disputed 2014 elections. Instead of unifying the country, the Skhirat agreement has further deepened Libya’s legitimacy crisis, gradually becoming an obstacle to peace. Despite the signing of the agreement by most of the delegates, the procedural and legal aspects of the LPA did not go as intended, creating further institutional and political fragmentation and derailing the country’s transition instead of salvaging it.

The 2014 elections, which established the House of Representatives (HoR) as Libya’s new legislator, were rejected by the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, created following the previous 2012 elections. A few months later, the Supreme Court in Tripoli ruled to nullify the HoR’s establishment following a petition filed by a number of Islamist-leaning and Misratan politicians. The HoR rejected the Supreme Court’s ruling saying it was made under the threat of guns, heralding the institutional split between western and eastern Libya.

In December 2015, the UN Security Council (UNSC) recognised the GNA as Libya’s sole executive authority, but remnants of the GNC in Tripoli and its National Salvation Government led by Khalifa al-Ghwell refused to hand over power to the GNA. At that moment, Libya had three different governments, none of which was able to govern, but each was capable of blocking initiatives by the other two. The Interim Libyan Government in Bayda, headed by Abdullah al-Thinni, refused to hand over power until the GNA was ratified by the HoR, and the necessary constitutional requirements to adopt the agreement into the Interim Constitutional Declaration (ICD) were met.

The ICD is the country’s political roadmap governing the post-Gaddafi transition. On his part, the commander of the eastern-based Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, reluctantly agreed to send his own representative for the Presidential Council of the GNA, Ali al-Qatrani. But Haftar never recognised the Skhirat agreement and considered it a threat to his own ambitions to rule Libya. On two occasions in 2017 and 2020, he declared the Skhirat agreement void. In his latest attempt last month, Haftar also unilaterally declared himself Libya’s ruler by popular mandate.

It is time to move beyond the Skhirat agreement, developing a new mechanism for reconciliation and the formation of a domestically and internationally legitimate government in Libya. Going forward, the international community must avoid hasty conferment of international legitimacy. In the future, legal and binding domestic legitimacy must precede the conferment of international legitimacy. This can be done by ensuring that legal and procedural requirements to ratify any agreement are met before the conferment of international recognition through UNSC resolution to any of the bodies that emanate from a future political agreement.

Additionally, this should entail conditioning international recognition of the rump GNA Tripoli government, in the same way that the international recognition of the HoR in Tobruk back in 2014-2015 was limited to pressure the two sides to the negotiation table, ultimately achieving the LPA in Skhirat. This could be achieved by issuing a UNSC resolution to that effect.

The GNA, although recognised by the UN via UNSC Resolution 2259, which legitimised the LPA, has been a rump institution since early 2017 and now represents only one side of the ongoing conflict. In a similar fashion, the HoR which was also legitimised by the same UNSC Resolution, is also a rump parliament which today suffers from similar legal and institutional shortcomings for legitimacy, notwithstanding its election in 2014.

With regards to the rump Tripoli government, for instance, two of the GNA’s Presidential Council deputies, Ali al-Qatrani and Fathi al-Majbri, have boycotted the Tripoli-based GNA and declared their support for Haftar, and another, Musa al-Koni, resigned in January 2017. Out of the nine members of the Presidential Council of the GNA, only five are currently active. Additionally, Article 1, paragraph 3 of the LPA stipulates that decisions made by the GNA’s Presidential Council are to be issued unanimously by the President and his deputies. A legal quorum that has not been met since January 2017.

With these developments in mind, it is imperative that the United Nations and international actors stop conferring automatic legitimacy and international recognition to the rump GNA in Tripoli while ignoring or sidelining the similarly rump HoR parliament in Tobruk. In this regard, it is important to note that the HoR in Tobruk is also recognized by the same UNSC resolution as the country’s sole legislator. It is the legislator that was supposed to ratify the Skhirat agreement and legitimise the GNA, but this never happened due to its internal divisions and disagreements as well as pressure from Haftar and his allies. The HoR is handicapped. Its 200 members are at the mercy of its Speaker, Agilah Saleh, and has been unable to hold its meetings to ratify the LPA and enact the required legal and constitutional amendments to activate it. The HoR splintered between supporters and opponents of the LPA.

The GNA has exploited and abused its international recognition to make requests for military and counterterrorism assistance and cooperation. Examples include the GNA’s invitation to set-up an Italian military presence in Misrata in the form of a military hospital in 2016, counterterrorism coordination efforts with the US against the so-called Islamic State in Sirte and, most recently, the direct Turkish military intervention to support the GNA against Haftar’s military campaign.

Any such assistance to the GNA should have been conditioned with a clear commitment to a political reconciliation process to end the country’s legitimacy crisis, and stop the coercion and domination of government institutions in Tripoli by the cartel of militias aligned with the GNA. Similarly, recognition of the HoR should be conditioned on the correct and independent performance of its legislative role, free from outside pressure or military threats, including by the LNA.

Interference or undue influence over political institutions, from Haftar or other armed actors in Tripoli or Misrata must be rejected and warrant meaningful action including sanctions by the UNSC, the United States and the European Union. A clear UNSC sanctions mechanism should be put in place to serve that purpose.

For any attempt at political reconciliation to succeed in Libya, the international community should demand and enforce a ban on outside interference in Libya’s conflict and stop the flow of arms in violation of the UN-embargo. Equally important, the United Nations should introduce mechanisms of oversight and auditing over the assets of Libya’s Central Bank (LCB) and National Oil Corporation (NOC) to bring greater financial pressure on both sides to come to the table and form a truly inclusive, unified government.

The UN’s continued recognition of the GNA despite its limited control over the country is problematic because the GNA lacks any form of domestic recognition in Libya, given that it was never ratified by the country’s sole legislator, the HoR. Moreover, according to the Skhirat agreement, the length of the GNA’s mandate is limited to two years, ending in December 2017. The continuation of such recognition without limits and controls will impede any progress for reconciliation efforts in Libya.

Moreover, the GNA used its UN recognition to formally invite Turkey into the Libyan conflict, taking foreign interference in Libya to a whole new level compared to previous interventions, in clear violation of the UNSC’s own resolutions. The implementation of the security cooperation agreement signed between Turkey and the GNA in November 2019 violates resolution 1970 and has opened the door for further systematic violations of UN sanctions imposed by the 2011 resolution.

This development will invite further escalation from Haftar’s foreign backers, especially the UAE and Egypt, and will likely open the door for greater Russian influence in eastern Libya. Turkey’s overt intervention in support of the GNA with the deployment of Arab-Syrian mercenaries, Turkish military experts, advanced air defence systems and combat drones, mirrored similar interventions by Haftar’s foreign backers in Egypt, the UAE and Russia, but it did not deal a decisive blow to Haftar’s forces, which are presently being resupplied with more mercenaries, advanced air defence systems and fighter jets in a bid to reverse the GNA’s recent advances in western Libya.

The United States and others in Europe should drop the belief that the Turkish intervention in Libya will create balance on the ground, eventually pressuring Haftar and his patrons to accept a return to the negotiating table. In fact, the opposite happened. On 30 April, the GNA emboldened by recent military successes against the LNA rejected a unilateral truce offered by Haftar, presumably out of a belief that it could move forward and capitalise on its territorial advances, further weakening Haftar in western and southern Libya.The GNA made a huge mistake for the country and the entrapped citizens of Tripoli, and thus must accept responsibility for that decision.

Since then, the GNA has made significant advances against Haftar’s LNA in western Libya, signaling further escalations and conflict. Meanwhile, Haftar and his foreign backers are feeling the heat from the Turkish intervention and are stepping up their own war efforts, including the indiscriminate bombing of Tripoli. Escalation has only invited more escalation in Libya.

The GNA has interpreted international recognition as a signal that they can monopolize national political authority and control over the country’s wealth, while at the same time diminishing its propensity for compromise or negotiations given its veneer of international legitimacy. In that sense, blanket expressions of international support for the GNA are counterproductive.

For its part, the eastern camp spearheaded by Haftar and Agilah Saleh, the president of the rump HoR in Tobruk, have similar deficiencies. The eastern camp has been embroiled in its own internal crisis since Haftar’s military advance slowed and his declaration to rule by popular mandate sparked an unprecedent crisis between him and his allies in eastern Libya. Although enjoying a level of international recognition as per UNSC resolution 2259, the HoR in Tobruk is divided and lacks legal quorum for meetings, and tens of its members have defected and set up a parallel body in Tripoli allied with the GNA.

However, the eastern camp has led a successful campaign to prevent the GNA from gaining formal domestic legitimacy or recognition through a legal vote in the HoR. The April 2019 Tripoli offensive by Haftar was designed to complete the LNA’s streak of territorial gains that started in 2015, in a clear attempt to take control of the CBL, NOC and other key governing institutions headquartered in Tripoli.

The April Tripoli offensive was launched by Haftar ten days before a national conference planned by the UN was supposed to take place, demonstrating that Haftar had little or no regard for the UN-led political process in Libya. He launched his offensive exactly when UN Secretary-General António Guterres was in Tripoli seeking to unite the country, launch a reconciliation process, agree on a constitution and hold democratic elections.

Calls by the international community for a humanitarian truce during the month of Ramadan and due to the COVID-19 pandemic have not been heeded by conflict parties and their external patrons. The Berlin process failed to reverse the downward spiral and the massive escalations on both sides despite the commitment by all countries intervening in Libya. The United States is the only actor able to exert pressure on Turkey and the UAE and influence their behaviour but has so far been unable or unwilling to use that influence to stop the escalation in Libya.

External support and access to Libya’s financial resources fuel the crisis in Libya and enable both sides to continue with their violent escalation and access to advanced weaponry. The international community and especially the US should take urgent steps to enforce the arms embargo in Libya and stop the delivery of weapons by sea, air and land. Support for the EU’s Mediterranean naval operation ‘Irini’, which aims to enforce the UN arms embargo, is a good start.

International actors should further consider means of limiting the access of Libya’s conflict parties to financial resources from Libya’s oil revenues and foreign currency reserves to cover salaries, subsidies and the needs of critical sectors, but only with some form of international oversight and audit mechanisms.

Ultimately, international actors invested in Libya must stop falling into the legitimacy trap that has been exploited by Libya’s conflict parties and their external backers. They should also question the almost automatic support for the never fully implemented Skhirat agreement and begin devising new mechanisms able to place equal pressure on both sides, increasing the propensity of actors across Libya to resume a true and legitimate negotiation process.

From our partner RIAC

Independent Libyan affairs analyst and researcher, co-founder of Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting, Foreign Policy Magazine's Libya contributor (2014–2017)

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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