UN former envoy 'very optimistic' for peace in Libya

UN former envoy 'very optimistic' for peace in Libya
The UN's former envoy to Libya expressed high hopes of seeing an end to violence in the war-torn country.
4 min read
13 November, 2020
Ghassan Salame holds a press briefing during UN-brokered talks in February 2020 in Geneva [Getty]

The UN's former envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, says he has higher hopes than ever of seeing an end to a decade of violence in the North African country.

"I'm very optimistic," the Lebanese diplomat said. "What we've seen in the past two months is an accumulation of positive factors."

Salame spoke in an interview with AFP a day after rival military delegations concluded their latest UN-led meetings inside Libya to fill in the details of a landmark October ceasefire deal.

Meanwhile political talks, also led by the world body, were underway in Tunisia aimed at appointing an interim government to organise elections and govern a country battered by conflict, economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday evening the UN announced that delegates in Tunisia had agreed that national polls should be held on December 24 next year.

Libya, which sits atop Africa's largest proven crude oil reserves, plunged into violence after a 2011 NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Today it is dominated by two competing administrations and an array of militias, including many foreign fighters, as well as being an arena for global rivalries.

Salame resigned in March citing health reasons and stress, but was the architect of the UN's current Libya peace efforts and has stayed closely involved.

Speaking from his home in Paris, he warned that "a war that has been raging for one decade cannot be solved in a day".

But after months of relative calm and a string of positive steps, the 69-year-old said Libyans had shown "a truly renewed interest" in dialogue.

'Stabbed in the back'

Salame, a former Lebanese culture minister and professor of international relations, was appointed UN envoy in June 2017 and struggled to mediate between a Tripoli-based unity government and eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar. 

In April 2019, Haftar launched a surprise attack on Tripoli, just days ahead of an earlier planned round of peace talks.

Salame later said he had been "stabbed in the back" by UN Security Council members who had supported Haftar.

In June, the unity government's forces staged a Turkish-backed counterattack against Khalifa's Russian-backed forces.

The October ceasefire deal helped set the stage for a renewed push for peace.

Today, the UN's political talks are finally taking place in Tunisia, economically vital oil production has resumed, and the front lines are quiet.

The latest moves build on a Berlin peace conference Salame's mission painstakingly organised in January, gathering the leaders of the main foreign powers in Libya for the first time.

Salame said Libya was now close to being able to run elections safe enough to be "reasonably representative of the will of the people".

"I believe this can be done in the next six or seven months."

Libyans 'deciding for themselves'

Analysts have warned that both local players and foreign powers could seek to sabotage any settlement that does not serve their interests.

That point was underlined this week by the murder in the eastern city of Benghazi of a prominent lawyer and rights activist by unidentified gunmen.

Tensions also surrounded military talks in Sirte as the unity government accused a Russian paramilitary group of refusing to let its delegation land at an airbase near the central city, a move it said threatened "the prospects of a permanent ceasefire".

But Salame noted that Russia and Turkey, each of which had signed infrastructure contracts worth billions of dollars with Libya before Gaddafi's fall, could benefit from peace.

"The Libyans are ready to respect these contracts" as they rebuild their country, he said.

"In fact they are in a hurry."

'Deciding for themselves'

Salame warned against some politicians he described as "obstructionists" who were elected in 2012 and 2014 "and do not want to leave their seats".

But he noted that Libyans were increasingly taking the negotiation process into their own hands.

"I can tell you the Libyans are deciding for themselves like never before since 2011," he said.

And while he said UN consultations have shown that the overwhelming majority of Libyans want national polls, there were other ways to measure progress - the opening of roads, regular oil production and the return of displaced people to their homes.

"It will take time. You'll have the status-quo party who will try to disrupt it. You'll have probably foreign countries unhappy with it," he said. 

But he said the principles agreed at the January conference in Germany were finally bearing fruit.

"I'm extremely happy," he said. "The architecture put in place in Berlin is finally being implemented."

Agencies contributed to this report.

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