In Libya's war, where is the UK?

In Libya's war, where is the UK?
Comment: For all its talk about human rights, the UK has been decidedly absent in supporting a stable solution for Libya that would favour the people's interest, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
5 min read
17 Jul, 2020
The UK claims to back international peace initiatives for Libya [Getty]
As Libya's conflict risks turning into a new chapter of proxy war, much focus is on what key external actors involved in the war should or should not do, from Russia and Egypt, to France and Turkey. 

Yet one country that has been relatively absent from this talk is the United Kingdom, despite its past involvement in the country and its recent stated concerns for global human rights.

The UK claims to back international peace initiatives for Libya. It was one of the countries to support the internationally recognised Government of National Accord's (GNA) establishment in 2015 and has reiterated support for it throughout renegade general Khalifa Haftar's now failing offensive on the capital Tripoli since April 2019.

Last April, UK Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa, James Cleverly said during a phone call with Libya's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Taha Siala that Britain "stands by the legitimate government's side and supports the ceasefire implementation efforts."

The GNA shows receptivity towards strong ties with London, seeking Britain's support to stabilise its control and help rebuild the country after Haftar's war.

"We need support from our UK allies during Libya's time of crisis today, so that we can rebuild, combat terror, and ensure Libya has a free, stable and peaceful future. We aim to strengthen the Libya-UK bilateral relationship with a focus on security and trade," Fathi Bashagha, Libya's Interior Minister said during a speech to the UK parliament in March.

The UK has not aimed to curtail the involvement of external actors that have supported Haftar's onslaught, many of whom are close allies

Moreover, the UK declared its support for the Berlin Conference in January, designed to implement a ceasefire and reinforce the UN arms embargo on the country.

Despite such performative statements, the UK has largely held back and has not followed through on its supposed concerns for Libyan stability. Nor has it aimed to curtail the involvement of external actors that have supported Haftar's onslaught, many of whom are close allies, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.

There are a number of reasons for this. One of them is the deep apathy the current British government exhibits towards Libya. Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed his flippant disregard for the country's humanitarian catastrophe in 2017, commenting that Sirte, a battleground since 2011, has the potential to turn "into the next Dubai," before adding, with callous laughter, that "the only thing they have to do is clear the dead bodies away."

Johnson attracted much criticism for his words, but they show the UK government's crass attitudes towards the crisis in Libya.

The UK was one of the leading countries to join the 2011 NATO-backed intervention against Muammar Gaddafi's crackdown on Libyan revolutionaries. While it received criticism for destabilising Libya, one of the obvious key mistakes was effectively abandoning the country and the post-revolution leaders after toppling Gaddafi's regime. The UK effectively helped facilitate the environment for civil war in the country.

Read more: Egyptian parliament to hold emergency session on military intervention in Libya: report

"The consequence was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal [warfare], humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations and the growth of ISIL in North Africa," said a 2016 Foreign Office committee report.

The UK's policy, slated to protect civilians from Gaddafi's crackdown, had instead "drifted towards regime change and was not underpinned by strategy to support and shape post-Gaddafi Libya."

Now, in the face of a more recent threat from Haftar's so-called Libyan National Army's (LNA) onslaught, the UK has again failed to provide the necessary support to help stabilise Libya.

On July 6, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced a sanctions regime against perpetrators of human rights violations. Raab seemingly fashioned a new "global Britain" that "won't look the other way" when it comes to human rights. 

As Haftar's forces have committed grievous human rights violations in the war, including executions, torture, and firing at schools and hospitals, some have suggested that the UK should sanction Haftar. 

The UAE and Egypt are also still provoking Haftar's war, despite his repeated setbacks, and are still keen to use him as a bulwark against Turkey and salvage some influence in eastern Libya. At the very least, it would make perfect sense for the UK to impose pressure on these countries, given that the UK Foreign Office's own research acknowledges that Abu Dhabi has gone further than any other actor to empower Haftar's forces.

Yet as it stands, the UK will take no such measures. Leaving the European Union (EU) has left London scrambling to salvage trade ties with its traditional non-EU allies, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, despite their own human rights violations. Taking a proactive stance against Haftar would also risk upsetting these increasingly crucial ties with such states.

The UK should instead work with the international community to support a stable solution for Libya that would favour the people's interest

In May, British mercenaries were also offered $150,000 each to fly helicopters for Haftar's forces, but the government has not shown any signs of challenging such occurrences.

As the UK is increasingly engulfed in an isolationist, populist bubble with Brexit looming, it is evidently drifting further in the opposite direction of Raab's envisioned "global Britain" which champions human rights.

Though France quite rightly faces criticism for proactively supporting Haftar's war in Libya while claiming to support the GNA, London's stance - in its own way - echoes the same duplicitous tones as that of Paris.

Now that Turkey's support for the GNA has effectively pushed back Haftar's offensive and opened new doors for peace talks, the UK should instead work with the international community to support a stable solution for Libya that would favour the people's interests.

Supporting genuine international action could encourage more of a precedent to act for peace in Libya and help repair the current fractures within Europe's foreign policy towards the country.

Failure to correct the UK's uncaring stance would lay waste to the idea that it can be a force for good in the world.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.