Discerning the Reality from Narrative in Libya: Finding the Way Forward

Discussion paper of the Brussels International Center’s Latest Developments in Libya’s Conflict: Finding a Way Forward webinar event on 28 May 2020


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On 28 May 2020, the Brussels International Center organized an online webinar titled Latest Developments in Libya’s Conflict: Finding a Way Forward that brought policymakers, practitioners and analysts together to discuss the most recent changes in Libya in 2020. There were three main discussion points explored during the event:


1.       Security issues: such as the continuing influence of militias;

2.       Economic issues: such as the impact of oil blockades, smuggling, structural issues and the need for financial accountability mechanisms;

3.       Health issues such as the threat and impact of COVID-19.


However, these topics all repeatedly returned to the central issue of Libya, the political one.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fundamental political fissure between the Libyan east and west administrations has impeded solutions for outstanding issues. While the legitimacy of the institutions Libya has remains compromised, so the security sector will be compromised. While rival administrations have access to different parts of Libya’s natural wealth, so too will the oil industry struggle to fully recover. And while the war continues, there can be little hope to build resilience and capacity in Libya’s health sector to address the coronavirus pandemic.


But these relationships are not one-sided. Especially in the case of security and economics. For the recourse to decentralized militias fundamentally compromises the question of legitimacy of Libya’s political actors and undermines attempts for a political settlement. And the opportunity of the international community to exploit Libya’s instability for economic gain also questions the genuineness of those same actors in aiding a political settlement.


This has led to the main question for the session: What can be done? Unfortunately, in the Libyan context, there are many examples of what has already failed. We may look back on the years 2018-2020 as examples of the failed international consensus on Libya. Conferences in Paris, Palermo, Moscow, and Berlin have all come and gone, with little concrete action. The most proactive actions were taken in the most recent of these, Berlin, insofar as there were some “outcomes” regarding international commitments to respect the UN’s arms embargo. But evidence has shown this to have been flouted already. 


What of Europe? The EU did indeed make a commitment to enact the outcomes of the Berlin Conference, and after much political wrangling Operation IRINI was decided upon; a military operation to observe any breaks in the arms embargo via the Mediterranean Sea, as well as monitoring and preventing illicit oil sales from all sides. But on the Libya issue, as with many other controversial issues, Europe is divided. Not only with who they politically support, but on what the role of Europe should be in the Libya resolution. The scope of IRINI was initially downgraded due to fears of encouraging migration, and even after it was approved, Malta has since withdrawn its support leaving the status of the mission in temporary limbo. And yet it was only November 2017 when the world was outraged by “slave auctions” in Tripoli and horrified by the sheer brutality of dead migrants at sea. There is a clear logical dissonance for policymakers unwilling to tackle the political complexity of conflict, whilst knowing that such conflict creates a horrific reality for civilians and migrants alike. 


Instead, we must look for real solutions to the problems at hand. Determine the reality from the narrative and address the hard questions with proactive answers. If economic mismanagement is indeed undermining any political settlement, explore genuine financial accountability mechanisms that acknowledge the diverging financial streams in Libya. If COVID-19 presents a genuine catastrophe to the Libyan people, increase bilateral and multilateral financial and technical support to those programs that are working to strengthen the Libyan health sector and respond to the consequences of the pandemic through the UN and its humanitarian partners. If the presence of international spoilers, such as Turkey’s intervention in January and Russia’s deployment of mercenaries, has caused an increase in fighting, put pressure on those powers to disengage. And if the existing framework of international resolution, namely the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, is fundamentally flawed and unfit for purpose, work inclusively with all relevant domestic actors to find a new agreement that functions for all.


Make no mistake, the Libyan conflict is unlikely to be resolved any time soon given the issues that blight it are historically entrenched. However, this should not be an excuse for the world to give up. It is too easy to forget those horrific humanitarian consequences, those situations that most people in Libya are trapped in with no way out. And as such, maybe it is better to reframe the question of engagement not to “what political scenario do we, the international community, want?”, but instead to “how can we help the Libyan people to achieve a scenario they want?”