Recognise, reconcile, or revoke: the UN’s tough choice
The agreement reached on Saturday December 5th in a Libyan-Libyan dialogue in Tunis is proving to be another stumbling block for the faltering UN-brokered Libyan political agreement. Hatched in opposition to the stalled UN negotiations, the new agreement directly challenges the talks sanctioned by the international community. Martin Kobler, the new UN envoy, has few options, and none are easy: A) find a way to force the competing houses [HoR and GNC] to recognise the government of national accord (GNA) that he and his colleagues have been labouring over for more than a year, B) reconcile international and local processes, or C) be left with no choice but to revoke recognition of both the General National Congress (GNC) and House of Representatives (HoR) if no agreement is reached.
Out of the three options, the UN would clearly prefer that the rival governments accept the political agreement as is. The UN is not good from walking away from sunk costs or to changing its approach. A brief glimmer of hope for this option appeared with the ‘Fazzan Initiative,’ a group of 92 HoR members who supported the GNA, subject to certain conditions. However, the international community took the group’s support as an endorsement of the current deal, ignoring its caveats, and thereby prompted defections. Despite his mishandling of HoR expectations and overtures at cooperation, the UN envoy has reportedly requested to attend today’s session of the HoR, which is seen as a move to pressure representatives to vote for the political agreement, but could also be construed as a sign of lingering pro-HoR bias. Unsurprisingly, the move is an unwelcome development and is only breeding resentment among the representatives who have not yet openly abandoned the UN process.
However, hardliners opposing the GNA took matters into their own hands, creating the Libyan-Libyan dialogue that culminated in an agreement on 5 December. The locally based initiative calls for a temporary return to the 1963 constitution (obviating the stalled work of the Constitutional Drafting Assembly), formation of a unity government in two weeks, and early elections for a new transitional process. It has the backing of the presidents of both the HoR and GNC and will be proposed to both houses for endorsement next week. What it lacks, however, is international recognition and the swaths of both houses that still support the UN deal. Only pursuit of option B would rectify this and build on this progress rather than trying to bulldoze it as option A would.
Rather than working with both factions’ flirtation with cooperation, Kobler issued a statement on 6 December asserting the UN process’s legitimacy, and not so subtly reminding international community of its commitment to the formal international negotiations. In short, like Leon he is an option A and don’t even think about Plan B kind of character. By taking a hardnosed stance, the UN could be seen to be moving towards recognising its own Libyan government, regardless of how disconnected it might be with political realities – a move that could embolden locally legitimate hardliners and even alienate potential supporters of the deal. By pursuing a recognition-only track based on Leon’s legacy, Kobler risks squandering the little traction that remains between the UN and key Libyan political factions and their support for the UN process, in addition to showing the high-handedness of the UN and hence inadvertently legitimising the weaker aspects of the Libyan-Libyan process.
Reconciling the two processes via an option B strategy seems to be a daunting yet perhaps necessary task for the UN envoy. Although it would mean a dramatic shift and perhaps willingness to abandon whatever progress has heretofore been reached via months of arduous negotiations, working with the organic political developments could have the dual upsides of not only making progress towards stability in Libya, but also starting to erase the blemishes that Leon’s departure left. Despite the difficulty that reconciling the two processes poses, it still seems easier than the option C of revoking both GNC and HoR of recognition, which I have counselled for over a year in many articles in the NYT and elsewhere. Using this tactic to strong-arm both bodies into recognition seems plausible especially if options A and B fail.
In short, the UN envoy faces a difficult choice, but a moderate, pride-swallowing compromise (option B) seems to be the least bad – if still challenging – of its options. But the nuclear option (C) of forcing the Libyans to do something has many things going for it as well.