By Sami Zaptia.
London, 2 July 2020:
Speaking ‘‘On Failures of the International Community to Stop Wars’’ for the Mediator’s Studio programme as part of the Oslo Forum HD Podcasts, former UNSMIL head Ghassan Salame said that Khalifa Hafter had basically ‘‘spat’’ in the face of the UN by launching his military attack on Tripoli on 4 April 2019 – on the eve of the UN-mediated Libyan National conference.
Salame underestimates Libya problem?
Extracting the sections from the podcast specifically on Libya, Salame said he had taken the Libya job because he thought ‘‘something could be done in Libya’’. Showing a degree of naivete about the Libyan conflict, the country’s make up and society, Salame said he did not think that he would stay that long. ‘‘I was thinking of a mission of 12-18 months during which we can do something’’.
Salame decided that ‘‘what was missing was the Libyan voice. So, we needed to have this voice heard. I took a number of decisions – one of which was to move UNSMIL to Tripoli from Tunis where it had been for four years. I felt its political credibility had been strongly weakened by being away from the conflict itself. But I did not know how bureaucratic the UN had become. It took 15 months’’
He said that Libyans appreciated the fact that he was coming to see them and listening to them. He said that when history is written it will say UNSMIL ‘‘solved a large number of local problems because we were able to go local.’’
A down up consultation – attaining legitimacy – bypassing political elite
Salame said he had decided that ‘‘Libyans had to have their voice heard and somehow formulate it’’. He revealed he had used the Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue to consult the Libyan people where 77 meetings took place all over the country.
After the meetings were held and their conclusions reached, Salame said UNSMIL then ‘‘encapsulated all this in a number of resolutions. We wanted to go from this large consultation into a specific consultation with 160 representatives of the whole country meeting in one place (in the western Libyan desert city of Ghadames) for many days to produce a roadmap’’
Salame revealed that he also got the Secretary General to agree to attend this conference as a show of support to the Libyan people.
Hafter attacks Tripoli on 4 April 2019
‘‘But Hafter decided to start his big attack on Tripoli and rendered this conference impossible’’, Salame said.
Having launched the attack, the UN was faced with the dilemma of how to deal with Hafter. ‘‘There was then the decision; do you still go and meet with Hafter after his attack? He basically spat in your face, so why meet him? But the Secretary General and I thought it depends on what we told him when we met him’’, Salame explained.
Salame then revealed what has been taken for granted by Libya observers for years. ‘‘During the conversations (with Hafter) you could see clearly that he was confident that a number of big powers were supporting his attack.
And he mentioned some of them by name and he even quoted from conversations he had with their leaders’’. Salame would not reveal the countries by name, commonly accepted in Libya as being Russia, France, UAE and Egypt. He also did not name the leaders Hafter had quoted him.
Asked for his reaction to this, Salame said ‘‘That’s where you felt as the UN that the hypocrisy of countries at this stage has reached a stage that makes your work very, very problematic. I felt that I was becoming irrelevant’’.
‘‘The irony of the situation: you are at the same time being stabbed in the back by most of the Security Council members because the day he attacked Tripoli Hafter had most of the them (Security Council) supporting him ‘’. Meanwhile, he added he was being criticised for not stopping Hafter. He said the general public were unable to differentiate between the UNSMIL mission and the Security Council.
Salame said that UNSMIL was ‘‘in a very problematic situation where basically Hafter’s attack stopped the peace process which UNSMIL had been working on for a year. All UNSMIL’s work had been leading to this (Ghadames) conference.’’
Hypocrisy of the international community
‘‘At the Security Council I was commended for doing a wonderful job etc. I can tell you now: important countries not only were they supporting Hafter’s attack on Tripoli but were plotting exactly against the holding of the National Conference (in Ghadames). They did not want it to happen.’’
Asked for his reaction to this, Salame said he was ‘‘very angry because it means that the state of multilateralism and international cooperation has gone down big time. It is now an international system that is not only deregulated when it comes to the use of force – which is horrible in itself – but also deregulated when it comes to direct military interference in the local conflicts of the world – as Libya witnessed in the past 4-5 years’’.
Also, Salame said he was angry because ‘‘leaders of important countries do not feel any scruples or personal limitation to state what they know exactly as fake news or as something that is different from their real behaviour’’.
This he said ‘‘is something that makes the lives of (UN) representatives on the ground horrible because you still need to defend the (UN) institutions’’.
Libya had become an international not local problem
‘‘By the beginning of the summer of 2019, I came to the conclusion that any attempt to operate locally something that was to a large extent foreign backed was becoming irrelevant. So, I came to a new strategy which I exposed to the UN Security Council – who they applauded it before destroying it – that I need to build some kind of an international understanding on Libya’’. This, with the eager support of Chancellor Merkel led to the Berlin Conference on Libya.
Highlighting the international hypocrisy on Libya, Salame lamented that ‘‘Berlin took place on 19 January. On 20 January I had on my desk two photos of one aeroplane and one ship from different countries bringing new weapons to both (the conflicting Libyan) sides’’.
‘‘One week later it was even worse. The Syrian mercenaries started pouring in. first, in the west and then in the east. I told the Security Council many of you are lying to me. They committed to (the) Berlin (outcomes) , but I knew what they were doing: sending ships, planes, interfering, sending mercenaries.’’
Despite all this Salame still had hope and had not given up. ‘‘But I thought by launching the UN-brokered ‘‘Three Track’’ negotiations process amongst Libyans I would shame these countries out of pursuing their activities’’.
Ultimately, the Libya job came at a personal cost to him as it affected Salame’s health. He admitted that after Berlin, he suffered heart and burnout problems. ‘‘It is not a job like any other job’’, he commented.
He also questioned whether more could be done for Libya, outside the UN. He questioned the role of the UN asking if the UN was, sadly for him, still the right vehicle for peace.