Libya Middle East North Africa Politics & Diplomacy
MENASource July 15, 2021

Second Berlin Conference on Libya: Where to from here?

By Karim Mezran and Hafed Al-Ghwell

On June 23, 2021, Berlin held its Second Conference on Libya in a follow up to the 2019 summit, also known as the First Berlin Conference. Ministerial-level representatives from seventeen states attended, along with representatives from the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, and the League of Arab States. It resulted in a fifty-five-point statement, which mostly reaffirmed and stressed the importance of the points made in the First Conference. While the first conference of 2019 had its shortcomings, there is no denying that it planted the seeds for the Government of National Unity and a new political roadmap. Last month’s Second Conference was rather underwhelming in terms of political will, monitoring efforts, and devising a relevant roadmap for the future of Libya.

One of the main differences between the two conferences was the level of attendees. The June 2019 conference was attended by heads of states, including Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Angela Merkel, and Emanuel Macron, among others. Last month, however, most attendees were foreign ministers or even deputy foreign ministers. While, on the surface, the attendees still represented their nations’ official policies on Libya, the decision to send lower ranking ministers either reflected the degree of political interest towards Libya or signaled the belief that the “heavy lifting” is complete.

Moreover, the Second Conference saw the attendance and participation of the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU), a clear sign that the international community recognizes it as Libya’s official Government. The fact that no other Libya-based group was invited, including General Haftar, further evidences the world powers’ official recognition of the GNU.

The Second Berlin Conference exposed a series of shortcomings that are made evident by an in-depth analysis of the resulting fifty-five-point statement. It is imperative, especially in the context of Libya, that a political statement be accompanied by political action. Such action ought to be monitored and the various parties must be held accountable. Stakeholders, observers, and analysts were hoping that the second round would produce just that, but it did not. It did, however, reaffirm the international community’s stance on the removal of foreign military support and foreign fighters from Libya. It also affirmed their commitment to holding the Libyan Presidential and Legislative Elections on its previously set date in December 2021. Thus, the second conference, much like the first, focused on two overlapping themes: the security aspect and the political aspect, although the authors of this article find that approach to be rather shallow and oblique.

Looking at the security side of the Second Conference, both sessions lumped together “mercenaries”, “foreign fighters”, and official state military troops. A unanimous agreement on the terminology was instrumental to the position of those states—due to their support for General Haftar—that wanted Turkish forces to be made equivalent to all others. Turkey objected vehemently to the approach of the international community because it considered its forces as having been summoned by the legitimate government of Libya in support of its resistance against Haftar’s aggression. Essentially, Turkey does not recognize that its troops, previously deployed at the request of the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord in 2019, should by any means be equated with mercenaries and foreign fighters.

There must be a recognition that foreign troops should not be lumped together under the umbrella of foreign groups and mercenaries, especially because that would only produce a limited and shortsighted strategy to deal with these troops. There are four different foreign troops in Libya along with Turkey’s official military. First, there is the Chadian Opposition Armed Groups, a group of armed mercenaries who pose a serious threat to Chad and were involved in an armed insurgency that resulted in the murder of the Chadian President only a few weeks ago. Second, the Sudanese Janjaweed mercenaries who were involved in the massacres in Darfur and now have joined Haftar’s forces in his war on Tripoli. Third, there is the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization with whom Russia denies any involvement despite US and international official positions to the contrary. Fourth, there are different Syrian militias, some of which are in support of Haftar while others were brought in by Turkey from their rebel-backed Syrian supporters.

The Berlin Conferences stated that all support to foreign military groups must stop and all groups must leave Libya. But there must be a separate strategy to deal with each one of these groups. Berlin’s First and Second Conferences failed to put in place a nuanced policy to address the violators of the arms embargo, which was established by the United Nations in 2011 against foreign importation of weapons in Libya, and they failed to construct a clear “carrot and stick” approach to deal with such actions. 

Dealing with Turkey is apparently far more straightforward given its forces in Libya are legitimate and do not pose any threat. Yet, failure to determine clarity in the terminology and strategy may add more complexity to the puzzle. Consequently, the lack of such clarity at the international level has translated to the local level. While the general perception is that the vast majority of Libyans agree that all mercenaries should leave Libya, they are divided on the presence of Turkish troops who are seen by most Libyans in the western part of the country as saviors who stopped the fourteen-month bombardment of Tripoli by Haftar’s forces.

Additionally, the Second Conference did not provide any concrete international guarantees, particularly when it comes to responding to violators. To merely issue statements against spoilers is no longer effective for this integral phase. The Second Conference was expected to deliver where the first installment failed. The statements that were made needed to be accompanied by plans of action to delineate how the statements will be monitored and what type of sanctions will be placed on spoilers, including the attendees.

The international community needs to show strong political will and demonstrate that the plans must be upheld. Despite documented violations of the embargo and despite the early warning signs for potential violations, the conference failed to construct a mitigation strategy. To simply produce tens of points and present them to the United Nations Security Council for consideration is insufficient.  

Looking at the political roadmap manifested in the attendees statement, the international community’s commitment to holding the Presidential and Legislative Elections on December 24 of this year was perhaps the only bright outcome among its under-examined approach. There are many present and potential challenges that can turn elections from an end to conflict to the spark for a bloodier civil war. Given the corruption, division, and the presence of meddling, it is highly unlikely that elections would be free, transparent, or sovereign, especially the Presidential Elections.

It is a realistic fear that the upcoming elections could be déjà vu of the 2012 and 2014 national elections, which resulted in the rise of Haftar and are often cited as the start of the Libyan Civil War. Real-life examples from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia prove that elections in unstable failed states do not end wars—they intensify them. The general academic consensus and most practical experiences advise against holding elections. With the looming danger of Haftar, the international community offered no guarantees that the elections would be safeguarded and secure.

Among other flaws, it is unrealistic to expect elections to be successful in Libya amid the absence of a national constitution to determine the form of government, separation of powers, conditions for candidates, etc. By holding these elections, the international community is devising a presidential system for a country that is yet to choose what form of government it wants. Simultaneously, the absence of a constitution raises many questions: what electoral law should these elections be administered under? What is the frequency of these elections? What happens if the results are contested? Which court would rule on that? Imagine the events that followed if the US presidential elections were to happen in Libya. How is Libya expected to resolve that without any of the legal and institutional protections that the US has?

Ultimately, with no unified security force in place, elections are not the solution and are far riskier than they might seem at first. Nevertheless, the authors of this piece strongly believe that there is no other option that could regain the support of the population and achieve a legitimate parliament and or president around whom the international community could support for the stabilization of the country. The new parliament as elected could act as a ‘Constituent Assembly’ and, thus, provide the technical and political means to reach a shared constitution for Libya. It is in this moment that the Libyans will determine what political system they want to have. Determining Libya’s political system prior to the elections is preferred but not imperative. What is essential is giving the Libyans a strong voice on the outcome of their political system.

Karim Mezran is director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council focusing on the processes of change in North Africa.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is also a Senior Advisor at Maxwell Stamp Inc., the international economic consultancy firm, where he specializes in the Middle East and North Africa political economy issues and leads the global strategic communications practice. 

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Image: Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel (r, CDU) welcomes Abdul Hamid Dbaiba, Prime Minister of Libya, for talks outside the Federal Chancellery. The Libyan Prime Minister is in Berlin on the occasion of the Libya Conference, which is intended to initiate further steps for the stabilisation of the North African country.