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Signs of Stagnation: Special Representative to the Secretary General Abdoulaye Bathily’s Resignation

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Special Representative to the Secretary General (SRSG) Abdoulaye Bathily resigned from his position as the head of the United National Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) in April 2024. He served as head of the Mission for 18 months, attempting to facilitate political reconciliation and disarmament in Libya without achieving any breakthroughs. His resignation is emblematic of the stagnation Libya finds itself mired in, dating back a decade to the start of the civil war in 2014. Libya is currently divided between rival governments in the east and west. National leaders are overwhelmingly concerned with furthering their own interests, and numerous foreign actors are competing for access to Libya’s territory and resources. The international community may need to rethink its approach to Libya in the face of numerous failures with its current approach.

Bathily’s resignation is the culmination of endless frustrations and roadblocks since he assumed the position in September 2022. In his April 16 address to the UN Security Council, Bathily detailed the deterioration of Libya’s political, security, and economic conditions. He described his efforts as “met with stubborn resistance, unreasonable expectation, and indifference to the interests of the Libyan people.” Bathily told reporters that he did his best in the role. The lack of progress and apparent defiance of Libyan leaders in the face of Bathily’s warnings of further disintegration, as well as efforts to facilitate elections, proved to be too much. 

Despite Bathily’s efforts, Libya’s electoral process remains stalled. Elections have been indefinitely postponed since 2021. Bathily earlier stated elections could and should occur in 2023, but they have not. The Libyan 6+6 electoral committee finalized electoral laws in October 2023 after months of deliberation, but national leaders have not accepted them. Each leader continues to set preconditions on the electoral process to attempt to mould it to each sides’ narrower interests. Bathily has been unable to build a consensus among leaders, and his efforts have been undermined by meetings held among select leaders without UNSMIL’s inclusion.

Efforts to curb the power of Libya’s militias remain similarly stalled. Bathily has been working with the 5+5 Joint Military Council to facilitate disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR). The group has produced little more than empty rhetoric that sounds good but does not lead to change. Promises of criminalizing violence and the withdrawal of militias from Tripoli have not materialized. Militias remain powerful actors across Libya with disproportionate influence. Tensions between militias remain high and clashes occur intermittently, creating an insecure and unstable environment.

A renewed geopolitical competition over Libya augments its stagnation. International consensus towards Libya has dissolved as actors including Russia, Italy, Turkey, and the US operate independently in the country with their own agendas. Bathily called Libya a “playground for fierce rivalry” among foreign actors as they compete in a “renewed scramble for Libya” over political and economic interests. Many of these actors are interested in Libya’s oil and gas resources and/or its location as a gateway to the African continent. The competition and lack of international consensus undermines UNSMIL’s efforts. It is hard for UNSMIL to promote negotiations and consensus-building while foreign actors constantly seek to influence processes in line with their own interests. The rivalries may even be incentivizing stagnation because a weak Libya makes it easier for actors to pursue their own agendas. 

Bathily’s resignation, on top of Libya’s decade of stagnation, may be an indicator that it is time for the international community to reevaluate its priorities and approach towards Libya. There are numerous paths forward for the international community to consider. The UN could continue the same approach, but it is unlikely to produce different results any time soon. Negotiations without coercive powers behind them have proved unsuccessful thus far. Alternatively, the UN could modify its approach of empowering Libyan leaders and instead put more power behind UN-facilitated negotiations. This would likely require establishing a consensus among member states for such a UN approach in Libya to limit mixed signals. The UN could also consider a more hands-on approach of directly organizing and implementing elections, DDR, and SSR. Such an approach, however, would likely be met with contention from Libyans and contingents of the international community who would see it as too interventionist. Conversely, the UN could opt for a more hands-off approach, stepping back and allowing Libyan leaders to proceed as they see fit. This approach carries the risk of increased instability, complete political collapse, or a renewal of violence. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses for the international community to consider as it determines how to move forward. 

About the Author

Addison Emig Headshot

Addison Emig

Former Staff Assistant Intern
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more