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Helping pave the path to peace in Libya

Former acting UN envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams attends the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. 1 February 2021. (Credit: UN Photo by Violaine Martin)

Last month marked one year since the signing of a historic ceasefire agreement between Libya's rival factions in Geneva on 23 October 2020. Reached after four rounds of UN-facilitated peace talks, the agreement brought relative calm after 16 months of intense fighting and nearly a decade of conflict between Libya's warring sides that has devastated the country.

It also opened the door for broader political and economic talks mediated by the UN support mission to Libya (UNSMIL) led by acting special representative Stephanie Williams, who joined UNSMIL in 2018 as deputy to the then mission head Ghassan Salame. Williams took the lead as acting UN envoy to Libya when Salame resigned for health reasons in March 2020.

Under her leadership, UNSMIL mediated the Libya peace process laid out at the Berlin Conference in January 2020, while the offensive on the capital Tripoli by Khalifa Haftar and his eastern-based Libyan National army was in full swing. The fighting killed hundreds of civilians in and around the city and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

UNSMIL regularly convened the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) both virtually and in person in Switzerland. The LPDF drafted and adopted the roadmap for Libya’s peace process, including electing an interim government to oversee the run-up to elections scheduled for 24 December 2021 .

Although Libya’s fate is far from sealed, with the upcoming elections still facing stiff internal opposition and an agreement yet to be reached about the withdrawal of foreign troops, the country is undoubtedly further along the road to peace than it has been for many years. So how did we get to this point, and can we learn lessons from Libya about peace processes? Geneva Solutions spoke to Stephanie Williams, who has been taking part in Geneva Peace Week this week to discuss how peace processes can be made more inclusive, to find out more.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Geneva Solutions: The situation in Libya has come a long way in the past year. How did we get to this point?

Stephanie Williams: I think it's quite remarkable that we've just marked one year since the ceasefire agreement was signed. Of course, what helped to get us to the agreement was that the guns had fallen silent, which was part of a process that really started back in September 2019 with the preparatory meetings for the Berlin Conference, conducted in the midst of the terrible attack on Tripoli which had shattered the international consensus on Libya, particularly within the Security Council.

The conference provided us with the international umbrella under which to build the three tracks in the Libyan peace process – the military track, the political track and the economic track – and these tracks really helped us focus on the Libyans themselves. That’s what we worked on most intensively starting in the late summer and Autumn of 2020, culminating for me in the second physical meeting of the LPDF in Geneva in February 2021, which resulted in the formation of the unity government.

There must have been many frustrating and darker days during the process. In a Security Council briefing in May 2020, you said you were worried Libya was “slipping away”. What helped you get through those days?

It was really the Libyans themselves, because when they decided to sit down and sign that historic ceasefire agreement I took it as a signal that they had reached a kind of rock bottom after over nine years of continual conflict and division. They had sensed that their country was slipping away and that they were losing their sovereignty with this incredible foreign interference in the country.

It was very clear to me when I convened the military actors in October of 2020 that they were ready to talk, because prior to that point they had never met in the same room. Even when we had to go to virtual negotiations because of Covid-19 they refused to meet on camera. But when we convened them physically in Geneva they immediately came together, and over the course of that week they actually asked to meet alone, which is a great thing to see as the mediator.

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Stephanie Williams with members of the economic track of the Libya Peace Process in Geneva, 15 December 2020. (UN Photo by Violaine Martin)

How was it having to hold negotiations virtually due to the pandemic?

It was a whole new world. But where it really helped us was for the political dialogue. That was always going to be the most controversial gathering because we had participants who were selected directly by the two legislatures in Libya through their own election process and then we had UN-selected participants. And of course, when you have people who are making such important decisions, there will always be controversy surrounding elections.

But I took advantage of these virtual meetups to do a couple of things. Firstly, I established three sub-tracks for the political dialogue: a women sub-track, a youth sub-track, and a municipal councils sub-track. There are over 100 municipalities in Libya and we couldn't invite all the mayors to the political dialogue, but their voices needed to be heard to convey what their constituents were thinking and expecting from this political process.

I also took advantage of the new technology that had been developed to hold five digital dialogue sessions, which attracted a lot of Libyan youth. The last dialogue was held on the eve of the Geneva meeting of the LPDF where the youth gave us questions they would like posed to the candidates who had been nominated to run for the new government and the presidency council.

Were those digital consultations helpful?

They helped confirm what were the fundamental issues that Libyans wanted to see addressed. The economy was high on the list, as was national reconciliation, accountability and transparency, equitable distribution of resources, and for there to be a serious process of security sector reform, including the dismantling of armed groups.

It also made the desire for elections extremely clear. We ran spot polling throughout the digital dialogues and consistently at least 80 per cent of those polled wanted national elections, so when the elections were approved for December 24 this year it was met with overwhelming applause and enthusiasm by the Libyan public.

What lessons has the Libyan peace process taught you about what makes a successful peace process and what doesn’t?

I tried to run a transparent process as much as I could, so I was constantly communicating both with the participants and the Libyan public. I thought that that was very important given that this was a country that had gone through 42 years of authoritarian rule, where the press was completely controlled by the regime, and then the post-revolution chaos of new media, where there is a lot of disinformation and social media is being weaponised both by Libyan actors and foreign sponsors. The best way to cut through all that noise is for the mediator to directly communicate.

Inclusiveness was key as well, and that's why we worked very hard in the political dialogue to bring different groups to the table, particularly women. We had to fight at every step to have women at the table.

You emphasized throughout your time as mediator that the process had to be Libyan-led and Libyan-owned, and this inclusivity is something you discussed during the Geneva Peace Week event on Monday. Is it difficult ensuring that a process facilitated by an external international actor like the UN is locally owned and inclusive?

Yes, the whole point was for the Libyan tracks to be Libyan-led and Libyan-owned. But that doesn't mean that the mediator just sits back. It’s the mediator’s job to be hyper-connected to Libyan actors, to understand that there are always going to be shifting alliances and to be entirely plugged into that and to anticipate that. That’s how you keep the process moving forward so you can ultimately get to national elections which will then usher in a government that is elected by the Libyan people.

I don't think there's a one size fits all approach – every context has its peculiarities. The approach former UN envoy Ghassan Salame and myself took in Libya had three overriding principles. We believed that the UN needed to be firmly in the driver's seat on the mediation of the political process, because the UN was the most neutral actor. We also believed that the UN needed to put the interests of the Libyan people above the interests of all of the foreign actors who were each pursuing their own national interests in Libya. And thirdly, it was to put the interests of the average Libyan above the interests of the Libyan ruling class, which included political, economic and military actors.

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Stephanie Williams briefs the media at the UN in Geneva, February 2021. (Keystone/Martial Trezzini)
You finally stepped back from UNSMIL in February after nearly two years heading the mission. How would you describe the life of a UN mediator?

It's a very humbling experience. There was nothing that I could do without support, and I had a great core team in the UNSMIL mission. Once things got going in September-October of 2020 we didn't have a day off. We just worked continuously, day and night, including Christmas day. You have to ensure that the momentum is maintained because the minute you take a pause the spoilers will enter the scene and try to divert the process and create as much chaos as they can.

We believed that there was a moment that we needed to take advantage of for the good of the Libyan people who do deserve a measure of peace, security, prosperity. For the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons to be able to go home, and for the most vulnerable in Libya – the migrants and refugees who are subjected to abuse at the hands of armed group actors.

A process which leads to the strengthening of institutions which can protect and not prey on these people, and which can ultimately create a much more welcoming environment in the country was always the end goal, and I still think that's entirely possible for Libya.

Are you optimistic that Libya is heading in the right direction now?

You have to be an optimist when you work in the Middle East. I think it’s important that the ceasefire has held and that there is this fundamental desire amongst Libyans to work through the issues they have. Oil is still being produced, whereas during the conflict oil was weaponized which created great hardship. We also had a UN-facilitated international audit of the two central banks which has recently been completed and the recommendations are being implemented – that's very important because it provides transparency and accountability over how the country’s resources are being managed and distributed.

I also think it was very good that Libya was able to host a huge international conference in Tripoli recently involving dozens of international delegations. That was something that was probably inconceivable a year ago and certainly inconceivable two years ago. So there's a lot of progress being made, but no one should lose sight of the fact that what the average Libyan wants is to be able to go to the polls and elect their government.