As the war in Libya “shows no signs of abating,” the Security Council held a meeting at UN Headquarters in NYC this past Monday. Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Ghassan Salamé, briefed the council on the worsening conditions in Libya via video teleconference from Tripoli.
UN Envoy Salamé informed the council that since the onset of the war in Libya, the fighting has left 1,100 dead, including 106 civilians. Salamé explained that, “Forces on both sides have failed to uphold their obligations under international law,” reminding the council of the recent airstrike on the Tajoura Detention Center on July 2nd. The attack left 53 dead and 87 injured, including children. Of the 5,000 migrants and refugees being held in detention centers in Libya, the UNSMIL chief reported that 3,800 are exposed to the fighting. He stressed that the migrants and refugees being detained in Libya needed to be sheltered at the very least, but ultimately released and given their freedom.
The war has left many no choice but to flee the country. As a result, Tunisia is facing a large influx of migrants and refugees from Libya. However, others have taken to the Mediterranean Sea to seek safety in Europe. This treacherous option has just recently left 150 migrants and refugees dead on July 25, as the UN Envoy reminded the Council. Therefore, he appealed to the Council, reminding them that it was within the power of the international community to “prevent another tragedy.” He also reiterated the message of the Secretary-General urging “European countries … [to] revisit policies and move migrants and refugees to safety.”
According to the UNSMIL Chief, what began as a war around the Libyan capital has now, for the first time, spread outside the region. The report informs us that on July 26, the Government of National Accord (GNA) – the internationally recognized government of Libya – launched an attack on the main rear base in the Jufra region of the Libyan National Army (LNA) – the eastern-based militia led by General Khalifa Haftar. The LNA retaliated on July 27 with airstrikes on a GNA airbase in Misrata. Salamé warned that although the bombardments on Mitiga airport have not hit any aircrafts with civilian passengers yet, luck was running out.
Not only has the geographical scope of the war changed, but also the parties involved. What began as a war between the GNA and LNA, may now become a proxy war as foreign weapons continue to make their way into the country although there is an arms embargo in place under Security Council Resolution 2473. The UN Envoy stated that he had “no doubt that external support has been instrumental” in the air strikes. Additionally, he reported that imported “weaponry is being accompanied by foreign personnel working as pilots,” for example. The UNSMIL chief also cautioned the Security Council that Libya could become “a safe haven” for terrorist organizations. He warned that the foreign weapons are falling into their hands. He stated that the parties needed to “dissociate themselves from the extremist groups.” The UN envoy declared that there are also those in social media and news publications inciting both sides, and he warned that they needed to stop.
UN envoy Salamé also revealed that there have been numerous abductions of government officials since the onset of the fighting in Libya. He stated that “On 17 July, elected House of Representatives member Siham Sergewa was violently abducted from her home in Benghazi by an unknown group.” In addition, the “Deputy Director of Food and Drugs Administration [was] kidnapped by armed groups to settle scores and extort ransoms.”
As a result, Salamé proposed a three-point plan to stop the fighting, as outlined below. The first point is for a truce on, or about, August 10. The second is a high-level meeting amongst concerned countries to implement a strict arms embargo to end all hostilities. The third point of the plan is a meeting between the leading figures of Libya to agree on a “way forward.”
The UN envoy urged the Security Council that there needed to be a consensus from them in order to move forward. He stated that economic reform needed to be factored into the peace talks so that there is an “equitable method to distribute the country’s vast wealth,” in the midst of “rampant corruption” and the “weaponization of oil.” Salamé stressed that the economic reform needed to be “coupled with comprehensive reform of the security sector that would allow Libyan authorities to fight terrorism and secure the country’s borders.” Lastly, he pointed out that the country needed a “unified army,” an “undisputed monopoly of the force of arms…under the control of the state.”
Following the Security Council meeting, the Peruvian ambassador and current President of the Security Council for the month of July – Gustavo Meza-Cuadra – released a statement during a media stakeout. He reiterated that there was a proposed plan by UN Envoy Salamé, which needed the consensus and support of the Security Council to move forward. However, after the continuous reference of those fleeing from Libya as migrants, we asked the ambassador, in his national capacity, why they weren’t being labelled as refugees, as Libya has clearly been deemed unsafe. He replied that, “when you are escaping, this is an issue of international law, you need to be protected, that’s clear.” However, he underlined that this issue of labelling them as migrants or refugees still hasn’t been addressed by the Security Council. (We were able to access a video of the stakeout; however, as of the writing of this article, the UN still hadn’t released it online to the public.)
This line of questioning was a follow-up to the ones we asked the Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General at the UN daily press briefing. After Senior UN officials called for European countries to restore their own sea rescues, we insisted as to why those escaping from Libya still weren’t considered refugees. The Deputy-Spokesperson Farhan Haq replied in very vague terms, that although the UN valued all the lives of migrants and refugees and believed that they needed to be protected, there was still a procedure on how someone can process a claim for a status as a migrant or refugee.
It is unclear if a truce is possible in Libya, but one thing is for sure, if those escaping the perils of Libya’s war aren’t labelled as refugees by the United Nations, they will continue to risk their lives in the pursuit of safety only to risk being turned away too easily.