In addition to working on the seemingly unsolvable political process, the current relative calm presents an opportunity for the United States and like-minded allies to build on the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts started last year to begin addressing Libya’s hybrid armed group conundrum.
The cease-fire deal reached through U.N. mediation in October 2020 provided a chance to address Libya’s problem with mixed armed groups.
For those entering the armed forces, police, and security sectors, a concentration on human rights education should serve as a guide and supplement to the DDR/SSR exercise.
It is essential to consider how armed group actors are included in the democratic process.
The Joint Military Commission, one of the three interconnected Libyan tracks of the Berlin Process, was chosen by the U.N. as the mechanism by which armed actors would be officially represented.
It is simple, in fact, simplistic, to forecast the worst for Libya as we look ahead to 2023. People’s rights are often broken, there are a lot of weapons, foreign interference is still harmful, and I could go on. The October 2020 cease-fire agreement is still in effect, though it hasn’t been fully implemented, and while it’s not impossible, it doesn’t seem probable that we will see the type of large-scale fighting we saw in 2019–20. The relative calm gives the US and its allies a chance to build on the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts started last year to begin solving the problem of Libya’s hybrid armed groups. This is in addition to working on the political process, which seems unsolvable.
Several things that make Libya different from other war-torn countries should be taken into account in this challenge: 1) Libya is a rentier state where most people, no matter which side they are on, get a salary from the government; 2) the mixed armed groups are vertically integrated businesses that have entirely ingratiated themselves into official bodies; 3) sustainable DDR and sector security reform (SSR) require justice, accountability, and a decentralized approach; 4) direct integration of armed actors into the political process should be avoided; and 5). Above all, DDR and SSR activities must consider what the people of Libya want: for civilians to have control over the military.
Libya’s Hybridity Spectrum
Libyans rose against Moammar Gadhafi almost 12 years ago. For 42 years, Gadhafi brutally ruled their country. Even though the US learned a lot from the failed attempt to change the government in Iraq in 2003, the Libyan people and the international coalition that brought Gadhafi to his knees suffered a lot because these lessons were not used in Libya after the revolution. Since Gadhafi was overthrown, the biggest problem may have been that Libyan governments couldn’t use their right to use force.
In his book “All Necessary Measures?,” First U.N. Special Representative Ian Martin gives a detailed account of the critical decisions that Libyans and international actors made during the crucial time after Gadhafi was overthrown. Martin comments on the “failure to grasp the armed groups and tackle the broader security sector” in response to the question of what to do with the abundance of armed groups that had formed. The states that had provided the rebel battalions with support, weapons, and leadership bore the most significant responsibility in this situation because they needed to put together a strong, coordinated “diplomatic quorum.” Still, they did not attempt to do so, and the U.N. was ill-equipped.
By the time I got there as the deputy UN special representative (political) in the summer of 2018, the number of hybrid armed group actors in western Libya had grown by many orders of magnitude from the 30,000 there when Gadhafi was overthrown. Even though there were fewer armed groups in Tripoli, the ones that were there had strengthened their power through a system connecting the highest government levels to young men with guns on the street. Mixed-armed groups across the country took their revenge on the state by getting the power to arrest, detain, spy on, and gather intelligence while running mafia-style businesses like smuggling people, gasoline, drugs, and guns.
General Khalifa Haftar, a stronger military figure in the east, was working on his plans after defeating most of the extremist militias in the east in 2018 and adding many armed groups to his troops, including many of the remnants of Gadhafi’s old army. Haftar, a caudillo from Libya, had planned for a long time to rule his home country using the “army with a state” model, which is used by several Arab autocracies. In an unsuccessful attempt to seize Tripoli in April 2019, Haftar gave it his all. But Haftar was defeated when the Turks took a firm stand on the side of the Tripoli government, which the UN recognizes.
Stabilization and more effective state-building are on the horizon
There are many ways to deal with Libya’s complicated and interconnected DDR and SSR issues. Still, such efforts must put the Libyan people’s wish for civilian military control first. The cease-fire deal reached through U.N. mediation in October 2020 provided a chance to address Libya’s problem with hybrid armed groups. The groundwork has already been done with official Libyan players like the Joint Military Commission and Tripoli’s civilian authority, especially at a meeting held by the Spanish government in May 2022 to improve pre-DDR activities. The United Nations, the United States, and like-minded friends should continue their efforts while taking the following into account:
- Libya is a rentier nation with a poor, if not entirely nonexistent, private sector and an overburdened “state” with weak institutions (the prime minister’s office alone had over 900 personnel in 2020, for example). In Libya, more than 80% of working-age people receive a wage from the government. Any DDR attempt should therefore consider the possibility that members of armed groups will be incorporated into already-existing “state” structures, or in other words, into the very institutions that many but not all of them have looted over the past ten years.
- The DDR/SSR process should be decentralised from the centre to local communities as much as possible. Since the national political process is paralysed, a push for true decentralisation should be made to give armed group actors a chance to integrate more naturally into the regions and communities from which they originate and which they claim to (and, in some cases, actually do) provide protection. Local groups should be consulted on security plans, including the urgent removal of heavy and medium-sized weapons from urban areas, including municipal councils, civil society organisations, elders’ councils, and women’s groups. Local communities will better understand how to reintegrate armed group actors into their environment than centralised authorities, giving up guns for more peaceful occupations.
- Before moving further with the idea put forth by some actors, mostly in western Libya, to establish a separate “national guard” to absorb armed group members, caution should be maintained. Instead of a national guard, Libya would benefit from well-trained border guards and a force to defend critical infrastructure that is less predatory. A national guard could develop into a rival to the national armed forces if it had its own money and weaponry. This can lead to more significant conflict rather than less.
- Justice is necessary for lasting peace. For those entering the armed forces, police, and security sectors, a concentration on human rights education should serve as a guide and supplement to the DDR/SSR exercise. Instead of allowing entire groups to be absorbed into these areas, there should be individual verification. Anyone accused of violating human rights should be excluded, and a separate accountability procedure should be included as part of a comprehensive national reconciliation plan. Over the past ten years, armed actors have carried out horrific abuses all over the nation, including the mass graves in Tarhouna, targeted killings of Libyan women activists and politicians, their forced disappearances, daily preying on their fellow citizens, and the abhorrent treatment of African and Asian migrants, all without any accountability for the perpetrators. All individuals who violate human rights and rob the state should be subject to sanctions comparable to those imposed on Magnitsky.
- It is essential to consider how armed group actors are included in the democratic process. Caveat emptor. The Joint Military Commission, one of the three interconnected Libyan tracks of the Berlin Process, was chosen by the U.N. as the mechanism by which armed actors would be officially represented. The then-U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli named five officers to describe the key cities in western Libya: Tripoli, Misrata, Zawiya, and Zintan, and an officer of the town of Gharyan. General Haftar chose five officers from his forces. Armed parties were allowed to send out civilian delegates in the political track per Libya’s demand for civilian oversight of the military. However, with the aid of international actors who have held “secret” talks between the western Libyan armed groups and Haftar’s military and civilian spokespeople, armed groups have since forced their way more directly into the political process. When I met the representatives of the armed groups who had attended the meeting in Morocco at the end of 2021, it was obvious to me that they were taking advantage of their elevated status inside the political tent and openly bragging that the civilians would follow orders. This was not a good sign for civil-military relations, let alone a process free from threats and intimidation.