Why short-sightedness regarding Libya is the biggest threat to Europe’s stability

Posted by on 30 okt, 2017

Wall graffiti in Tripoli, 2013. @ Nicolien Zuijdgeest

Since the European Union experiences migrants arriving at its shores, international policies towards Libya have become defined by keywords as ‘anti-terror’ and ‘stopping migration’. A plea for long-term plans.

Euractive.com, 30 October 2017

Recently, Italy made headlines with its policies of buying off Libyan militias in order to stop the flow of migrants entering Europe. A week prior the UK announced a 9 million pound deal to fight terrorism in Libya. These headlines share two common denominators: ‘anti-terror’ and ‘anti-migration’.

Recent talks in a number of European countries about an intervention mission to Libya should be placed in this light. Several national Defence ministries within the EU dare to leave the beaten track by inviting non-military subject matter experts, strategists and civil society organisations to exchange ideas and experiences in the planning phase of a potential mission.

This integrated approach is unique, yet for civil society not without risks. When NGOs become part of an integrated approach, they can easily become encapsulated, be perceived as co-responsible, with a potential less critical behaviour as a result. In a previous round of talks, earlier this year, a national Defence ministry displayed that its lobby strategy was already in place, yet the strategic purpose remained unclear.

Intervention mission
Any intervening mission that doesn’t clearly stipulate the nature of its objective will have difficulty in succeeding. Targets like anti-migration, fighting terror or stabilizing Libya are interlinked yet require different approaches complicated to unify. The report Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options (2016-17) from the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee evaluated the UK intervention in Libya as part of the larger NATO intervention of 2011 with the wish to learn lessons from the past. One conclusion was that ‘the intervention was reactive and did not comprise action in pursuit of a strategic objective’.

Last June’s report from the UN Panel of Experts gives insights how intrinsically Libya’s conflicts are interwoven with organised crime. Is there enough substantial evidence that any intervention now would be better prepared compared to 2011? How effective can Europe be, taking into account the more far-reaching influence from Gulf states in the region? Add to this that Russia and the United States remain silent about their policy direction towards Libya. On top of that, many research institutes question the effectiveness of 15 years of initiatives to fights terror in the Sahara and Sahel countries.

Attempts to build one national army have never materialised. © Nicolien Zuijdgeest

Fighting terror
The Islamic caliphate has fallen apart, yet the real battle has just started. Islamic terror groups and their individual followers are a symptom of a statehood in crisis. The socio-political conditions that accelerated the growth of Islamic State still exist. The ‘defeat’ of the organization does not provide a cure for the problem.

Combating terrorism with military means is a short-term solution. It’s symptom control, in which root causes are insufficiently tackled. Scientists, journalists and researchers have shown for years that the causes of terrorism are predominantly socioeconomic rather than religious. Integrate this perspective prominently in any approach of the region.

The policy focus on stopping migration is reactive too. Outsiders who don’t know the daily reality in Libya perceive the country as being flooded with migrants. Yet, migrations from central and Saharan Africa to Libya have existed for centuries and are part of the regions’ DNA. Under Qaddafi’s rule in Libya, everybody who could take part in the business within the boundaries set by Qaddafi.

Without an economic alternative, without a stable state and rule of law, Italy’s anti-migration measures are only shifting the pressure to the western Mediterranean migration routes, as Spain is experiencing now.

Another reality Europe doesn’t see is that the Libyan population is in dire need of assistance and basic necessities. The vast majority of funding is directed towards anti-terror and anti-migration projects, little goes to generating a long-term impact for major issues in the Libyan society. The more unfortunate that European national budgets for development cooperation are under pressure, while defence and security budgets are growing.

Problem owner
The current tendency among European political parties and governments is to outsource the existing problems to Libya and other African states. The EU has become problem owner, and financial advantages go directly to African governments that fail to deliver services to their citizens that bring equal opportunities and equal rights within their reach.

The socio-political climate in Europe is directed to constructing walls. Migrants do not define themselves as asylum seeker nor refugee: they aim for the best socio-economic perspectives on the long run. Europe should take these long-term ambitions as an example. How high is the price the EU wants to pay for the sale of its values?

A wall decoration inside an educational institution, Tripoli, 2014. ©Nicolien Zuijdgeest

Shrinking space
Libyans themselves seem to be largely left out of any discussion. The worst effect of this international focus on stopping migration and terror is, it hinders local networks and grassroots organisations from working efficiently and productively. It is these organisations that provide aid, benefits and assistance to citizens, in fields in which Libya’s failed state is no longer capable of delivering anything.

A 54-year-old psychologist working for an NGO in Benghazi notes that the number of requests from individuals and groups for psychosocial support for domestic or sexual violence has increased over four years. “The violence in society has now also entered our homes.” A young boy scout from East Libya says: “We scouts are indispensable in the distribution of humanitarian goods. We also train children how to give themselves psychosocial self-care.”

A director of a Tripoli-based education centre: “We train women in first aid and skills for nursing, as foreign nurses have left Libya, causing a lack of medical support staff.” A female entrepreneur says: “It’s hard to earn money in a non-working economy. Still, I consciously work with local and regional guest workers in order to stimulate the private sector as little as I can.”

The short-sighted focus of Europe obstructs these local organizations in two ways. The first obstacle is access to resources. Inflation and lack of currency at banks cause that NGOs no longer can receive their salaries. Anti-terrorist measures in the financial world create even more barriers for bank transfers, thus transforming NGO employees into personal cash carriers and becoming a potential target of criminals.

The second obstacle is the lack of security and justice. Activists, women in particular, experience less and less freedom of movement and increasing travel constraints. This sidelines them even further from peace talks, which usually take place abroad. A women rights activist from the marginalized East: “West Libya is overrepresented in peace talks compared to Libyans from the East. The handful of women that is present do not represent me. Who represents whom in Libya? ”

After more than 40 years of Qaddafi rule, Libyan society has been left behind with an inheritance lacking any political consciousness. The political landscape of 2012 was immature. An important obstacle after elections was to achieve consensus in a legislative power, where 120 of the 200 members are independent. The current three wanna-be governments and the numerous militias that compete for power and resources proof no lack of political ambitions.

Yet, there is less and less space in society for people with different beliefs, whether they are religious, political or social. The fact is that Libyan civil society is confronted with less and less space, while its services are more needed than ever.

Protest against armed militia’s, Tripoli 2014.
© Nicolien Zuijdgeest

Don’t make the same mistake as in 2011. The European Union welcomed the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya to support the rebels in ousting Qaddafi. There was no long-term vision to stabilize the country after Qaddafi’s fall, no structural support for institution building. When Europe really wants to impact and make a difference, take the bigger picture into account. And adhere to calls of UN special envoy Salamé that EU-countries should not pursue bilaterally for solutions to the Libyan conflict.

When resources are a dividing point in the conflict, help to generate a fair division of oil income between Libya’s regions. When the informal war economy is blossoming, does there exist an alternative of which existing parties could benefit too? If the population has already asked for years for a national army and police, then invest in the construction of it.
When no peace has been established with the usual allies, help to question: who are the unlikely allies? Who is not at the negotiation table yet should be present? Change is to be expected from a generation that is the least infected by Qaddafi’s state benefits: youth.

Don’t bring a blueprint to Libya. Chaos can only be stopped by structure, a framework built from within. Change needs time, and plans need a long-term vision. They must entail equal access to resources, opportunities, security and justice.
In fluid conflicts, it is better not only to make peace with the parties that have access to weapons, and that enforce their legitimacy by these means. It is urgent to involve the population, who are usually more moderate. Engage with all actors on the ground, start with more than half of the Libyan population: women and youth. Unlikely allies are the best change makers.