When his name circulated last summer as a candidate for the post of United Nations envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily was virtually unknown except in the halls of the UN itself. A former history professor and former Senegalese minister, Bathily held a number of positions for the UN in Mali, Gabon and Madagascar. In 2019, he was asked by the UN boss to conduct a “strategic review” of the UN mission in Libya. Apparently, Antonio Guterres liked his report and subsequently nominated him as his envoy to the country.
Like most UN diplomats, Bathily’s success is hard to pin down as there isn’t a single successful experience to highlight. The UN, when selecting its envoys, follows the simple rule that says: better the devil you know than the one you don’t. Most UN diplomats spend an average of a year mediating in a conflict-ravaged country before being transferred to another or retiring. Most never get fired for failure or poor performance; an indication of a lack of accountability within the organization itself.
However, most UN efforts in conflict situations fail mainly because the Security Council fails to enforce its resolutions because the five powers of veto barely agree on what to do, let alone how. Countless examples attest to this; Ukraine, where the council never agreed on Russia, a veto member, despite its aggression against the European state. In Syria it is the same as Russia and the other permanent members support opposing sides of the conflict and Libya is no exception.
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Despite the good plans developed by former UN envoys for Libya, none worked, because none had the firm and strong backing of the UN Security Council. The council has not strengthened any of its resolutions in the last decade, except when the government of former President Muammer Gaddafi has been targeted.
This explains why Tripoli’s government of national unity (GNU) initially rejected Bathily’s nomination when his name came up in a debate last August. Her UN representative, Taher El-Sonni, called for “serious” talks with the Libyans before any appointment. He said his government would prefer an African envoy but would not accept just the first one that comes along. Such an envoy must “know the file,” said El-Sonni. Notably, it was the first time in more than a decade that Tripoli asked to be heard about how the UN selects its representatives to mediate the crisis. The organization usually does not consult with parties to a conflict when appointing its mediators.
Since arriving last September, Bathily has done little work beyond what he called “consultations” with all Libyan “stakeholders” in the 11-year crisis. The problem with the “Libyan stakeholders” is that they have long since become proxies for regional countries and Bathily has politely emphasized this in its December 16 statement to the UN Security Council.
He told the council he has toured regional countries seeking their “continued and coordinated support” for the UN as it seeks to “help Libyan leaders overcome their differences”. None of the countries Bathily visited on his 11-day tour publicly opposed UN efforts in Libya. But what they do behind the scenes is the main factor complicating reconciliation in Libya. This has been true since 2011, when the country plunged into chaos after the government of the late Gaddafi was toppled, including over foreign military and political interference in Libyan affairs.
It’s not about how skilled Bathily is at dealing with Libya. The question should be how much support the UN Security Council can provide to the UN representative, because without that support any envoy will be doomed to failure, as it is the council that makes the final decision on a major crisis like Libya. Currently, the UN Security Council is far from united on any issue, let alone using its powers to implement decisions it could make on top of the 20 resolutions it has passed on Libya since 2011.
Even before the war in Ukraine, the council was divided over who should lead the UN mission in Libya. The idea of having an African mediator came about because the African Union insisted on it given that Libya is in Africa and the African Union.
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Impartiality is also crucial. Just before the New Year, Libyan social media was flooded with fake news that Bathily was preparing its own “road map” to impose on all Libyan parties. His office was required to issue a statement on December 28 denying the reports.
He also wanted to send a message to the two top political leaders who were preparing to meet in Cairo, Egypt that he welcomes their meetings and wants to see serious results. Speaker of Parliament Aguila Saleh and Supreme Council of State Speaker Khaled Al-Mishri concluded their January 5 meeting with a joint statement promising a “constitutional document” that would set out how elections should be conducted. be held and who is eligible to contest them. This has been the sticking point that led to the December 24, 2021 election being postponed indefinitely. It’s not the first time both men agree only to disagree later. The “constitutional document” will be discussed by both chambers and a consensus is unlikely to be reached. Both Al-Mishri and Saleh like to postpone elections as long as possible, as any vote could end their political careers – another hurdle to Bathily’s efforts.
Regardless of how successful Bathily might be in tackling the political deadlock in Libya, the outcome of such an effort will always depend on the UN Security Council and not on his own talents to accomplish what his seven predecessors have been unable to do.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect Middle East Monitor’s editorial policies.