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Libya in transition: options for the future

Time (GMT +00) 10:00 11:20

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon 


Sean Deely -  Deputy Director of the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU), University of York and former Senior Recovery Advisor, Libya, UNDP

Joost Hiltermann -  Deputy Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group, Washington DC

Ian Black - Middle East Editor, The Guardian

This event sought to address how the current situation in Libya is unfolding and how international interventions might be changing.

Ian Black, opening the session, highlighted the excitement with which the Libyan revolution was originally met – creating a space for free speech that had not previously existed. However, several months since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, it has become clear that Libya also faces huge challenges – not least those related to security, the legitimacy of the political transition, and political capacity. There is also unprecedented support amongst the international community for post-Gaddafi Libya and there is an opportunity, for the first time in many decades, to view Libya through a lens other than Western security interests. Precisely what role the international community will play, however, remains uncertain.

Lord Ashdown argued that events in Libya offered a new way to think about intervention. The world is changing fundamentally and this will have implications for how the international community undertakes interventions in future. These changes can be separated into three key features:

1.       Immense power shifts: The shift occurring now is from an alliance of Western countries (led by the United States) who share similar values, to alliances that include states with fundamentally different values to those held by the West. We are likely to see an increasingly multi-polar world, with China, for instance, playing a much greater role, as well as regional actors. This shift is already well underway, with China providing more UN troops abroad than the United States and the United Kingdom combined.

Past interventions, in which the West has tried to go it alone, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, have not been particularly successful. Nor are they likely to be tolerated in future by home publics. In contrast to these earlier interventions, the Libyan intervention was both legal (with UN resolution backing) and conducted by NATO in cooperation with Arab countries in the region (albeit in a limited way). This is likely to be the model for the future.

2.       Unprecedented interdependence: The nation state, traditionally the pre-eminent unit in the international system, must now exist within a network of others. The states survival is threatened by not just external military threats, but by threats such as swine flu and global financial crisis. These threats may begin in other countries but, due to our global interdependence, quickly travel to our own countries. This has changed the nature of security itself. It is no longer just about militaries and armaments but includes health, the internet, trade and home security. Our capacity to secure a country therefore now depends on strengthening our networks, not just our countries. As a result of this, the most important part of what one can do in the current international system is what can be done together. The international community will need to figure out how to work more effectively as a collective in order to ensure security and stability. Understanding our connectedness will be vital in future interventions.

3.       Globalisation of power: Power was traditionally locked within the nation state and its accountability mechanisms. In the current global order, however, it is ‘swilling around’ the system and not bound by the same rules. This lawless space is risky because those with bad intentions (such as Osama bin Laden) cannot be constrained. We therefore need to create governance within the international space. This will partly be done through strengthening the institutions of international law. There will also be mistakes in this process and it will take many years.

Intervention within this increasingly turbulent world is necessary. It will be a much more turbulent world without intervention. There are two models for conducting interventions. One is the old intervention model, used in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Western powers seek to impose Western models of government onto other states. The second is the model used in Libya, where we enable Libyans to lead, rather than playing that role ourselves. This is still messy and complex, but it is far more sustainable than older interventions. The second model is also done under international law, with a broader alliance that just Western powers. In this new model of intervention, the UN is less likely to be a ‘do-er’ and more likely to play a legitimising role.

These new interventions should satisfy Thomas Aquinas’ 6 criteria, originally used in his theory of just wars. They are:

1.       There much be a breach of international law

2.       The effect of that breach must be felt more widely than in the country itself, for instance, within the region or world

3.       All other (diplomatic) means must have been exhausted

4.       Response methods must be proportionate

5.       Response must be legal

6.       There must be a reasonable prospect of success (so as not to waste lives)

This final criterion is what rules out intervention in Syria currently. Yet just because we can’t intervene everywhere does not mean that we should not intervene anywhere.

Responding to Lord Ashdown’s presentation, Sean Deely focused on the challenges of Libya’s transition. This has been characterised by unrealistically high expectations amongst the international community, as well as locally. As a result, there is a sense that Libya’s transition has slowed – yet this simply underlines the scale of the challenges currently faced. These include:

·         The role of the National Transitional Council as the steward of transition (including their legitimacy and transparency);

·         Security (bringing the various militia/brigades across Libya under control)

·         Tight deadline for constitution and election (The NTC announced that a constitution would be developed and elections held within 240 days of the declaration of liberation. Within 30 days of liberation an interim government was appointed, as promised. There is now increasing pressure to deliver on the promise of appointing an election commission and promulgating electoral laws. There are only 5 months remaining to prepare for elections and even with substantial international assistance, this will be difficult to pull off. For instance, there is currently no voter registry. Furthermore, the constitution making body is to be given 60 days to develop a constitution, which rules out the possibility of popular participation in this process).

·         Economic challenges (there are increasing frustrations that people are not paid on time, cannot withdraw large sums of money from banks and therefore can’t mobilise the funds to make the free choices that liberation promised. There is also an ongoing question about where the nation’s oil money is going).

Joost Hiltermann continued to set out the challenges that Libya faces, focusing on the particular challenge of fragmentation. This is directly linked to the manner in which the revolution took place – starting in Benghazi and spreading to different towns and regions at different times. Benghazi, the earliest city to be held by anti-government forces, established an interim authority that has gained some international legitimacy (leading to financial support for governance and military operations, for instance) but is not necessarily seen as legitimate nation-wide. Fighting across the country was highly localised and different groups feel that they are responsible for the overthrow of the regime. As a result, all guerrilla groups feel that they have the most legitimate claim to power. Due to this competition, there is no single legitimate, recognised national authority that can impose its will. The challenge for the NTC is to legitimise itself and demobilise regional militias. Without doing so, Libya is likely to remain dysfunctional.

A further aspect of fragmentation are tensions between older generations (who staffed the old regime) and younger generations who feel that they were the main fomenters of the revolution, but have not been included in post-Gaddafi political power structures. Finally, current electoral laws state that there will be no political parties in Libya, which may encourage the resurgence of traditional patronage networks that have been marginalised in more recent times, as people return to their local communities for support and/or protection. Re-awakening these networks will have consequences for new political configurations.

Discussion centred on three key issues. First, all speakers emphasised the need for humility of expectations for intervention operations and the need to let Libyans lead the transition themselves. This may mean allowing for non-Western models of governance, such as a Turkish model. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the successes of moderate Muslim Brotherhood parties across the region demonstrate. Second, security is the most fundamental priority in interventions. Without it, people will seek it amongst militias and warlords. This is the kind of fragmentation of security that is currently taking place in Libya and is potentially destabilising. A lack of security also prohibits efforts to establish the rule of law (a further priority), which may need to begin with transitional justice efforts, such as truth telling processes. This underscores the importance of the third point of discussion, the legitimacy of the future government. Until an elected, legitimate government is in place, regional militias will remain across the country and there will be no possibility of demobilisation. However, at the same time, the tight timeframe for elections also means that it will be difficult to ensure the interests of the people within the electoral process and it may be worth considering other mechanisms through which legitimacy can be derived.


Libya is at a critical juncture in transitioning from decades of dictatorship, with the National Transitional Council entering a complex post-conflict period that will need to tackle the legacies of violence, the remaking of state institutions and rebuilding the relationships between citizens and the state. The significant changes in the political landscape over the last six months still leave unanswered important questions about future priorities, opportunities, sequencing and where challenges and pitfalls are likely to lie. This event aims to discuss those questions, considering the options available for Libyan leaders and citizens, and the role that the international community can play to support the transition.