We Need a Comprehensive Plan From Europe

An international peacekeeping operation is vital for Libya’s future, the country’s internationally-recognised Prime Minister ABDULLAH Al-THINNI tells MARK MICALLEF. But he is not so enthusiastic about the EU’s ambition to run an anti-smuggling operation inside Libyan territory.

Internationally recognised Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina/ Times of Malta

Internationally recognised Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina/ Times of Malta

On Wednesday you expressed confidence that an agreement would be signed. Now the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli has asked for more time to discuss the document, extending negotiations on this final draft at least until next week. Are you still hopeful?

Yes, the GNC has asked for an extension. We are used to these kinds of techniques. They are trying to get more concessions from the parliament side [the House of Representatives in Tobruk] to make more political gains.

The parliament received the fourth draft [from UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon], has discussed it, made amendments and changes and delivered it back to the UN envoy. It asked for this to be discussed for it to be approved by all sides. Especially on the issues, which parliament feels should be changed, particularly in respect to the formation of the Council of State and the number of GNC members on this council.

This is a clear message to Bernardino Leon that the side which is obstructing or opposing the dialogue is the GNC and not parliament.

The GNC will probably respond by saying it is doing exactly what the parliament has done. They have been given a draft, they are looking at it and they want to make changes.

On the contrary, what they did was to boycott these talks. They had demonstrations in which people asked for the GNC to reject this process. Some of them even asked for the replacement of Bernardino Leon.

I understand there are elements within the GNC that want to scrap the whole thing, but so far that has not been its official position. The position has been to ask for more time to discuss and negotiate. Isn’t that the same as parliament’s position until recently?

In both cases, we hope to see sincerity on GNC’s part. They should be meaning exactly what they are saying to resolve this process. But you have to understand they want to delay things to buy time until parliament’s mandate expires. After that, the country will be in a political vacuum and there will be no standing, legitimate parliament.

Parliament’s mandate expires in December, which means after this date there will be no legitimate parliament. Some people in Tripoli are telling the UN after December you have to treat us as equals. Don’t you fear that this strategy might pay in the end?

This is what has been continuously said and this is what they are trying to do. But we expect the Constitutional Committee to finish its work and surprise the Libyan people, and the international community, by having a solution that will avert this sort of vacuum.

What can the Constitutional Committee come up with? An extension?

Well, there are a few suggestions, such as having presidential elections, or making changes to parliament to avoid this sort of vacuum. They are working hard to avoid this sort of political situation, which is expected from the GNC.

Given that you are talking in these terms, would I be correct to say that you are no longer hopeful that there will be an agreement in the next few days, and we could see this drag on till December and beyond?

We expect all the obstacles from GNC to the peace process. They are trying very hard to have a major political role in the Libya of the future. So if the country becomes stable and there is a constitution, as well as presidential elections and general elections, they will not make any political gain.

But on Wednesday you sounded more hopeful. Has the reality of the GNC’s statement changed your outlook so much?

We are confident we will eventually reach a solution and an agreement. But every part is trying to gain points and we are sure the GNC will keep trying hard to get the leading political role; not simply a role. They will give their consent at the very last minute, when things reach the very end.

Let’s say there is a national unity government and you get to have a new government. There will be practical obstacles, such as the government taking its seat in Tripoli. Some people will support that, others won’t and there are some powerful opponents. Will the new government be able to immediately base itself in Tripoli?

If a national unity government is formed… it is incumbent on the UN and the international community to support it and help it establish itself in Tripoli and discharge its duties from there. They should help in the removal of the militias from the capital. There is no clear approach how this can be done right now but a plan will later have to be devised to make this happen.

There are individuals, such as Salah Badi and Abdul Rauf Kara, powerful leaders of militias in Misurata and Tripoli respectively, to name just two, who can be obstacles in this process. Do you think you will be able to subdue these characters, who have become so powerful in the Libyan context?

These groups do not have any legitimacy, they are not part of the government or the army; they are operating outside of the law. They are considered to be gangs. If the international community is serious and transparent on how to deal with these, and similar people, it will see to it that they will face justice for war crimes before an international court. These groups will cease to exist and their leaders will face charges before the International Criminal Court.

The problem with that approach is that you are going to face long years of recrimination. While you say that these people are criminals, you will find a very long list on the other side who will tell you the man running the military on your side, General Khalifa Hiftar is equally a war criminal and he should face justice.

Reconciliation will be done with Libyans who have lesser crimes but leaders of groups that have committed crimes – such as attacking houses, installations, burning facilities that belong to the government or to citizens – should be held responsible for what they have done. People will not reconcile with those who committed such crimes against their families.

So with this in mind, a foreign peacekeeping force is crucial, especially until the Libyan government establishes itself.

The plan should be comprehensive, including political agreement to build institutions, achieve reconciliation, build the army and the police and focus on social and economic development so that it can succeed as one package. If you only work political agreement then the objective will not be achieved.

The international community should keep a force in the country, but the form can be agreed upon later. The point is that it will allow the government to build the army and the police. After this stage, the peacekeepers can can hand-over to the government. In the meantime, however, the militias have to be removed so they cannot threaten the government again.

Do you believe the Libyan people will accept a peacekeeping force?

We will have to reach an agreement through which a peacekeeping force will be accepted by all sides. This force will work to stabilise the country. If some of the groups leave the capital, others will object so the only way is for them to all leave at one go. That is why a peacekeeping force is needed. After the army and police are formed, they can take charge.

Do you think Europe understands the situation on the ground when it makes demands on Libya related to immigration?

From our point of view, Europe is not tackling this problem properly. They are after instant solutions and reacting to the influx. We feel Libya is simply a transit country for people coming from Niger, Chad and all African countries. They don’t stay, they just cross to Europe, so we feel the EU should try to tackle the problem from the source countries and not wait for these people to enter Libya then try to cross to Europe.

The solution we suggested is in three stages.

First, Europe should have development programmes in these countries to help stability and encourage these people to stay in their country without having to leave for Europe. If Africans have opportunities in their countries and a good education, the numbers of those leaving will decrease.

The second stage involves supporting the security forces in these countries so they have more control at their borders to reduce the number of migrants crossing into Libya.

The third stage is to support Libya to guard its own border from these countries. You will not be able to stop the flow, but at least you can reduce the numbers greatly if you follow this plan.

Your government blocked the EU’s attempt to obtain a UN resolution for its anti-smuggling operation. The argument was that there was no consultation, if there was a national unity government, and the EU consulted it, would thi sort of operation within Libyan waters, within its territory be acceptable?

This present government or any other government will not allow the EU or any other government to cross its borders for any operation without prior consent and agreement.

That is what the EU is talking about now. Though the EU has launched EU Navor, Brussels is saying it will operate in international waters. They will wait for a national unity government and then discuss to get its consent.

In this context, do you see a new administration accepting this sort of operation?

If a future unity government is formed by Libyans, I assure you they will not accept any international intervention within its territory. If you are talking of Libyan nationals or patriots, they will not allow anyone to cross our borders…

You just said that a peacekeeping operation will be essential for a new government, so you’re already going to have foreign forces on the ground in Libya…

There is a very clear difference between these two issues. If you are talking about a legitimate peacekeeping force agreed to by the government that is one thing. Numbers and limitations should be specifically stated and its role inside the country established. This is contrary to what you’re saying about allowing the EU to enter national waters and doing whatever it wants without any objections from the Libyans.

The EU is now saying it requires Libyan consent and that an operation in Libyan waters, or indeed on land, cannot be done without Libyan consent. But my question is; if there is a new government, would it give its consent to this sort of operation? 

We expect that if there is such an intervention to stop smugglers or illegal immigrants from crossing into Europe, it should be under the supervision, guidance and coordination of the new government. I think it will be accepted, only if it is under the control of the new government…

If the EU is sincere about this, it should be part of a comprehensive plan that looks at the shores, as well as the southern borders and the desert and not create a problem in Libya where people will just be stuck there.

When you mentioned security, you mentioned the militias; the gangs. You didn’t mention Isis. Some of these gangs are actually the people fighting Isis. Earlier we mentioned Salah Badi who is leading the charge by Misurata against Isis in Sirte. Isn’t this a case of, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’?

They are fighting Isis because they are being threatened by it from a very close proximity. If any group tries to fight Isis, it will ultimately find the support of the Libyan people because Isis does not distinguish between the different sides, they will try to kill everybody… This is a coalition of all the factions against this threat. Even though we have our differences with Fajr Libya [Libya Dawn or the military arm of the Tripoli government], we are all Libyans in the end and we’re all being threatened by this group. This is the biggest security problem we face. We need to work together to avoid becoming like Syria or Iraq.

The interview with Mr Al-Thinni was carried out jointly by Times of Malta and Migrant Report. See also: EU Military in Our Waters Only if We’re in Control – Libya PM