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How Libya could help save Europe

   It’s again the doomsayers’ season. With the first warm days, numbers of boat people from North Africa and Turkey are swelling and all sorts of experts are predicting that 2017 might exceed 2015 in total numbers of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe. Usually, these dire warnings are accompanied by appeals to politicians to start returning the boat people to where they came from, especially to Libya instead of unloading them in Italy.

   The response of politicians is always the same: in order to return migrants to a country you need a government there disposed to accept them. This can’t be done since Libya has no government to speak of and no prospect of getting a government any time soon.

   Thus far the European powers have not dared to discuss this conundrum. A few politicians thought the solution to the Libyan quandary was to split the country into three distinct unities: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. As independent countries these provinces would be small enough to find their own governments. But what kind of governments? Muslim Brothers in Tripolitania, neo-Gheddafi style in the Cyrenaica, and al-Qaeda in Fezzan? Hardly a convincing solution.

   But this is need not be the end of the road. Libya offers another option. The total absence of a government could serve as a source of inspiration. Other failed states such as Afghanistan and Somalia still retain some kind of government which controls at least part of the country. In Libya there is the artificial Fayez al-Sarraj government propped up by the United Nations which is all but powerless. There is a Muslim Brothers government spoon fed by Turkey in Tripolis and there is General Haftar’s government in Tobruk which is supported by Egypt, the Emirates and Russia. Three actors who claim to be a potential government without being credible. 

   In principle, the Western powers could now decide that Libya ceased to be a state and has become a no-man's land, a territory.  The name Libya now describes a geographical region, not a state in need of a government. Anologous to Macedonia which is officially called FYROM (Former Yougoslav Republic of Macedonia) , Libya could be called FLJ “Former Libyan Jamahiriya” in reference to its old name when it was still a state in Gheddafi’s days.

   Once this new no-man’s land has been internationally accepted as a political non-entity it needs a trustee to represent it internationally and fulfil some limited government functions. Obviously, this trusteeship would fall on the United Nations with its agencies UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Several times in the past the UN has administered countries when governments were lacking.  When Mozambique became independent in 1975 the Liberation Front FRELIMO was unable to run the country and handed it temporarily over to UNDP.

   When in the 1960s the western part of New Guinea was to be transferred from the Dutch colonial regime to Indonesia which (wrongly) claimed ownership of this territory, the UN took care of the transition.

   The agreement provided for the administration of West New Guinea (West Irian) to be transferred by the Netherlands to a United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA), to be headed by a United Nations Administrator who would be acceptable to both parties and who would be appointed by the Secretary-General. Under the Secretary-General's jurisdiction, UNTEA would have full authority after 1 October 1962 to administer the territory, to maintain law and order, to protect the rights of the inhabitants and to ensure uninterrupted, normal services until 1 May 1963, when the administration of the territory was to be transferred to Indonesia.

   So far, so good. West Irian, as it was called at the time, was UNDP country. The UNDP guesthouse in the capital Jayapura served as the country’s only hotel, and even the taxi service was operated by UNDP jeeps. Since the local Papuas hated the foreign Indonesians and refused to learn to speak Malay, a lot of unrest has plagued western New Guinea ever since. To keep a tab on hostilities and protect the UNDP staff, a UN Security Force was sent to the country.

   The agreement also stipulated that the Secretary-General would provide a United Nations Security Force (UNSF) to assist UNTEA with as many troops as the United Nations Administrator deemed necessary. 

   A UN Security Force could be established for Libya to protect the work of the UN agencies. This security detachment would require a “robust mandate” from the Security Council in order to be able to control aggressive local militias and people smugglers.

   Once the UN agencies are ready to enter FLJ,  a place on the coast would be selected which offers a seaport and an airport. This place would be secured by the UN Force and serve as an international bridgehead in the unruly country. Shipwrecked migrants and refugees could be brought to this place; their asylum requests could be pre-processed there and, in the likely negative decision, they could be deported by airplane to their country of origin.

   Faced with proof of the impossibility of making it to Europe and being offered a free trip home, most of the desperate and probably also destitute migrants are likely to accept the offer and return voluntarily.

   This system, if it was applied by all actors in the Mediterranean busy saving boat people, would put an end to the illegal mass migration and to deaths by drowning. It would stop the work of the smugglers. Information that the maritime smuggling route is closed would quickly spread in Africa and the Middle East and discourage potential migrants in the same way as the closing of the Balkans route in 2016 interrupted the flow of refugees to Greece.

   As a bonus, the presence and trusteeship of the United Nations in former Libya would dampen the fighting spirit of the local pseudo governments and militias and pave the way for better understanding. National pride hurt by the trusteeship would encourage compromises that need to be made in order to establish a common platform and form a government which could claim to rule all of former Libya and be able to bring back peace and order. This all-Libya government could ask for the UN trusteeship to be phased out. 

   A United Nations trusteeship in Libya?  Surely some Security Council member would veto it. Perhaps Russia or China. Or an American president who hates the UN. 


Heinrich von Loesch


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