UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously on Thursday to extend the U.N. political mission in Libya until after the country's critical presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for late December.
However, the U.N.'s most powerfule body remained divided over the withdrawal of all mercenaries and foreign forces from the oil-rich North African nation and the mission’s leadership.
The vote extended the current mission until Jan. 31 to ensure the United Nations can continue supporting Libya’s transitional government. The Dec. 24 elections aim to reunite the country after a decade of turmoil.
The end-of January date also coincides with the end of U.N. special envoy Jan Kubis' contract — a subject of a dispute between Western nations and Russia on where he should be based. Kubis currently works out of Geneva but a strategic review of the mission, known as UNSMIL, included having its chief relocate to Libya’s capital, Tripoli. The West strongly backed this, especially in the run-up to the elections, but Russia opposed.
Earlier, the Security Council had extended UNSMIL’s mandate for only two weeks because of disputes between the West and Russia over the withdrawal of mercenaries, foreign fighters and foreign forces as demanded in an October 2020 cease-fire agreement between rival Libyan governments in the country’s east and west.
Facing rival Western-backed and Russian draft resolutions — both almost certain to be defeated — and Thursday's end of the current mandate, council members decided to simply extend it without any updates or changes.
Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward expressed regret that not all council members supported its compromise draft resolution, stressing that “Libya is at a critical point" and that it's “essential that the elections take place on time and are credible and inclusive.”
She urged Security Council members to insist on implemention of the cease-fire agreement, including the withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya, “without qualification and without delay."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the consensus on the resolution shows international support to the Libyan people “at a very sensitive and very momentous stage" leading up to elections. He said implementing the strategic review's recommendations should wait until after the election.
Libya has been wracked by chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 and split the country between a U.N.-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities loyal to commander Khalifa Hifter in the east. Each have been backed by different armed groups and foreign governments.
Hifter launched a military offensive in 2019 to capture the capital, a campaign backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France. But his march on Tripoli ultimately failed in June 2020, after Turkey sent troops to support the Libyan government, which also had the backing of Qatar and Italy. This paved the way for the October cease-fire agreement and a transitional government charged with leading the country to Dec. 24 elections.
Thursday's vote postponed a Security Council statement on mercenaries and foreign fighters and Kubis' base.
The British draft resolution had called on all countries to comply with the U.N. arms embargo on Libya, “including by ceasing all support for and withdrawing all armed mercenary personnel.” It also expressed concern at the impact of the Libyan conflict on neighboring countries.
The Russian draft meanwhile called on all Libyan parties to fully implement the October 2020 cease-fire agreement, and urged all countries to pull their foreign forces and mercenaries out of Libya in a “synchronized, parallel, balanced and phased withdrawal."
The U.N. estimated in December 2020 that there were at least 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya, including Syrians, Russians, Sudanese and Chadians. But diplomats said speakers at an informal council meeting in late April declared that there were more — including 13,000 Syrians and 11,000 Sudanese.
Last September, U.N. experts monitoring the implementation of sanctions on Libya said the warring parties and their international backers — the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Jordan vs Turkey and Qatar — violated a U.N. arms embargo on the oil-rich north African country.
Their report also said 11 companies violated the arms embargo, including the Wagner Group, a private Russian security company. In May 2020, the panel said Wagner provided between 800 and 1,200 mercenaries to support Hifter, the eastern Libyan commander.
The British draft had also said the U.N. mission chief should be based in Tripoli, and asked Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to retain Kubis as special envoy for six months “to focus on engaging with the Libyan actors, and with the international actors to end their role in the conflict."
The Russian draft was similar but asked Guterres to retain Kubis for six months “with further extensions for a period to be decided by the Security Council” — which would have given Russia veto power over any decision on the special envoy's tenure and base of operations.