Another International Mediation Fiasco in Libya

Without reforms, we will not see improvement in peace efforts. Untold billions of dollars will continue to be lost and wasted and incredible humanitarian disasters will continue to unfold. It does have to be this way.
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Libya is presenting another example of an international conflict mediation fiasco. The events in Libya show how an uncoordinated, non-strategic, ad hoc approach to serious conflicts leads to the utter failure of peace.

The Libyan civil war started on February 15, 2011 as Muammar Gaddafi's security forces violently suppressed civil protests against the regime. Within a week, the country was plunged into civil war as the protesters became armed rebels determined to overthrow Gaddafi's 40 year autocratic regime. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where the military supported the overthrow of those countries' leaders, Libya's politics have been governed by a strong tribal structure. Gaddafi controls one tribe, the Qathathfa tribe, and has tapped its members to staff elite military units and guarantee his personal security. Other larger tribes defected against the Qathathfa, leading to a tribal civil war. Libya's biggest tribe, the Warfala, backed the rebels. The Tarhuna, the Zawiya the Zentan, the Bani Walid; and the Obeidat tribes also opposed Gaddafi. None of this subtext seems to have entered the consciousness of the international community as it pondered its options.

The UN Security Council started the international chaos by taking two inconsistent actions. First, on February 26, 2011, it voted to authorize Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, to begin an investigation against Gaddafi for war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from his brutal suppression of civil protests earlier in the month. The effect of this vote was to remove a significant negotiation chip from the table.

Once the ICC becomes involved in a conflict, the ability to negotiate immunity for a peaceful abdication of power evaporates. The Office of the Prosecutor has an express policy of not granting immunity from prosecution in exchange for a peaceful resolution of a conflict. Thus, any hope of Gaddafi agreeing to step into a graceful retirement in exchange for immunity became impossible. His only option was to fight. Either he would win and remain in control or die trying.

A month later, the Security Council passed Resolution 1973. This resolution authorized military action against Gaddafi, ostensibly to protect human life and prevent massacres. The resolution also froze assets and imposed travel restrictions on Gaddafi's regime. The resolution did not call for mediation or provide any mechanism for convening a peace conference. The resolution also failed to interpose an international military force between the rebels and the Gaddafi regime to force a ceasefire. Thus, this resolution was guaranteed to prolong the fighting as neither side gained a decisive advantage. At best, it evened the playing field to give the rebels a chance at toppling Gaddafi. At worst, it promoted war over mediation as the process of choice for resolving the conflict. The resolution was silent on when the military intervention would end or what goals were in place to measure outcomes.

In the meantime, a parade of would-be mediators began traipsing through Libya. The first was Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela. On March 3, 2011, he made the grandiose statement that he would mediate between his good friend Gaddafi and the rebel forces. He has had warm relations with Gaddafi, having compared him to South American liberator Simon Bolivar. The National Transitional Council, the rebel leadership group, quickly and emphatically rejected Chavez as a potential mediator.

On March 6, 2011, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed former Jordanian foreign minister Abdelilah Al-Khatib as his special envoy to Libya. Although more distinguished and accomplished than Chavez, Mr. Al-Khatib has had little publicly verifiable experience as a professional mediator. His efforts have thus far failed.

On March 28, 2011, Turkish president Recep Erdogan announced that Turkey would be sending in a team of mediators to try to help the situation. After a week of work, the Turkish mediators expressed disappointment about the lack of common ground between the two sides. In one news report, a senior Turkish diplomat was reported to have stated, "Both sides are inflexible. One side, the opposition, is insisting that Qaddafi should go and [that] the presence of any member of the Qaddafi family in the new administration is not acceptable. The other side is saying Qaddafi should stay. So there is no breakthrough yet." This problem sounded familiar, as exactly the same issue existed in the Ivory Coast and in numerous other countries. It seemed that the Turkish mediators were surprised by this intractability and either unprepared or unwilling to work patiently with the parties.

On April 8th, former US Republican congressman Curt Weldon appeared in Libya as a potential mediator. Mr. Weldon, a private citizen, had served 10 terms in the House of Representatives. Before his 20 years in Congress, Mr. Weldon was a teacher, a volunteer fire chief, the mayor of Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania., and a member of the Delaware County City Council. Professional training and experience in difficult international conflict mediation did not seem to be on his resume. He too failed and did a quick exit.

On April 10th, the African Union send in its "A" team, composed of South African president Jacob Zuma, Mali president Amadou Toumani Toure, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, and Congo's Denis Sassou Nguesso. The combined professional mediation experience of this group was slim next to non-existent. Nevertheless, the press and media made a lot of noise about this effort. After a week or two of talking to the parties, the team withdrew for further consultations; diplo-speak for more failure.

On April 12th, former Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa offered to mediate. Koussa had just defected to Great Britain with the news that Gaddafi had personally ordered the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am flight 103. His offer was refused by all sides.

On April 25th, in a first ever national poll of Libyans, 97 percent of those surveyed stated that the African Union was not a neutral mediator while 81 percent did not trust Turkey. For all practical purposes both are out as effective mediators.

On April 28th, the Russians stated that they would seek a mediation role in Libya. I commented on this development a week ago hoping that Russia would send in some truly trained professionals based on its own new statute professionalizing mediation practice.

In the meantime, the civil war continues with usual tragic loss of life and infrastructure. Because Libya is a major oil exporter, the disruption to the world oil market caused by the civil war at a time of growing demand for oil has caused oil prices to spike.

What are the lessons to be learned here? First, if the UN or NATO are willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a military intervention, they should be willing to invest 10 percent of the aggregate military budget for serious mediation efforts, part of which could fund training for future mediators.

Second, mediation ought to be the primary outcome of any decision. Thus, any Security Council resolution like Resolution 1973 ought to include a mandate for comprehensive mediation efforts. Military efforts should be designed to convince otherwise implacable parties to try mediation, not create stalemates.

Third, one or more of the international organizations should have on hand a cadre of neutral, impartial, highly trained mediators to appoint to these situations. So far, the international commitment to professionalize international conflict mediation is non-existent. Neither the UN, NATO, the Arab League, the African Union, or the Gulf Cooperation Council have invested time, effort, or money into a credible mediation directorate. Mediators should be culturally appropriate and carry no national agenda. Insofar as US citizens are concerned, the Patriot Act should be amended allow them to mediate with terrorist groups. As the US law stands today, peacemaking with known terrorist organizations is illegal for US citizens. One wonders how the US could ever mediate the Israeli-Palestinian problem with Hamas as a participant when negotiating with Hamas violates the Patriot Act.

Fourth, the Security Council must think more strategically before referring matters to the International Criminal Court. While the ICC has the potential for much good, its policy against immunity for peace creates a serious impediment to effective peacemaking. The ICC essentially guarantees a fight to the death in situations like Libya.

Finally, no person, no matter how distinguished, should be appointed a mediator unless he or she has undergone significant and serious professional training in mediation theory and practice and has demonstrable skill and knowledge in the professional practice of mediation. Thus, any current or former president or foreign minister should stay out of the mediation arena unless he or she devotes time and effort to learning the art and skill that modern peacemaking requires. Even the Russians have recognized this in their new statute requiring all civil mediators to undergo professional training.

Without these types of reforms, we will not see improvement in peace efforts. Untold billions of dollars will continue to be lost and wasted and incredible humanitarian disasters will continue to unfold. It does have to be this way.

Douglas E. Noll is a professional mediator and the author of Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts (Prometheus 2011). More can be found at

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