Libya may become another Somalia if U.N. talks push fails


If U.N. attempts to get peace talks going between rival Libyan factions fail, there is a risk of full-scale civil war which would pose a serious threat to Libya’s neighbours and to Europe, the British special envoy for Libya said.

The U.N.-sponsored talks, which began in Geneva on Wednesday, aim to reach agreement to form a unity government. But they have begun without one important faction – the self-declared government which took over the capital Tripoli last year, forcing the elected government and parliament to relocate.

Bernadino Leon, the U.N. envoy leading the talks, still hopes to bring the Tripoli government into the negotiations.
“Will he succeed? I don’t know,” Jonathan Powell, Britain’s envoy for Libya and a seasoned mediator, said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday.
“I sincerely hope he does, because the alternative of Libya turning into a Somalia by the Mediterranean would be completely disastrous,” he said.

Libya would become a threat to southern Europe, and to Egypt and Tunisia. “Tunisia of course is one country everyone will want to protect as the success story of the Arab Spring,” Powell said.

Libya is at a stage where it could go into a full-scale civil war, or start coming out of the conflict. “It’s not clear yet which of those is going to happen,” he said.

Governments are unlikely to intervene by sending in troops, in the way that Iranian forces are on the ground in Syria, he said.
“But that won’t stop people supporting their side in such a conflict, with weapons, advice, money, indeed egging them on. I hope that won’t happen but that is the danger,” he said.
“It’s already acting as a honey pot to … al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, even to people who call themselves ISIS although it’s not entirely clear they are,” he added.


Powell was a diplomat who took part in talks on German unification and on returning the British colony Hong Kong to China, before he became chief of staff to then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

He was part of Britain’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, and spent 10 years working on the Northern Ireland peace talks.
“It was in many ways the most frustrating thing I did in my life, but also in retrospect the most rewarding and the thing I’m most proud of,” he said, referring to his role in Northern Ireland.

In 2011, several years after leaving government, he set up Inter Mediate, an NGO that helps to mediate talks around the world.

Last year he became Britain’s envoy for Libya.
“We made some progress (in Libya) in the run up to the (June 2014 parliamentary) elections.
“We got people to agree to a series of principles and an agenda, but it got derailed before the elections because one side thought it was going to win, and didn’t need to negotiate, and so the thing collapsed.”

Soon after the elections fighting broke out, first in the west of the country and then in Tripoli.
“Once people get into those positions it becomes very hard to get them out of them and prevent the escalation,” he said.

But Powell is looking at the longer term in Libya. He says most agreements are built on a series of failures, citing Spanish government talks with the armed group ETA and the talks in Northern Ireland.
“I know from experience elsewhere, you have to keep trying to negotiate.” If the talks don’t work out in Geneva, mediators will keep trying until they succeed, he said.
“Obviously the chance of getting to success … would be much higher if the fighting stops. But you’re unlikely to get the fighting to stop unless you’ve got some prospect of political success,” he said.


Powell’s impression is that the international community has not got better at preventing wars, citing the Middle East, as well as Boko Haram, South Sudan and Central African Republic.
“I don’t think we’ve found a way. We can see these things happening like Syria or like Libya, and yet we can’t seem to find a way of stopping them,” he said.
“And goodness knows the international community has tried hard to stop that happening,” he added.
“Sometimes there seems to be a cycle you have to go through before you can persuade people that they can’t win militarily and they have to settle down and talk,” he said.

Talks, and their resulting agreements, alone are not enough. The agreements have to be implemented, and the two sides have to build trust.
“You want to get to a place where people are not only not killing each other, but trust each other and can live together and work together. And that’s quite a long journey.”

Powell quoted former Israeli president Shimon Peres, “the master of the one-liner”, as saying of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “The good news is there’s light at the end of the tunnel; the bad news is there’s no tunnel.”
“What we’re trying to do as negotiators is to build a tunnel, a process that takes you from a place where people don’t trust each other to a place where they do,” Powell said.
“And if you get into that process, don’t for goodness sake let it stall … Keep that bicycle moving because if it falls over it’s very, very difficult to get the process going again.”