The UN’s Three Options for Libya

Now that Libya is on the precipice of being fully under the control of forces loyal to the Transitional National Council the task of building a post-Khadafi future is underway.

Daniel Serwer offers some good guidance on what is needed in the immediate post conflict phase (no reprisal killings, no hording of state resources by individual militia leaders). But over the longer term, the new Libyan government will have to engage in some sort of “nation-building” process; this includes setting up systems to support good governance, managing the country’s oil exports and rebuilding its judicial system, among other things.

The UN has a long history of helping countries with these kinds of post-conflict state building tasks. So far, no one is calling for UN intervention, but it might prove necessary down the road. There are three basic ways that this kind of UN-engagement may play out.

1) A full-on peacekeeping mission is the general, go-to kind of UN intervention in situations were fighters have either exhausted themselves to a stalemate or have agreed to a basic peace process. Blue Helmets work best when they offer breathing space between former combatants as a fragile peace agreement takes hold.

Blue helmets may have been useful as part of a negotiated settlement between Khaddafi and the TNC, but as it is looking more and more likely that a settlement is not exactly in the offing. Rather, Khaddafi’s forces are being routed.   A UN peacekeeeping mission does not seem very likely–or, at this point, needed.

2) A more likely mechanism for UN involvement is through a special political mission. These are basically UN peacekeeping missions, but without the armed peacekeepers. Political officers and technical advisers from the UN help some sort of new unity government in the process of building state institutions, managing elections, training police and judges, that sort of thing.  Iraq and Afghanistan are two potential models.  In both cases, Security is provided by local or foreign troops and UN civilian experts work behind the scenes to build stable state institutions — everything from tax collection to training judges in human rights law.

3) A final option is for a very light UN footprint. That would mean, essentially, a special representative of the Secretary General to Libya (he already has one) would brief the Secretary General on what’s happening in Libya, write reports, etc. The special representative or the Secretary General himself would potentially be asked on occasion to mediate conflicts, but there would be no standing UN role in Libya — the UN would simply be called in on an ad-hoc basis (say, to organize elections) and also to administer humanitarian assistance.

Ultimately, the level of UN involvement in the new Libya will be decided by the Transitional National Council and the Security Council. The UN won’t come to Libya unless it is invited, and the Security Council wouldn’t send the UN to Libya without assurances of cooperation from the TNC.

The UN does have a decent track record in managing these kinds of transitions. In places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mozambique, El Salvador, Cambodia and elsewhere, the UN successfully oversaw elections, the “de-mobilization, disarmament and re-integration” of fighters, and provided technical assistance to train a generation of state bureaucrats on how to do things like balance a ledger, or keep a power-plant online.   It’s this kind of basic, un-sexy state-institution building that the UN is very good at. At this point, though, it is still up in the air as to whether or not they will be asked to chip in.