In a candid and exclusive interview with The Tripoli Post on 3 April at UNSMIL headquarters in Tripoli, Mr. Tarek Mitri, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) answered many questions that are currently being raised in the media in Libya.
He also spoke of the challenges that are faced by UNSMIL in Libya and what he called misunderstandings with regards to his mission in the country.
Mr. Mitri says Libya is making consistent progress, has a strong leadership that is fully aware of the challenges it is facing and it has the support of the world community, these are all ingredients of success.
He praises UNSMIL’s relationship with the government and gave advices of a friend to friends. Here are excerpts of that interview:
Q: The Security Council extended last March UNSMIL mandate for another 12 months period, do you think one year is sufficient enough to fulfill and implement it?
A: May be not, I do not know but this how the Secretary Council functions. The United Nations called it special political mission and normally special political missions do not live long. How short lived will UNSMIL be, I have no idea. But we have been extended another year and the Libyan authorities are very pleased with it because they seem to appreciate the work we are doing and the assistance we are providing to them.
Q: Have you made achievements with regard to the implantation of your mandate in terms of priority areas such as democratic process, security issues etc.?
A: I do not think that UNSMIL is here to achieve but it is here to help the Libyans achieve. I am not saying this to suggest that we should not be held accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. I think we need people’s objective evaluation. We need to be self-critical and I think we have done less of what we had hoped to do. But the major issue has to do with the ability of the Libyans to move forward in the democratic and transitional process. What I have been telling the Security Council where I have spoken three times since my appointment is that there is progress in Libya. It may be insufficient but it is real. There are major obstacles but they are not insurmountable. And If I have to sum up in two sentences: there is progress, it is slow but it is real.
Q: Can you give us an idea about areas where there is progress and those that witness major obstacles?
A: On Saturday 30 April, I visited the minister of Justice to talk about torture and disappearances because we had received family of dead people who have been given the bodies of their beloved ones and then we had well documented reports of torture. We had names, full detailed stories and also had more than one testimony and we checked that with other people not just families. Then I went to see the minister of Justice and gave him the report we prepared.
So, we thought that supporting the ministry of Justice would entail sharing with them whatever information we have carefully verified and the minister appreciated that very much and we had an exchange on what is happening. On Sunday, there were those who were upset with the statement the minister had made earlier referring to illegal armed groups that control Maatiga. So that is an example.
A year ago, prison facilities were under the control of the brigades. Now most of them are under the Ministry of Justice’s control. There is progress and when I say it is insufficient it is because sometimes the control of the government is nominal. It will take time before it becomes effective. We are not a human rights organisation, therefore it is not a report that we publish and make big noise about. We are not here to condemn what it has been done or not. We are here to advise and support the authorities.
Let me take another example, we are helping the Libyan Ministry of Defence and the Chief of Staff develop a defence white paper. We have worked on this interactively with the Libyan authorities. It is a very elaborate 200-page document which took more than a year to finish because we had to discuss every paragraph draft with our Libyan counterparts. We could have given it to a specialist. He or she could have drafted it in one week but we did it in a more participatory manner. However, documents by themselves do not change the world but at least it gives the Libyans a tool. We are also helping in developing the concept and structure of para-military body that Libyan leaders want to establish.
The areas where progress is more tangible are area of election. We helped the Libyans organise the July elections. We are helping them organise the sixty-member constitution drafting assembly. We are helping the High commission on elections digitizing the vote registry. This is a huge amount of work. When it comes to elections because it is very concrete and the objective is very clear we are moving ahead, and we can measure what we have been achieved.
Q: State formation is always very difficult thing to do, and Libya obviously has witnessed a systematic destruction of state institutions during the last 42 years, so given the strong mandate the UNSMIL has in running the country according to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, why a strong national army and police force have not been established yet?
A: First I must tell you that part of the problem we sometimes face with our Libyan friends in conversations is that they tend to overestimate both the role and the capacities of the United Nations and for a variety of political reasons, they blow the role of the UNSMIL out of proportion. But let me say what the mandate means: whatever the UN does in Libya, it does it in strict, scrupulous respect of Libyan sovereignty. We do not interfere in domestic political issues in Libya. We do not make any decisions that belong to Libyans, and we do not do our work or engage in any initiative unless asked by the Libyan authorities or in some cases by Libyan non-governmental organisations that call on us and ask for our support. We open ourselves to possibility of giving support to NGOS as well. We are here primarily working with the Libyan government and we are here also to serve the Libyan people and sometimes serving the Libyan people might mean empowering the governmental organisations like human rights organisation. And if we are interested in the problem of disappearances and there is organisations like Mafkud (Missing) and are interested in this issue, then, it is part of our moral, political obligation of our organisation to help them do their work.
So I think the most important thing is to bring things to a reasonable proportion where we respect strictly and scrupulously Libya’s sovereignty. Our role is advisory and has to do with technical assistance mostly to the Libyan authorities but also to organisations active within the Libyan society. We do not give advice unless we are asked. Sometimes, we sort of remind our interlocutors of their international obligations. Libya is signatory of international treaties. Sometimes we warn them and remind them of a number of principles and war them against possible consequences like we say if you do this, there is a chance that this will result in this and in that.
As for chapter seven, the resolution of the security council that extended UNSMIL mandate has three parts: a general one about Libya and the situation here, peace and security in the region and the world and how Libya is important because for any resolution to be under chapter seven, you have to show that this situation might threaten peace and security in the region and in the world and that is the justification for the chapter seven. So you have one part of the resolution which tries to explain why Libya is important and there is another part of the resolution which is about the sanctions, arms embargo and frozen assets. And this something that was put in place to help Libya not to punish it. In order to help Libya you have to commit all the United Nations members. So chapter seven means that states that are members of the United Nations are obliged to comply with sanctions.
So we need chapter seven to show that Libya is important to the region and to the world. For the sanctions, you need chapter seven to make sure all member states comply. For UNSMIL renewal, we do not need chapter seven because there is nothing coercive in UNSMIL resolution. UNSMIL is not the embodiment of chapter seven in Libya. Chapter seven in this case, and by no means, does not mean that it is in the intention of any member of the Security Council to send troops to Libya.
Q: What is the UNSMIL’s role in drafting the Libyan constitution?
A: With regards to the constitution drafting process, we do not interfere in the process. It is none of our business. It is a sovereign act. It is for the Libyans to write their constitution. But I think that it is our obligation to tell them that the constitution is not just a document that is written by a group of people and if they disagree, they put it to vote. The constitution is a new social contract that binds a society together. The constitution is a set of shared values that make a nation, a nation. Therefore, the more the constitution reflects large consensus in society and the more inclusive is the discussion about the constitution the better. It is your decision and it is not ours but we would like to remind you of the principles and warn you against what might happen if you fail to abide by those principles.
Q: What kind of help or support USMIL provides to non-governmental organizations?
A: We do not have money to give to people. We mostly help them in organising events, provide them with expertise, bring sometime resource persons, take them to conferences whether regional or international and expose them to experience of other countries where they can learn what it has been done in South Africa or Spain and elsewhere. We have to make clear distinction between what is political and what is civil before we use this term. Nevertheless, we use it. When political parties create NGOS and tell us this is civil society, it is ridiculous. Civil society suggests a measure of autonomy vis a vis of the political society. In the Arab world, there is no autonomy of the civil society vis a vis of the political one. They call them civil society organisations but I do not like the word. It does not mean anything. It means all things to all people that is why I do not use the word. Anyway, most of those who speak about civil society have not read Ibn Khaldun.
Q: How do you evaluate UNSMIL’s relations with the Libyan government?
A: Our relations with the government are extremely good at the highest possible level. I think, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, that they have full trust in us and we often speak with each other as intimate friends. May be because I myself am an Arab, I am more sensitive to this personal friendship that we have developed with the Libyan leaders. That is true with the highest level but not when it comes to the level of the mid management where they know little about what we do and sometimes they lack the basic knowledge and understanding as for who does what. They can also be suspicious of any foreigner. They can be afraid. They can be unsecure. But the reorganisation of the Libyan public administration, again, is a Libyan affair. The Libyans need to sort this out. We cannot do it for them. But what we can do and are doing is from the experience that we have developed in working with government officials and with lower level managers at their ministries, we have clearer ideas as to how they should organise themselves.
Q: What would you say to those many Libyans who feel disappointed as far as the lack of progress is concerned and see slowness in a comeback of a strong central government? Some even attribute that to the failure of the United Nations mission in Libya...?
A: I heard very well and I have much sympathy of what you have said. I am not a Libyan therefore I will be more reserved but we have to bear in mind where we were and where we are now. I understand those who are impatient and disappointed. Those who are impatient had hope that change will come about. I think any country that has gone through a revolution like Libya change takes time to mature. Gaddafi left the country table rasa. Hardly any institution is functioning. In Libya everything must be rebuilt; institutions, hospitals, police, the judicial police, prisons. This is a huge task and therefore, this will take time.
You are absolutely right when you were saying that the main issue is that of extending the authority of the government over the Libyan territory and the legitimate armed forces have the monopoly of arms. There would be no State if this monopoly and the use of arms is not under the State. But to get there, there is a number of obstacles that should be lifted and some of those obstacles have not been yet lifted for political reasons, because those who are not prepared to facilitate the process, do it for political interests. They hold on for their arms for a variety of reasons: some for political reasons. Some because they do not have enough trust in the army and the police. Some think that the revolution goes on and is not over and need those arms to continue to purge the country from Gaddafi’s groups (Azlam inndham al makbur). There are also people who worry about an employment.
There are huge problems and look at what had happened. But I think you have a strong leadership. They are firm and they know what they are talking about and I think firmness and principled position give more strength which turns into more political strength if the people support the government. Now the story of the Minister of Justice is not what happened to him on Sunday [the running over of the Ministry’s building by an armed group]. It is the fact that he did not give in. He continues to say what he said on Friday. So he was not intimidated. Intimidation by armed people did not work. So if now those who are disappointed give the Minister of Justice more support, he would be in a better condition to resist further intimidation.
The Minister of Interior got 36.000 persons in the Supreme Security committee who will be joining the police force. Such a number is not insignificant. I remember having a discussion with Libyan friends and one of them told me the best minister can aim for is getting 3000 people. I thought he needed ten thousand because the Libyan population is six millions. Now he got 36.000. It is moving ahead and in six months Libya will have about 50.000 well trained police force. This is a serious business. Everybody is prepared to offer training. We have matrix of what has been offered to Libya. Countries are prepared to train and many others are ready to sell equipments. So Libya has no problem equipping its police force in the best possible manner. It has no problem also training them wherever they want: Turkey, France, Jordan, Spain, Germany etc. It is up to the Libyans to choose.
The crackdown on armed gangs in Tripoli is not negligible. Tripoli today, as far as general security, is concerned is better than it was three weeks ago. We have the experience of Benghazi, do you remember when we feared the demonstrations of 15 February and there will be cataclysmic event and violent demonstrations on the streets of Benghazi and that would spill over to other parties of Libya and may be Tripoli. I remember here, we got strict instructions to our staff. We thought it was going to blow up on February 15 but it did not. All what we feared did not happen because this time around there were serious security measures taken in Benghazi and everywhere. Since February political assassination in Benghazi and the crime rate have been in decline. These are little things but if you put them together, the police, the armed gangs in Tripoli, the decline in political assassination in Benghazi, the resistance or resilience of the Minister of Justice all indicate progress.
Q: But UNSMIL did not issue a statement supporting the Minister of Justice and condemning the attack?
A: No we do not do that every time that something happens. Because again it may look like interfering in internal political affairs but it is publically known that we work with the government and we are on its side.
Q: Is the Libyan government strong enough to do its job?
A: In all the briefings I have given to the Security Council our position has been very clear on that there is progress. It is not enough and I know. But frankly speaking, in view of what Libya has gone through during the last 42 years, in view of the magnitude of problems and the institutional deficit that exist in Libya one could not expect miracles but there is progress. It is real and sometimes it goes unnoticed and the credits should go to the Libyans who want the rule of law and to the political leadership. Ali Zidan went and spoke to the Security Council and after he spoke and left, we had a closed session and you could see in the room what you may call ‘Zidan Effect’, the 15 members of the Security Council, Russia and China included, were more enthusiastic in supporting Libya than in the previous times which means that he came across as someone who is determined. He has a political will, he knows where he is going and he is worthy of trust. That was the best Security Council closed meeting on Libya and it was so because of Zidan Effect. So you have a leadership that is forthcoming and strong that knows where Libya is going. All they need is more support from the Libyan people.
Q: Zidan himself has to reach out to the people to gain massive public support. In this regard, do not you think that Zidan’s government is suffering from a lack of communication?
A: They could do more. I think the Prime Minister and the government need to communicate more and get their message heard by larger sectors of the Libyan population. I think more will come soon. Now Libya has a Ministry of Information but the role is clear neither to him nor to the people who appointed him.
Q: In view of what is going in the Libyan media do you think the sector should regulate itself?
A: Yes, the sector should be able to regulate itself. But as you know, Libya is a country which was deprived of freedom of expression, media was not free. Today everybody enjoys freedom of the media. Social media is freer than ever before and the freedom that you have not exercised before is not without risks. People invent lies, slander all over, fantasies, conspiracy theories etc... But this is the price of freedom that people of Libya seem to enjoy and even if the freedom of media is costly, it is better to have a chaotic freedom of expression than to have no one at all. That is why I always advise against any law or regulations that limit press freedom in Libya.
Sometimes when I meet with government people they complain: what media do we have. They say it is all slander, awful, unprofessional. I think this is dangerous because the more you say that the more you would have to look for ways of direct or indirect censorship. So in order to avoid that, the government should do something positive in support of the media. When I met with 8 editors from Arabic dailies in Tripoli they suggested that instead of complaining the government with UNSMIL assistance could help media organisations have a better professional quality of large number of journalists. This is probably something that is not difficult to organise. There is a real demand and I think by improving the professional quality of media, you will resolve not all but much of the problems we have. You cannot stop lunatics and idiots whatever Facebook or whatever it is, there would always be crazy characters and conspiracy theories, spoilers and forgers all over the world but if you have a critical good mass of journalists you can have objective media.
Q: There is a lack of support from the international community for Libya. Companies are not coming back and too much negative media coverage, particularly in West, and add to this those decisions by some governments that warn their citizens from travelling to Libya. To what extent, UNISMIL can help in making these countries and companies have a positive view of the country and make a comeback?
A: First, the United Nations have been very sober whenever we have to deal with security situation. We did not abandon Benghazi. We cannot blame those who had to flee Benghazi of course. There was a period where every week there was an assassination. You cannot blame a foreigner if or she he asks his or her compatriots to leave Benghazi. UNSMIL does not do that. In fact, we try to be more sober whenever we are asked about the security situation and conditions in Libya in New York or elsewhere. We try to be far more nuanced than you may find in the media. There were moments when I had to say look: you are putting all the blame on Libya. All the arms are smuggled in and out of Libya and Libya is responsible for all the sins of the world. This is rubbish. Libya is not Afghanistan. This is wrong. Do you have a proof that those who abducted the workers in the Algerian gas plant of IN -Amenas come from Libya or the arms are Libyan? If the Algerian intelligence service has a report that is fine but I did not see any report and why do you want me to believe that it is all Libyan responsibility.
Many say that those fighting in Mali had come from Libya, may be some Tuareg. But there is an exaggeration. Perhaps we feared and fear is legitimate, the spill over effect of Mali but this spill over effect has not been massive so far as massive as we should have feared. Because there was a time when it was believed that all those fighters (Al Qaida) from Ansar Eddine etc. would be pushed away from Timbuktu and other Malian cities and vanish in the desert where they will not stay there infinito. They have to look for a safe heaven and the safest one for them is Libya and they will cross into Niger and then they will cross into Libya. This did not happen or at least we have not seen it. So we have some legitimate fears and some of them are not justified. This is about the general description of the situation and this is what we continue to say.
On the other hand and at least from what I have seen in the Security Council, all members are interested in Libya. They want Libya to be peaceful and want to support it. People are not running away from Libya.
We also need to know that companies and capital are cowards. For Libya to attract foreign investment needs to do some work on that front and issue a code of investment. Without that people do not come even though they love to do it. But I do not know of anyone who made a decision not to come to Libya.
Q: So you think that Libya has to work on establishing favourable and welcoming business climate to attract foreign investors?
A: I think so. If you create a business atmosphere that is welcoming, then business will create jobs. The problem is that you have practically no private sector. Eighty percent of the workforce is on government payroll. What is this? You have to change the whole rules of the game and then young people who are in militias, smuggling will have something more interesting to do.