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Libya in Turmoil: Implications for international support?


Libya is a state in turmoil. Many dimensions of the current situation in Libya pose challenges to its further stability and problematize the ability of internal and external actors to intervene effectively. To this end, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Platform organized an expert meeting on 4 October. Bringing together a diverse group of experienced practitioners working in and policymakers working on Libya, the event aimed to explore the implications of the current state of affairs for ongoing and future security sector reform efforts by the European Union and the Netherlands more specifically.

The meeting began with a surveying of the current situation in Libya, taking in the effects of migration and related criminality, the activities and competing interests of the militias currently active throughout the country, and Libya’s political dynamics, particularly the legitimacy and acceptance of the Government of National Accord (GNA).


It was noted that Libya is and always has been a destination country for migrants. Millions of economic migrants from all corners of the African continent see Libya as an endpoint in their journeys. However, the deteriorating safety situation in the country, exacerbated by rampant human rights violations, violence and the rise of ISIS - who have taken to targeting migrants - have shortened the transit time and encouraged onward migration over the dangerous Mediterranean Sea path.

Recent developments, particularly legislation criminalizing immigration and the increased involvement of criminal gangs in the smuggling economy, may exacerbate the conditions fueling migration. Many migrants arrested in Libya, as well as those turned back by the coast guard at sea, are brought to detention centers characterized primarily by conditions that migrants attempted to escape from in the first place. Ensuring that policies and program that stem migration do not cause further harm, particularly violations of basic human rights and dignities, should be a central concern for all external actors in Libya.

Economic interests

The discussion illustrated the impact of the economy on many facets of the security situation in Libya. The lack of economic opportunities fuels the turn towards criminal activity, such as smuggling. Militia membership provides many with an income, meaning the demobilization cannot occur effectively without job opportunities after the fact.

All of the participants agreed that oil production remains central to the prospects for stability in Libya. Without the income and jobs flowing from the oil industry, the Libyan state and economy will not be able to provide conditions for sustainable peace. To this end, guaranteeing the … of the Libyan oil production infrastructure, as well as the equitable distribution of oil wealth through the Libyan Central Bank, are priorities for external interventions.

The discussion throughout the day questioned whether improving economic prospects in Libya was the first element that external interventions should focus on in order to generate the most tangible results overall. On the one hand, it was argued, an enhanced economy can help to assuage a range of other drivers of conflict in the country: increased militarization; the smuggling economy; weak institutions; lack of education and social programs - all of which would ameliorate the state of the security sector. On the other hand, economic initiatives require relative stability and security. The current unstable situation would hamper the ability of actors to find reliable partners and initiate sustainable programs.

Militias and politics

Following from the previous discussion, the participants noted that effective interventions in Libya, are impeded by the ever-changing nature of the security sector and its main actors. New groups, coalitions and alliances arise, older groups atomize, new leaders come to the fore and key figures depart from the scene. Mapping exercises and surveyance of the situation on the ground are necessary, but must be updated continuously. Information on leaders and authority structures from before 2014 is essentially irrelevant at this time, yet external actors continue to use out-of-date information as the foundation upon which interventions are built.

With respect to militias, groups are hybrid and fluid in nature. They are often characterized by hyper-regionalization and localization, undermining the notion of “national” armed groups. Groups emerge from particular (geographic) contexts, capturing the specific grievances that are present in these contexts as a basis for their existence. Brigades from Misrata, Sirte and elsewhere have competing interests and are supported by different, sometimes foreign, parties. Additionally, armed Salafist groups and the rise of ISIS further complicate the situation.

Have EU and other external interventions failed?

Given the unstable setting in which interventions take place, how can programs be insulated such that their effectiveness will not be tarnished? It was noted that it is crucial to take a long-term historical view of the readiness of Libyans for interventions. Libya is grappling with a legacy of incoherent institutional approaches, unclear and opaque administrative processes and disruption and disappearance of crucial data. Assumptions made by external actors, such as which ministry to direct resources to for specific ends, often do not take into account this legacy. The lack of unity in government has caused politicization of many of the elements of the Libyan government, for example the Libyan Central Bank and the ministry of oil.

External interventions have thus far often been characterized by a short-term perspective and a lack of institutional memory. The same mistakes are made repeatedly. Actors intervene on the basis of faulty or incomplete information, mapping is not comprehensive, and efforts are rife with incorrect assumptions. However, as the discussion illustrated, the perception among many Libyans that external interventions have been detrimental to the Libyan situation are not entirely correct. External mediation, for example, has enhanced the success of local ceasefires. The worst era of fighting in recent years, in 2014, was that in which no external mediation took place. Furthermore, the efforts to strengthen the GNA offer some hope for the future, and should not be halted prematurely. The problem many humanitarian efforts, such as those led by the EU, face is the lack of access. Many organizations are unable to work effectively in Libya, causing a lack of reliable humanitarian partners.

How can we move forward?

The main thread throughout the discussions was the inability of almost all actors to gain a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of the situation on the ground. As such, there is a need for a greater push for scaled and well-grounded analyses evaluating various aspect of the political economy of Libya.

External actors are at risk of falling for drawing board program. The template-based solutions on offer, such as elections, will not necessarily fit the complex and ever-changing reality on the ground in Libya. Indeed, solutions of this kind aimed at reforming the security sector can play into the hands of those wielding the most influence at the time. Coupled with the aforementioned deep analyses, developing adaptive programming that takes into account the power dynamics on the ground will help to improve the effectiveness of efforts.

Institutions must be built up from a basic level. The legacy left over from under the Gaddafi regime greatly impacts their ability to function going forward. This legacy must be taken into account and dealt with, by improving coherence of institutional cooperation and clarity of institutional mandates.

The needs of the Libyan population, however diverse, must remain a focal point for all efforts. While the GNA must eventually take up the mantle of responsibility for these needs, external actors must find ways to support the Libyan population directly, bypassing the GNA where it lacks the capacity or ability to act and where the needs are pressing. However, these efforts must not undermine the legitimacy of the GNA and its ability to govern in the future - efforts must retain a long-term focus on sustainable self-governance.