“All Necessary Measures?” New Book by Former Libya Mission Head Examines 2011 Uprising and International Intervention

Politically Speaking talks to Ian Martin, former Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Libya, and author of a new book that looks back on the situation immediately before and after the fall of the government in Tripoli in 2011.

“Was there an alternative course of action that could have halted the [then government’s] advance on Benghazi and the risk of further imminent bloodshed?” That’s a question at the heart of All Necessary Measures?, Ian Martin’s account of the 2011 Libya uprising and the response of the international community. Martin served first as Special Adviser to the Secretary-General to Coordinate Post-Conflict Planning for Libya and then as Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

As Martin recalls in the book, peaceful protesters opposed to Muammar Gaddafi’s government were met by lethal force. “The Libyan leader threatened to crush the protesters, raising fears of civilian massacres in the eastern city of Benghazi and elsewhere.” Indeed, in June 2011, the International Criminal Court Pre-Trial Chamber found reasonable grounds to believe there was a high-level state policy aimed at halting demonstrations by any means, which led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians at the hands of security forces.

Security Council resolution 1973 of 17 March 2011 set the stage for international intervention. The text authorized Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to “take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”

Martin grapples with the more contentious elements of the Council’s text, including its partial overriding of the arms embargo previously imposed by the Council, which some Member States argued provided a loophole to supply arms to Libyan rebels — as well as its explicit prohibition of any foreign occupying force. He reminds us that “Implementation of the UN Security Council authorisation of ‘all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas’ has been highly controversial … the main charge has been that NATO and the intervening states went beyond civilian protection to pursue regime change and in doing so violated or exceeded the council mandate.”

However, he also recalls the arguments made in favour of military action — to prevent an imminent massacre in Benghazi, when memories of the failure to act in the face of atrocities in Rwanda and at Srebrenica were still very present, and then that civilians would not be safe while Gaddafi was still at the helm, given the leader’s consistently violent rhetoric.

At each step of the way, as he describes the fall of Tripoli and the subsequent post-conflict situation, Martin reflects on what earlier mediation efforts — with a pause in military action after Benghazi, for example — might have yielded.

In conversation with Politically Speaking about his UN work in Libya, Martin said that, when beginning the post-conflict planning, “We tried to understand Gaddafi’s Libya, how the conflict might be changing that, and the likely situation after the conflict and the roles the UN might be asked to play.”

After Tripoli fell, the new authorities formally requested an active UN role on the ground, and the Security Council passed a resolution establishing the mandate for UNSMIL. Martin went to Libya to establish the Mission and, as the mediation efforts of the then-Special Envoy Abdel Elah Al-Khatib came to an end, Martin became the Special Representative to the Secretary-General and Head of Mission. At the time, he recalled, “there was a very strong feeling in Libya that the UN presence was an important guarantor of the integrity of the transition. You can’t underestimate how important that can be in a country that has been divided and isolated.”

Martin and his team took a two-stage approach, requesting an initial mandate for three months to get on the ground, which was then extended to six months while the interim government was established. During this time, the mission engaged with national actors, including civil society, to gain a more developed view of the situation and what would be needed. At the six-month mark, the office was able to plan for the longer-term staffing of the mission. Citing the later recommendations of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), of which he was a member, Martin said that “ideally, you shouldn’t adopt a final concept of a mission at the very beginning, because at that stage you’ve had limited opportunity to engage with national actors,” calling the initial days the moment of “maximum ignorance.”

Soon after the uprising began, Libyan actors set up the National Transitional Council (NTC), which produced a roadmap and a constitutional declaration laying out a tight timetable for elections. Once the Gaddafi regime had been defeated, the NTC appointed an interim government. “There was a good deal of trust in the NTC as a short-term transitional body, but there was clearly a determination that there must be a more legitimate basis for a government,” Martin said. “At that point there was a considerable spirit of compromise among the Libyans themselves. They all wanted an election to happen and were willing to make difficult compromises in order to keep that process on track.”

Martin recalls a conversation at the time with the Chairman of the National Transitional Council to discuss the need for a delay for the elections. “He had been very insistent that they should stick to the exact timetable of the constitutional declaration,” he recalled. “Here was someone who was really determined to try to keep as closely as possible to the commitments they’d made to their people — to hold elections within a given timescale — and I respect him very much for that.”

Although the Mission was not placed in the position of a classical mediation between two warring factions, Martin notes there were “significant ideological divisions” among the Libyan actors themselves. Against that backdrop, the first key issue on the electoral framework to be decided was the division of political representation between the west, east and southern parts of the country, as well as what roles political parties would have, when such groups hadn’t even legally existed under Gaddafi. UNSMIL electoral advisors worked closely with the NTC’s electoral committee, giving impartial guidance on the potential outcomes of the various options under discussion. Once the framework was in place, the UN’s work next turned to the technical aspects of the electoral process. As the timetable unfolded, there were various threats to the process, such as local conflicts, as well as a secessionist element in eastern Libya that, Martin said, “almost threatened to derail the election.” The mission played a role in helping to dampen down those tensions.

It also provided support to the security sector, which, Martin noted, is still one of the most intractable issues facing Libya today. “We were asked to provide advice on policing, and UNSMIL worked to improve the policing situation by providing a small team of police advisors to help get police back on the streets. But the major issue was the proliferation of armed groups. “Neither the Libyans nor the Security Council had asked UNSMIL to help build a state army into which they could be integrated, which we assumed would be a role for bilateral actors.” Eventually, however, the UN was asked to help the Libyans coordinate the bilateral military actors.

In addition, the mission had urgent work to do to address what Martin described as the “terrible legacy of the Gaddafi period” in terms of human rights violations. This included the search for those disappeared by the regime, many of whom were later located “either in prisons or mass graves.” The new authorities were ready to grant the UN access to places of detention where those imprisoned by the victorious rebel groups were held, and in many cases abused. UNSMIL worked with them to begin to develop proper state detention facilities and release those wrongfully detained. It also assisted with the longer-term issue of developing rule-of-law capacity, so that Libya could deal with these issues in the future.

Asked about the lessons learned from the early work of UNSMIL, Martin said he believed the experience of bringing together the UN system early to assess the post-conflict role had been positive and had been reflected in the recommendations of the HIPPO report. He underscored that a UN peace operation needs strong expertise in the security sector, but added that “a post-conflict security situation characterized by the extreme weakness of a state army and a proliferation of armed groups cannot be left by Member States to the UN.”

Libyans had been overwhelmingly opposed to the deployment of a military stabilization mission, and Martin noted he did not believe that one could — or should — have been imposed on them.

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Politically Speaking

The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs