Wednesday

4th Aug 2021

Opinion

What's missing from agenda for Berlin's Libya conference?

  • The town of Tawergha, as our teams found on a recent visit, has been completely levelled. Stabilisation in Libya is about more than elections and withdrawal of foreign fighters (Photo: Norwegian Refugee Council)

On Wednesday (23 June), world leaders will gather in Berlin, co-hosted by Germany and the United Nations, with the newly-formed Libyan Government of National Unity, to take stock of commitments to advance peace efforts in a country that has been mired by instability for more than a decade.

With the country poised to hold its first national elections in seven years this December, there is an eagerness to move towards what Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, has called the "sustainable stabilisation of the country."

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And yet the essential elements needed for such stability are not on the agenda.

In the seven months since a ceasefire tenuously took hold, the scale of the devastation that has amassed over the decade has become apparent.

Libya's once-bustling coastal cities lie in ruins. Benghazi, the second most populous city, remains a scene of smouldering devastation. The town of Tawergha, as our teams found on a recent visit, has been completely levelled. The capital Tripoli faced significant destruction in last year's escalation of conflict while also becoming host to those forced to flee their homes.

Today, a quarter million Libyans remain displaced, languishing in limbo, with no homes to return to.

Nearly 300,000 Libyans live in damaged or substandard homes that they cannot afford to rebuild. Their misfortune is a result of the massive toll the conflict has taken on the country's infrastructure. Libya's basic services – especially health care, education, and water – are precariously hinged on the brink of collapse.

More than a million people in Libya have acute health needs, and yet barely half of the country's health care facilities are functional. At the height of the pandemic mid last year, Libya suffered a record number of attacks on health care facilities.

The physical devastation is exacerbated by the economic devastation. One-in-five people in Libya need humanitarian assistance. In Tripoli, young Libyans, wait on the streets, or seek shade under a bridge, hoping for an opportunity to make a living.

Since the start of the pandemic, food prices have soared 12 percent. Some lack the documentation they need to access basic services. Others suffer discrimination and abuse just because of who they are.

Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers now account for a tenth of the population of Libya. Though this is a fraction of the millions hosted by Libya before 2011. These communities have historically played an important role in Libya's economy.

Unfortunately, today they are subject to a litany of serious human rights abuses, including sexual violence, exploitation, robbery forced labour, and systematic and arbitrary detention. More than 5,000 of them languish in detention centres, where they have endured torture and other indignities.

For people who tried to leave Libya, the hazardous journey cost more than 600 lives, or led to their interception and forced return to the very abuses they sought to flee.

Stability will not be achieved by merely holding elections or withdrawing foreign fighters. For the current cessation of hostilities to endure, and become a lasting peace, it is the lives of ordinary people in Libya and the towns and cities they live in that must be rebuilt.

From ceasefire to construction

The admirable political efforts that were invested in brokering a ceasefire must now be devoted to making tangible improvements in the lives of vulnerable communities, promoting the respect of basic human rights, strengthening the delivery of services, and access to inclusive and decent work opportunities.

There was no shortage of money lavished upon the weapons that fuelled a decade of fighting in Libya over the past decade. Several states backed rival sides prolonging the conflict to the detriment of state institutions. The foreign ministers who will meet in Berlin must demonstrate that they are more committed to the future of Libya than they were to its destruction.

The European Union and its member states have a particular role to play here, starting by acknowledging its role in enabling the suffering of migrants and refugees in Libya and the countries they come from.

In recent years, European states have refrained from conducting search and rescue operations on the Mediterranean while instead funding the Libyan Coast Guard to return migrants and refugees back to Libya - a port that the UN has declared is unsafe for disembarkation.

The bilateral agreements signed with the Libyan government, and the support extended to Libya's security forces, known to commit human rights abuses, bear alarming testimony to Brussels' complicity in this crisis.

With European states announcing the reopening of embassies in Libya these last few months, we hope there is opportunity for more constructive engagement that puts the protection of these vulnerable communities and adherence to international law at its core.

The second Berlin conference is a monumental opportunity. But unless there are genuine efforts to improve the lives of those most affected, from the agony of people displaced from their homes to the abuses endured by migrants and refugees, the tentative peace could crumble once again.

Let's not pass up the chance to make real, lasting change for the people in a country that's endured conflict for far too long.

Author bio

Dax Bennett Roque is country director in Libya for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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