Image courtesy of EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid/Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)
This blog belongs to the CSS’ coronavirus blog series, which forms a part of the center’s analysis of the security policy implications of the coronavirus crisis. See the CSS special theme page on the coronavirus for more.
Ongoing fighting in Libya and the toll of a decade of almost continual civil war will make it difficult to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Libya. Increased instability as a result of an escalation in fighting not only creates conditions under which transmission of the virus could rapidly accelerate while resources are devoted to dealing with the war-wounded; it also risks Libya once again becoming an important departure point for migrants and refugees as people seek to flee the coronavirus as well as the conflict. European policymakers should grasp the moment to push for a ceasefire, not only to help combat the spread of the virus in Libya but also to pave the way for a return to peace talks.
The coronavirus could be devastating in war-torn Libya. As cases of the virus appear in the country, Libya is in the grips of another battle – a six-year civil war that shows no sign of letting up. While official figures may remain low – according to the Worldometer database, 64 cases as of 12 May – the number of cases is likely to be higher in reality, given limited testing facilities in the country and resistance from militias to the use of healthcare facilities for testing purposes. In addition to the difficulties of assessing the scale of problem, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that ongoing fighting will make combating the virus extremely challenging.
Despite such warnings and international calls for a ceasefire, fighting is continuing and even escalating, damaging critical infrastructure, including hospitals, and further displacing segments of the population. Not only is Libya’s healthcare system in tatters after years of civil war, two rival governments are operating in the country, making a coordinated response near impossible. Moreover, the authority of these two governments is only partial and relies on the cooperation of militias that de facto control certain areas. In combination with measures introduced to tackle the coronavirus, this is complicating the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including basic goods, some of which help to combat the virus. Europeans must seize the moment to push for a truce in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and an even bigger humanitarian disaster unfolding on their doorstep, one which could see many more people fleeing Libya to reach Europe.
A Country in the Grips of War
Libya is ill-prepared to tackle the coronavirus. Since 2014, the country has been politically fractured and in the grips of a second civil war, the first having led to the fall of the Qaddafi regime in late 2011. Today, the main fault line is between two politico-military constellations. One is the Government of International Accord (GNA), which controls Tripoli and the northwest of the country, as well as the militias with which it cooperates. The second is a rival government based in eastern Libya, which is backed by a powerful militia, led by a Qaddafi-era general who joined the rebels in 2011, the Libyan National Army (LNA).
Although the GNA came into being as part of a 2015 UN-brokered peace deal, and in this sense is Libya’s legitimate government, it has lacked both authority and legitimacy from the outset. Hurriedly signed by just a few representatives from Libya’s political factions as the so-called Islamic State gained a foothold in the country and the migration crisis shook Europe, the peace deal sadly never enjoyed broad-based support. A government in the East, which existed prior to the signing of peace deal, continues to operate and the LNA is still actively seeking to unseat the GNA militarily.
External backers have also played a part in fueling the conflict, providing arms and even military assistance to militias on either side. In recent times, Turkey has lent support to militias linked to the GNA. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia have provided military assistance to the LNA.
Fighting escalated over a year ago, when the LNA launched an offensive to capture Tripoli on the eve of a UN-sponsored national conference aimed at fostering a national consensus on the country’s future and revitalizing the UN-facilitated peace process. The UN peace process at this point looked in serious danger of collapsing.
Yet, a glimmer of hope appeared to be in sight this January as Germany took the lead in trying to bring an end to the fighting in Libya and in reinvigorating the UN peace process. The Berlin conference specifically focused on convening and building consensus among regional and extra-regional states that had been backing parties to the conflict to, on the one hand, respect and enforce the arms embargo on Libya and, on the other, to support efforts to broker a ceasefire.
The Berlin conference was a welcome development as the UN peace process had previously failed to address the role of external actors head on, concentrating instead on trying to reduce the differences between Libyan parties to the conflict, leaving a vital piece of the puzzle missing. Libyan factions were thus absent at the Berlin talks, though they were to be integrated into subsequent meetings aimed at resuscitating the UN peace process, starting first with a meeting among military representatives from both sides.
The talks in Berlin also demonstrated that Europe is capable of pursuing a coherent approach toward the Libyan conflict, something that was sorely missing before. While the EU and individual European countries officially supported the peace deal and the UN process, France in particular had been providing military assistance to the LNA, even though the latter actively sought to undermine the GNA. Paris had also failed to coordinate its diplomatic efforts with other European capitals, painfully displaying the disunity among Europeans.
The Berlin conference led to a pledge by regional and extra-regional states to uphold the arms embargo on Libya and to work towards bringing about a ceasefire. Yet, the subsequent talks between military spokespersons from rival factions held as part of the UN peace process quickly broke down as a ceasefire facilitated by Russia and Turkey collapsed due to violations on both sides. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for a ceasefire to enable the country to tackle the virus. So too have Europeans, the US, and many Arab states, including the UAE, in a joint statement.
Preventing the Spread of the Virus
Amidst the fighting, the GNA in Tripoli and its rival in eastern Libya have put some measures in place to help mitigate the transmission of the virus. These include closing schools, some businesses, and markets. Both governments have also brought in curfews from 6 pm to 6am to keep people at home.
However, the conflict is creating conditions that could cause the virus to spread. This, without adequate means of assessing the true number of cases in the country. Increased violence over the past weeks has caused thousands of residents of Tripoli and surrounding coastal areas to flee their homes and to seek refuge with friends, family and host families. In addition to the displaced, migrants and refugees in Libya are especially vulnerable to contracting the virus. Many live in poor and unhygienic conditions as they wait to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe or in over-crowded detention centers with inadequate access to healthcare.
The healthcare system itself has been ravaged by years of war and is struggling to prepare for an increase in corona-related admissions. Hospitals are focused on caring of those injured in the fighting or suffering from chronic conditions, leaving little spare capacity to admit patients with Covid-19. To make matters worse, shelling has damaged hospitals in Tripoli assigned to receive corona patients, while fighting along the western coast has forced others to cease operations altogether. Even where hospitals are able to take corona-infected patients, a lack of proper protective equipment means that healthcare workers are reluctant to treat them and are at a high risk of infection themselves.
An End to Fighting to Combat Corona
Continued fighting is also hampering the delivery of humanitarian assistance not just linked to the war, but also to combating the coronavirus, resulting in essential goods– such as food, basic hygiene materials, and medical supplies – not getting where they need to go despite the best efforts of humanitarian workers. A ceasefire is now more urgent than ever to help prevent a humanitarian disaster. European policymakers should seize the moment to incentivize Libyan factions to halt the fighting in order to prepare to combat the virus by offering much needed corona-related assistance within the context of a ceasefire. Simultaneously, they should build on a growing consensus among regional and extra-regional powers with stakes in the conflict about the need to halt the violence to allow local authorities to contain the virus.
A rare window of opportunity during which both governments in Libya and their external backers may find common ground is upon us. Even though a humanitarian truce cannot replace the necessary peace talks that consider the needs and interests of conflict parties, it could provide a stepping stone for further discussions. Europe should again take the lead and maintain the diplomatic initiative on the Libyan file.
The Center for Security Studies (CSS) is investigating the medium and long-term consequences of the corona crisis through two research projects. One project focuses on national and international crisis management. The other addresses the effects of the crisis on international relations and national and international security policy. To find out more, see the CSS special theme page on corona.
About the Author
Dr. Lisa Watanabe is Head of Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich.
For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.