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COVID-19 in Libya: Germany Should Engage, Not Retreat

09.06.2020

Thomas Claes, Jannis Grimm

This blog post was originally published by PeaceLab. You can find the original contribution here.

 

It is true that COVID-19 has largely spared Libya, so far. Since the first recorded case on March 17, only 63 cases have been confirmed. This low infection rate, however, belies the risk posed by the virus. Even before the recent fighting, Libya was ill prepared to face COVID-19.After years of civil war, its health institutions possess little if any capacities to deal with the virus.Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Libyans were still able to seek medical treatment in neighboring countries such as Tunisia or Egypt. But after the closure of all land borders and airports on March 16, this has become impossible, too. These deficits are compounded by the context of the civil war which provides a cover for the virus to spread silently.

Libya is currently a divided country: The internationally recognized “Government of National Accord” (GNA) essentially controls the capital Tripoli and some surrounding towns, while the “Libyan National Army” (LNA, recently rebranded as Libyan Arab Army Forces, LAAF) of General Khalifa Haftar controls most of the east and the south. In this context, the National Center for Disease Control’s ability to document and react to positive cases is limited. Both governments have imposed a lockdown in their respective territories to contain the virus, but given their enmity they have not engaged in the necessary joint action to coordinate their responses. On the contrary, the virus outbreak has been used as an opportunity for new confrontation. With international attention mostly turned inwards, both the GNA and the LNA could launch new military offensives without fears of diplomatic repercussions.

COVID-19 Provides an Opportunity for Military Escalation

This new round of escalation does not come unexpected. After all, the “Berlin Conference” in January 2020, which aimed at bringing together all foreign backers of Libya’s warring factions, did not deliver a breakthrough. In the aftermath of the conference, foreign military support for both sides has not decreased, but intensified: Turkey backed the GNA with drones and anti-aircraft weaponry, breaking Haftar’s advantage in airpower. The UAE, Egypt and Russia, for their part, boosted their support to the LAAF. As if that were not enough, the highly respected UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salamé stepped down in early March and has yet to be permanently replaced. With international attempts at conflict resolution stalled and both sides well-supplied, the COVID-19 crisis provided an excellent opportunity for military escalation. Significantly, the conflict parties exploited the spread of the virus: Both sides blame each other for importing the virus to Libya by enlisting foreign mercenaries.

International Actors Should Revitalize the Dialogue Formats Established at the Berlin Conference to Coordinate the COVID-19 Response

Given the risks associated with an outbreak in this already volatile situation, the need for a resolute international effort to support Libyans in the struggle against corona is evident. Germany could best support such an effort by making the fight against COVID-19 a central element of the Berlin Process. Though limited in terms of its tangible impact on the warring factions, the “Berlin Conference” on January 19 established a dialogue format between all relevant conflict parties which could be repurposed to address the effects of COVID-19 on the Libyan population. One of the advantages of the Berlin constellation is that it already encompasses those states who are most engaged in Libya, as well as the international organizations needed for a concerted corona response. In Berlin, these actors agreed to establish an International Follow-Up Committee (IFC) under the aegis of the United Nations to operationalize the conference conclusions. 

Thus far, this committee has failed to achieve a comprehensive conflict resolution. But it could still work as a mechanism to leverage financial and technical support in the fight against COVID-19.Coincidentally, the IFC is currently chaired by the Italian government, which has gained ample experience handling the pandemic in the Bergamo region. This predisposes Italy to spearhead measures to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in Libya. 

The Berlin Process also established the basis for cooperation between the Libyan conflict parties through the creation of a 5+5 military committee and four technical working groups with representatives from both conflict sides. Thus far, the authority of these fora to negotiate high politics, such as a truce or the unification of national institutions, on behalf of either faction has been limited. But the need to implement effective measures against COVID-19 across frontlines could revitalize their role in the eyes of the warring parties as mechanisms to coordinate a response.

Germany Should Redirect Its Aid to Support Measures to Fight COVID-19  

Germany, the initiator of the Berlin Process, could support this process by suggesting a rededication of the working groups for disease control, or by proposing the creation of an additional working group to work out the conditions for a national response to the corona crisis. Jointly with its European partners, it should furthermore urge the signatories to the Berlin accord to seize upon UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for a global humanitarian truce to resume the 5+5 joint military talks – if not for a permanent ceasefire, then at least a temporary truce until the pandemic has been contained. Beyond such multilateral measures, Germany, as Libya’s single largest donor to stabilization and migration projects, could redirect  – or upgrade – some of its aid to support anti-corona measures. Such bilateral support could be conditioned on tangible joint steps by both conflict factions towards a coordinated approach to containing the virus.

Combatting COVID-19 in Libya ultimately lies in Germany’s and Europe’s immediate self-interest. If the current exploitation of COVID-19 to gain advantages on the battlefield continues unabated, the consequences will not only be detrimental to the wellbeing of the Libyan people. They will also run counter to the German interests in Libya, which made it assume a leading role as conflict mediator in the first place: the concerns over Libya’s destabilization and the resulting rise in the number of refugees embarking to Europe via the Mediterranean.

The concurrence of the Berlin Process and the COVID-19 pandemic is testing Germany’s resolve in Libya. But it also provides a window of opportunity for achieving progress on the diplomatic parquet. Rather than using the COVID-19 crisis as an occasion to retreat from the scene, Germany should use its diplomatic clout to push for joint efforts between the warring factions in Libya to fight not each other, but a virus that is affecting all sides of the conflict.

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Authors

Thomas Claes is in the Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Libya project in Tunis. He also heads the foundation’s regional trade union project as well as a project on social justice and the impact of international financial institutions in the MENA-region.

Dr. Jannis Grimm is a Libya policy consultant at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Middle East and North Africa department and the Regional Coordinator of the foundation’s trade union work in the region.