PARIS – France hosts an international conference on Libya on Friday as the North African country heads into long-awaited elections next month, a vote that regional and world powers hope will pull the oil-rich nation out of its decades-long chaos.
US Vice President Kamala Harris and several world leaders will take part in the Paris conference and should push for transparent and credible elections. They will also urge the withdrawal of mercenaries and foreign forces from Libya, as stated in last year’s UN-brokered ceasefire that ended fighting between rival factions in the country.
Libya was engulfed in chaos by a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 that toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who was subsequently killed. The oil-rich country has been divided for years between rival governments, one based in the capital, Tripoli, and the other in the eastern part of the country. Each side is supported by different foreign powers and militias.
Friday’s conference is jointly chaired by France, Germany, Italy, Libya and the United Nations and is attended by high-level international and regional officials.
Participants are expected to push for an “indisputable and irreversible” electoral process, a joint effort to combat trafficking in people and arms through Libya. According to the office of French President Emmanuel Macron, they should also support tangible efforts to withdraw mercenaries and foreign troops.
Harris said on Monday she will be attending the conference “to show our strong support for the Libyan people as they plan elections.”
Libyan leaders Mohamed el-Manfi, head of the presidential council, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush are also expected.
The conference comes less than six weeks before Libyans are due to vote in the first round of presidential elections next December. 24. Almost two months later, parliamentary elections will be held, along with a second round of the presidential vote.
The long-awaited vote, however, still faces challenges, including unresolved issues over electoral laws and occasional infighting between armed groups. Other obstacles include the deep rift that remains between the east and west of the country and the presence of thousands of foreign fighters and troops. The UN has estimated that there have been at least 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya in recent years, including Russians, Syrians, Turks, Sudanese and Chadians.
A major human rights group on Thursday questioned whether Libyan authorities could hold free and fair elections. Human Rights Watch criticized what it claimed to be Libya’s restrictive laws undermining freedom of speech and association, as well as the presence of armed groups accused of intimidating, assaulting and detaining journalists and political activists.
“The main questions the leaders of the summit should ask themselves are: Can the Libyan authorities ensure an environment free from coercion, discrimination and intimidation of voters, candidates and political parties?” it says in a statement.
In July, UN special envoy for Libya, Jan Kubis, accused “spoilers” of trying to obstruct the vote to unify the divided nation. The Security Council warned that any individual or group that compromises the electrical process could be subject to UN sanctions.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said this week: “We want to see an election that the Libyan people can believe in, that is credible and that is in line with past agreements.”
This week politicians and warlords in western Libya made statements against the vote under laws ratified by the country’s parliament. Khaled al-Meshri, head of the Tripoli-based Supreme Council of State, went further and threatened in television comments to use violence to prevent the powerful military commander Khalifa Hifter, a potential leader in the presidential race, from taking office if he were elected.
The civil war in Libya intensified in 2019 when Hifter, who commands the self-styled Libyan Arab armed forces, launched an offensive to take Tripoli from armed militias loosely allied with the then weak UN-backed government in the country’s capital. .
Hifter, who was allied with an administration based in the east, was supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France. However, his 14-month campaign and march on Tripoli ultimately failed in June 2020, after Qatar and Turkey stepped up their military support, with the latter sending mercenaries and troops to help support the militias of the Western Libya.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed.