Libyan diplomacy: facilitating local choice

Foreign Minister John Baird’s welcome entry into Libyan diplomacy is marred by Canada’s assumption, shared by most, but not all, NATO states, that military engagement in Libya somehow includes the prerogative to select winners and losers.

There was a telling comment from Mr. Baird following his visit with the Libyan rebel movement’s National Transitional Council (NTC). Confirming Canada’s recognition of the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, Mr. Baird observed that the NTC could hardly be worse than the present Libyan Government.[i]

He’s probably right about that, but when did it become his call?

Neither Ottawa nor Washington needs to decide who might best represent the people of Libya. It’s a principle that is obviously better understood by South African President Jacob Zuma, who has been largely right about Libya from the outset of the current crisis. Cautious about lending African Union support to military intervention, he nevertheless supported it to avert impending catastrophe in Benghazi; but rather than leave it at that, he immediately began an intensive search for a political settlement.[ii]

Mr. Zuma is still offering constructive cautions and advice. He recently reminding NATO that Resolution 1973[iii] authorized only action to protect civilians; it did not mandate either “regime change or political assassination.” Instead, Mr. Zuma persistently pursues the African Union’s call for a ceasefire, to be “followed by political reforms and elections that would enable Libyans to freely choose their own leaders.”[iv]

As he explained to British Prime Minister Cameron when the latter visited South Africa in July: “We feel as African countries, that the Libyan people must decide their destiny….” If Gadhafi is to go, it is the Libyan people who must finally decide, “We don’t want this system, we don’t want this leader.”[v]

What Mr. Zuma and the African Union understand is that diplomacy remains the only viable approach to ending a crisis that began many months ago with clashes between Libyan protesters and police. The multilateral UN-authorized and NATO-led intervention has constrained the regime’s attacks on civilians,[vi] but the “rebel military victory” that some hoped would bring early resolution to the crisis is not imminent, and such a “victory” is not the formal (nor should it be the informal) objective of the international community.

The current military stalemate in the civil war between the remnants of the regime of Moammar Gadhafi regime and the NTC is probably a fair reflection of basic and deep divisions within the country more broadly – and that in turn points to the urgent need for heightened diplomacy.

And there are, in fact, welcome signs of stepped-up efforts toward a political settlement. In Canada the NDP has announced that it will not support another extension of Canadian military action with the UN-authorized multilateral military action in Libya,[vii] focusing instead, as NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar told Embassy, on  the UN resolution’s call for a ceasefire and a political settlement – “that’s the part that we need to hear a bit more on from Canada.”[viii]

At least one of Canada’s NATO partners, Turkey, was an early advocate for diplomacy and has recently announced intentions to coordinate its efforts more closely with the African Union.[ix] The “road map” that Turkey offered in April eschews the NATO penchant for
having outsiders decide who represents the Libyan people, and calls instead for a cease-fire, the creation of safe zones to allow for the distribution of humanitarian aid, and a process to facilitate a transition to democratic change.

China has also promised to work with the African Union in pursuit of a diplomatic end to the crisis. China has met with officials of the Gadhafi regime as well as the National Transitional Council, calling for a ceasefire and a compromise agreement between the two.[x]

China is also looking for a bigger UN role in Libyan diplomacy. The UN secretary-general’s special envoy to Libya, Abdul Ilah Al Khatib, has been actively engaged and during his recent visit to China the Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Hailong noted that “the international community continues to voice a stronger desire for a political solution to the
Libyan crisis.” Minister Wu called on the UN to play a bigger role in pursuit of such a solution by stepping up mediation efforts and strengthening consultations with the African Union and other regional organizations in order to obtain a ceasefire in Libya as early as possible. He also asked the UN to create an inclusive political dialogue to ease post-settlement tensions in the crisis-torn country.[xi]

In his latest statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon decried all attacks on civilians, whether by the regime, the NTC, or NATO, and insisted “there can be no military solution to the Libyan crisis.” He called on both sides to respond to ideas for a settlement put to them by his envoy for Libya.[xii]

Even France and the UK, the two states most committed to continuing military action in Libya, now realize that they need to think seriously about a negotiated, rather than a military, end to the war. They may also be becoming more supportive of African Union efforts – a change from NATO’s efforts to date to marginalize President Zuma’ diplomacy.[xiii]

Since a clear “rebel victory” is unlikely to become available in Libya, and because the UN Security Council explicitly did not authorize the international community to conduct military operations in pursuit of one, it is premature and ultimately inappropriate for Western Governments to now recognize the National Transitional Council as the
legitimate representative or Government of Libya – that’s a decisions for Libyans, who have yet to be given an opportunity to exercise genuine political choice. It is not the business of the international community to decide who represents Libyans, but it does have a responsibility to help promote conditions that will allow Libyans to choose, without the threat of attack from Government forces, their own representatives.

The process for a genuine choice requires a cease-fire, an amnesty program for fighters on both sides, and the creation of a negotiating forum that creates an interim government in the context of a process toward choosing a new government, and a broad based reconciliation effort to build Libyan consensus going forward.

Ramadan could be an important opportunity to radically curtail military operations, leading ultimately to a formal ceasefire, and to sharply increased support for UN-led diplomacy in cooperation with the African Union and the Arab League.


[i] Jordan Press, “Baird secretly meets with Libyan rebels, The Montreal Gazette,
27 June 2011.

[ii] Disarming Conflict, “Employing ‘all necessary measures’ in Libya,” 11 May 2011.

[iii] UN Security Council Resolution S/RES/1973, 17 March 2011.

[iv] “S. African President Zuma Warns NATO Against Killing Gadhafi,” Voice of America,  26 June 2011,

[v] Peter Fabricius, “Cameron, Zuma split over Libya,” IOL News South Africa, 19 July

[vi] A point made by Major-General Jonathan Vance when he told the House of Commons
Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development that the regime’s forces are now largely operating in a defensive mode. 8 August 2011.

[vii] Campbell Clark, “New Democrats call for end to military mission in Libya,” Globe and Mail, 8 August 2011.

[viii] Carl Meyer, “Canadian military, diplomatic goals in Libya don’t match up,” Embassy, 11 August 2011.

[ix] “Turkey to harmonize efforts with African Union on Libya,” Daily News, 4 August 2011.

[x] “China’s Hu says backs African plan to end Libyan crisis,” Reuters, 21 July

[xi] “China calls for UN to play bigger role in resolving Libyan crisis, Xinhua, 2
August 2011.

[xii] “Ban Ki-moon alarmed over rising civilian toll in Libya,” The Telegraph, 12 August 2011.

[xiii] Jonathan Steele, “Libya’s stalemate shows it is time to tempt Gaddafi out, not
blast him out,” 26 July 2011.

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