Libya: How COVID-19 is impacting peace and conflict

On October 23, 2020, the two main warring factions in Libya signed an agreement for “a permanent ceasefire in all areas of Libya.” The accord followed talks in Geneva under the 5+5 Joint Military Commission, a UN support mission to bring peace to Libya, with the two main warring factions.

One side is the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), an interim government created from a UN-led initiative. The other side is the eastern-based Libya National Army (LNA), led by the commander Khalifa Haftar and supported by countries such as Egypt, the UAE, and Russia. This ceasefire agreement came months after the COVID-19 outbreak and the UN’s call for a global ceasefire during the public health crisis.

As in many countries, the public health crisis has highlighted corruption and fragility in Libya. During much of the pandemic before the ceasefire announcement, violence continued while cases rose. In Sebha, a municipality in the south where thousands of people had been displaced due to fighting, there was an eightfold increase in COVID-19 cases. Many displaced persons are living in overcrowded conditions which allowed for easy spread of the virus. On top of the health crisis, the Libyan economy was also hit by an extensive blockade on oilfields and ports by the LNA. Haftar demanded redistribution of the oil revenues, arguing that much of the money made by the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) was being diverted to mercenaries for the GNA.

The blockade lasted until mid-September and likely cost the country $9.8 billion in lost revenue. It also directly impacted civilian life, worsening electricity and fuel shortages in the country.

According to Peter Maurer, The President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on a visit to Libya, “People have little electricity, drinking water, sanitation, or medical care in the middle of a growing pandemic.” Additionally, many daily wage earners and migrants have been hardest hit as income opportunities have disappeared and prices of staple foods have jumped.

The worsening crisis appears to have acted as a stimulus, pushing GNA and LNA leaders towards a ceasefire agreement. According to Dr. Mietek Boduszyński, a scholar with the Middle East Institute, “It is possible that one positive consequence of the pandemic was that it helped motivate the warring sides to sit down at the negotiating table.”

The two sides agreed to return frontline forces to their bases and to the withdrawal of all foreign forces within three months. In a sign of good faith, there has been relative calm leading up to the new round of talks began on November 9 in Tunisia. This dialogue includes a variety of constituencies in Libya, with the participation of Libyan women, youth, and minorities. The forum is ongoing and will hopefully create a framework with a set timeline for national elections.

Although Libya has a history of failed peace initiatives, UN special envoy Stephanie Williams is hopeful and stresses the need for international backing for the success of this ceasefire.

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