This past February, delegates from the UN-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) seemed to do what a slate of other diplomatic tracks had yet to achieve: give Libyans hope for peace. On February 5, under the auspices of the UN Mission to Libya (UNSMIL), the 74 Libyan delegates making up the LPDF elected businessman Abdulhamid Debeibah to lead a transitional Parliament as its Prime Minister, vesting him with the responsibility of ferrying Libya to free and fair elections this coming December. With all the main warring parties appearing to come to the table in good faith, it seemed UNSMIL had engineered a transformational breakthrough in a conflict that has torn Libya apart at the seams for the past decade. As the process unfolded, the international community watched with baited breath. A joint statement by the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy blessed the process, giving the LPDF its “full support.” The UN Security Council called the election an “important milestone.” The stage was set, at long last, for a successful consolidation of power into one transitional government.
The only problem? The vote electing Debeibah was rigged.
On March 2, a leaked UN report written by the Panel of Experts, an investigatory UN body, revealed that Debeibah had bribed several LPDF delegates to elect him Prime Minister. According to the report, two participants “offered bribes of between $150,000 to $200,000 to at least three LPDF participants if they committed to vote for Debeibah.” One delegate reportedly exploded in anger in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel hosting the LPDF when he heard that some delegates received $500,000 for their bribes. Apparently, he only received $200,000.
Just hours after the news dropped, UNSMIL issued a strong response. It threw its full support behind Debeibah, distanced itself from the UN Panel of Experts, and urged the newly elected Parliament to confirm Debeibah’s election at its first scheduled session on March 8. And while outside observers can only speculate as to UNSMIL’s motives, this see-no-evil response to the Panel’s bombshell revelations may well reflect a frantic attempt to salvage a peace process the entire international community has rallied behind. Indeed, proponents of UNSMIL’s position have argued that the long-term stability of moving ahead with Debeibah at the helm and keeping December’s election schedule on track is worth any short-term scandal, as further disruption of the process could lead to its unraveling. This position—which has been endorsed by experts and fellows from the Brookings Institution, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and others—may seem like hard-headed realism. But in fact, UNSMIL’s refusal to hold Debeibah and his co-conspirators accountable through an open and transparent process is a mistake. UNSMIL has chosen, as one Libyan lawyer and LPDF delegate put it, to “priorit[ize] expediency above all else and at the expense of due process,” and by doing so, UNSMIL risks undermining both the LPDF’s legitimacy and Libya’s long-term peace prospects.