UN involvement in Libya since inception, until when?

Abdul Rahman Shalgam

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The fledgling United Nations organization was the midwife who witnessed the birth of Libya, and nurtured it through its difficult first days.

The UN appointed Dutch diplomat Adriaan Pelt in December 1949 as a commissioner in Libya to work on establishing an independent and unified state after many years of colonialism and division.

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After the defeat of the Italian and German forces in El Alamein and their departure from Barqa, Tripoli and Fezzan, the whole country came under control of the British forces in the provinces of Barqa and Tripoli, while the Fezzan region was controlled by the French; Britain and France effectively shared control of the entire Libyan territory.

The UN envoy, Adriaan Pelt, was a diplomat, politician, and an architect with the ability to draw a blueprint for building a country on the ruins of history, despite the difficult geography.

Pelt succeeded in his almost impossible mission and helped they Libyans achieve their dream of establishing a state.

He also wrote a memoir in which he documented the journey towards this seemingly impossible dream. Prof. Dr. Muhammad Zahi Bashir Al-Mughairbi, a professor of political science at the University of Benghazi, added to these notes by translating them into Arabic in four volumes with full academic rigor and bibliography, and an enjoyable, smooth language.

Pelt called his memoir, Libyan Independence and the United Nations: A Case of Planned Decolonization.

The author presented a summary of the history of Libya before the Italian invasion in 1911, the long resistance it witnessed in its territories, and the quest of the Libyans to create a national entity that expresses their identity, as well as the multiple meetings that brought together representatives of all regions.

After the departure of the Italian colonial forces, the victorious powers in World War II fought to establish military and political presence in Libya. Italy, which was defeated, did not give up its goals of maintaining a large community in the country and playing a political role in the new independent Libya.

On Sept. 15, 1948, the task of determining the fate of the former Italian colonies was transferred from the four powers, namely France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States of America to the UN General Assembly, the body that did not yet have the veto, and was composed of 58 members who made decisions by a two-thirds majority on the basis of equal voting weights.

In the beginning, all the Italian colonies were dealt with together, namely, Libya, Somalia and Eritrea, but Libya received the greatest attention from the four victorious nations, in addition to the interest of the Arab and Islamic member countries of the UN in the Libyan cause and their shared enthusiasm for the independence of Libya and the establishment of a unified state.

Two tracks govern the developments of the Libyan issue; externally, there was a disagreement between international actors on the future of Libya over tutelage or independence, and internally, the dialogues and meetings between the Libyan parties about the form of the state after achieving independence and the constitutional formula acceptable to all.

The name Idris Al-Senussi emerged early on as a national figure who was well liked throughout the country. On October 20, 1939, when World War II broke out, asylum seekers from Tripoli and Barqa met in Alexandria and decided to hand over their joint leadership to Idris Al-Senussi. After that, a Libyan force was formed, joining the British forces in their battles against the Axis.

The British government made commitments to Emir Idris Al-Senussi about the future of Barqa, and the Tripoli tribes demanded the same obligations, with their reservations about recognizing the leadership of Emir Idris Al-Senussi.

After defeating Italy and Germany, the British forces entered Barqa and Tripoli under the leadership of General Montgomery and the French forces entered the Fezzan region led by General Leclerc. Idris Al-Senussi returned from exile to Barqa in July 1943, and the people called for an independent Barqa under his rule.

On the international track, the meetings and efforts between the countries with an interest in the Libyan issue did not stop, including both disagreements and understandings.

Adriaan Pelt had to be present at both the internal and external level. The four victorious powers had their plans for international arrangements and geopolitical calculations after World War II, especially in the Mediterranean region in which Libya is a particularly sensitive area.

Adriaan Pelt went on tours in the three regions, and met their social and political actors to create a practical vision that enabled him to initiate the completion of the constitutional steps to establish the independent and united state.

Barqa was granted independence on September 16, 1949 by Britain, an important step in the path of establishing the desired Libyan entity.

In the fourth part of the first volume, Pelt records his impressions of the surveys he conducted in the three regions, the first of which is a general readiness and eagerness to form an independent and unified state, and a widespread, albeit not unanimous, feeling that favored Idris Al-Senussi as the head of state.

The third was a gradual polarization of feelings around two concepts; the united state or the federal state.
In the Tripoli region, the prevailing feeling in urban areas was towards a unified central state with Tripoli as its capital.

In Barqa there was fear of the control of the more populous Tripoli and of the Italian presence in Tripoli.

In the Fezzan region, the desire for autonomy was as strong as the desire of the Barqawis, with the concern for the renewal of the old economic ties with Sirte and Tripoli, and the attractiveness of the religious bond with the Senussians gradually pushed the acceptance of the idea of a united Libya.

Adriaan Pelt continued his journey in Libya through his memoirs, which he would detail in the next three parts on the road to achieving independence and the establishment of the Kingdom of Libya.

The pages of this memoir make us reflect on what is happening today in Libya and the role of the UN in it, which has been Libya’s fate since its birth.

The UN was present in Libya through the sanctions imposed on it, especially in the Lockerbie case, then in 2011 and today in the long Libyan political track on the road to establishing the new Libyan entity.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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