Commentary  UN in Focus 

The Role of UN in Yemen, Syria and Libya: A More Practical Approach

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, there have been three different civil wars in the Middle East, in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. During these conflicts, civilian populations have experienced massive suffering, including displacement, economic disruption, and human rights violations, wrote Zenab Ahmed for International United Nations Watch .

By Zenab Ahmed

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, there have been three different civil wars in the Middle East, in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. During these conflicts, civilian populations have experienced massive suffering, including displacement, economic disruption, and human rights violations. It is clear that the United Nations must lead an international effort to bring justice to those who have been victimised as a result of these conflicts. Yet “justice” cannot simply mean superficial methods. The UN’s role must extend beyond simply putting dictators on trial, and bringing together Truth and Reconciliation Committees. 

IUNW believes that the UN should be more ambitious. It should also “bring justice” by redistributing political and economic power, whether through institutions that already exist, or if necessary, by building new institutions. This will mean different things in each country, but as a whole, the approaches guarantee justice and the certainty that victimisation won’t occur again.

In Yemen, the UN’s role must bear in mind the complexity of both local society, and the ongoing civil war, which has killed thousands, paralysed the country’s economic and political system, and led to humanitarian catastrophe. Bitterness runs deep in Yemen. The UN won’t be able to simply encourage the prosecution of certain actors, such as the heads of local paramilitaries or military units, or call for states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to pursue less aggressive policies, and expect to satisfy people’s needs for justice. 

The UN must accept that Yemen’s internal problems are rooted in a crisis of underdevelopment, which has led to a serious lack of democracy, a visible gap with its wealthier neighbours that are able to take a more aggressive position, severe economic problems that in turn lead to corruption and an underutilisation of local resources, and a clear lack of accountability on the international stage, for military actions that take place within Yemen. It can attempt to solve these issues with new political institutions, which can boost democratic participation, and a serious restructuring of the local economy, which brings it more in line with its neighbours. This will likely need to involve actions by the Gulf monarchies, whether in zero-interest loans or technology transfers, in addition to other international actors like the United States and United Kingdom, which need to place the needs of the international community ahead of narrow political and economic concerns.

In Libya, the United Nations must acknowledge its own mistakes, as well as those of its member states, during the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, which led to a UN Security Council resolution that authorised NATO to launch a formal military intervention in the country. While the intervention succeeded in unseating Gaddafi, through a mixture of logistical and operational support, and naval and aerial strikes in support of local ground forces, UN member states failed to replace Gaddafi’s government with a suitable alternative. Indeed, the United Nations should have done more to ensure that following Gaddafi’s overthrow, new democratic institutions were created, in order to govern Libya with a broader social consensus. This would have likely also involved redistributing economic gains away from Gaddafi’s inner circle, and certain parts of Libya’s prosperous middle class, and towards a broader section of the population. Instead, these needs were neglected, and the result was that Libya transformed into ‘paramilitary state,’ where militias rule large parts of the country, and competing governments attempt to cobble together a workable solution. Libya deserves better, and the UN is certainly positioned to deliver it.

As IUNW has argued elsewhere, the United Nations must expand do more to reign in member states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and France, which are currently supporting the government of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who is challenging rival militia groups, and Libya’s UN-backed government for control of the country. Haftar’s authoritarian sensibility is not a solution for the country’s problems, and is an affront to the values and principles that are enshrined in the UN’s founding documents. It is concerning that UN member states are this able to prioritise their own narrow political and economic interests, ahead of the best interests of the Libyan people, and the UN values that they claim to value. There need to be mechanisms for stopping this kind of state misbehaviour, and Libya can be a showcase for how the UN should respond, in the future.

Following these initiatives, the United Nations should step in to help local actors rebuild the Libyan political process, by implementing new laws, and constructing new institutions, that can allow for broader social involvement than has occurred so far. Critically, these institutions cannot be too centralised, in order to stop the possibility of a military strongman, in the future. The UN should entertain the possibility of grassroots democratic institutions, that distribute power more equitably on a national scale, and prevent it from accumulating too greatly in any one place. It is true that concentrated power is necessary, for proper governance in the international system, but too much of it risks creating new dictators, as currently appears to be the case with Haftar. The United Nations should invite important actors into a national dialogue, with the aim of producing lasting changes, that will build a more just society and prevent future abuses of power.

Finally, in Syria, the United Nations must be willing to work with a variety of international and local actors, in order to go beyond the obvious need for Bashar Al-Assad is held accountable for his actions during the civil war. Although it is obviously ideal for Assad to stand trial, for many local and international observers, the current state of Syrian politics does not allow for it, and not just because Assad is in a dominant position. Syrian political institutions do not currently allow for the accountability that is necessary for justice to be practiced, to the degree necessary. The role of the UN is to help slowly build the values of tolerance, pluralism, and good governance, necessary for new political institutions to foster, in the future. This will mean grappling with the serious political and economic dysfunctions, in Syria, that have intensified as a result of the war.

Clearly, the UN must continue to encourage member states to, and direct its institutions towards, implementing just outcomes in the aftermath of civil wars. Often, this will require difficult and unpopular decisions to make certain leaders stand trial, or to galvanise larger conversations about the roles of different people in the general population, in these conflicts. Yet the UN must also go further to imagine new political and economic realities, that can institutionalise justice on a much larger scale, and prevent new instances of violence and abuse. This will likely require the UN to expand its powers, over member states, and take a more proactive role, in shaping the new social landscape that follows certain conflicts. Certainly, in the case of Libya, the United Nations had a great deal more power than in Yemen and Syria to create new democratic outcomes, and it must learn from these shortcomings in the future. Unfortunately, the current situation in countries like Syria and Yemen, where political actors either face a stalemate, or values core to the UN are held in contempt by the civil war’s apparent victors, is that the UN will be unable to create outcomes that are particularly just. Instead, the United Nations will have to temper expectations, and work towards greater change in the long term. 

Regardless, there will be times in the future when the UN will have greater power to reshape countries after civil conflicts, whether in the Middle East or beyond, and it must be energetic in its attempts to do so. The alternative is simply intolerable.

Zenab Ahmed is a researcher at IUNW.