COVID-19 in Libya: Germany Should Engage, Not Retreat

07 May 2020   ·   Thomas Claes, Jannis Grimm

Despite diplomatic efforts at the Berlin Conference, the security situation in Libya is deteriorating, providing ideal conditions for COVID-19 to spread unnoticed. Germany should revitalize dialogue formats established in Berlin to leverage technical support by all actors involved, and upgrade bilateral aid to support coordinated measures to contain the virus.

As the Middle East and North Africa grapples with the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on dilapidated health systems, marginalized populations and ailing economies, war-torn Libya has been conspicuously absent from recent reporting. Earlier this year, the country had been the focus of international attempts at conflict resolution under the auspices of the German Federal Foreign Office. As these efforts failed to produce tangible results, the country has spiraled back into armed violence which is now threatening a resolute response to the virus. Amid a looming health crisis in Libya, the so called “Berlin Process” has become all the more relevant. German diplomatic engagement should concentrate on strengthening the framework of the Berlin accord reached in January and enable its follow-up committees to take a lead in the fight against the virus – before it takes root in the country.

War-Torn Libya Lacks the Medical Infrastructure to Deal With COVID-19

It is true that COVID-19 has largely spared Libya, so far. Since the first recorded case on March 17, only 63 cases have been confirmed. This low infection rate, however, belies the risk posed by the virus. Even before the recent fighting, Libya was ill prepared to face COVID-19. In the Global Health Security Index, it ranks among the last ten countries worldwide as regards the capacity to rapidly respond to and mitigate the spread of an epidemic. After years of civil war, its health institutions possess little if any capacities to deal with the virus. The militant non-state actors who overtook governance structures in many local authorities have concentrated on pillaging state funds and largely neglected the health sector. Many public health facilities are damaged and closed. Those that are still open are filled with war wounded fighters and civilians. Medical staff has become short in supply and many well-trained doctors and nurses have left the country to work in less hazardous circumstances. Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Libyans were still able to seek medical treatment in neighboring countries such as Tunisia or Egypt. But after the closure of all land borders and airports on March 16, this has become impossible, too. These deficits are compounded by the context of the civil war which provides a cover for the virus to spread silently. Libya is currently a divided country: The internationally recognized “Government of National Accord” (GNA) essentially controls the capital Tripoli and some surrounding towns, while the “Libyan National Army” (LNA, recently rebranded as Libyan Arab Army Forces, LAAF) of General Khalifa Haftar controls most of the east and the south. In this context, the National Center for Disease Control’s ability to document and react to positive cases is limited. Both governments have imposed a lockdown in their respective territories to contain the virus, but given their enmity they have not engaged in the necessary joint action to coordinate their responses. On the contrary, the virus outbreak has been used as an opportunity for new confrontation. With international attention mostly turned inwards, both the GNA and the LNA could launch new military offensives without fears of diplomatic repercussions.

COVID-19 Provides an Opportunity for Military Escalation

This new round of escalation does not come unexpected. After all, the “Berlin Conference” in January 2020, which aimed at bringing together all foreign backers of Libya’s warring factions, did not deliver a breakthrough. In the aftermath of the conference, foreign military support for both sides has not decreased, but intensified: Turkey backed the GNA with drones and anti-aircraft weaponry, breaking Haftar’s advantage in airpower. The UAE, Egypt and Russia, for their part, boosted their support to the LAAF. As if that were not enough, the highly respected UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salamé stepped down in early March and has yet to be permanently replaced. With international attempts at conflict resolution stalled and both sides well-supplied, the COVID-19 crisis provided an excellent opportunity for military escalation. Significantly, the conflict parties exploited the spread of the virus: Both sides blame each other for importing the virus to Libya by enlisting foreign mercenaries. Forces loyal to Haftar have targeted medical facilities to weaken the GNA, including a hospital dedicated to treating COVID-19-patients. In early April, they cut the capital’s water supply for almost two weeks, jeopardizing sanitary protection for its three million citizens. Rocket attacks and bombings targeting civilian areas are, furthermore, making it increasingly difficult for people to shelter from the virus in their homes.

The social and economic situation is equally alarming. The incomes of most Libyans already took a hard hit over the last year due to ongoing fighting. The current lockdown and rising prices for basic commodities now risk pushing many families into poverty. Even worse is the situation of tens of thousands mostly sub-Saharan migrants and refugees who attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Libyan shores. Despite the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, migrant arrivals in Italy are up by almost 400 % compared to 2019. Many more, however, are intercepted on their way to Europa by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard. These migrants are brought back to Libya, disembarked on unsafe ports and crammed into arbitrary detention centers where humanitarian and hygienic conditions were disastrous even before the virus. COVID-19 reaching these centers would spell certain catastrophe.

International Actors Should Revitalize the Dialogue Formats Established at the Berlin Conference to Coordinate the COVID-19 Response

Given the risks associated with an outbreak in this already volatile situation, the need for a resolute international effort to support Libyans in the struggle against corona is evident. Germany could best support such an effort by making the fight against COVID-19 a central element of the Berlin Process. Though limited in terms of its tangible impact on the warring factions, the “Berlin Conference” on January 19 established a dialogue format between all relevant conflict parties which could be repurposed to address the effects of COVID-19 on the Libyan population. One of the advantages of the Berlin constellation is that it already encompasses those states who are most engaged in Libya, as well as the international organizations needed for a concerted corona response. In Berlin, these actors agreed to establish an International Follow-Up Committee (IFC) under the aegis of the United Nations to operationalize the conference conclusions. 

Thus far, this committee has failed to achieve a comprehensive conflict resolution. But it could still work as a mechanism to leverage financial and technical support in the fight against COVID-19, e.g. the provision of ventilators, medical staff, isolation facilities and sanitary equipment. After all, despite their support for different clients, combatting a virus that does not respect frontlines and threatens all conflict parties alike should be in the interest of all actors involved in Libya. Coincidentally, the IFC is currently chaired by the Italian government, which has gained ample experience handling the pandemic in the Bergamo region. This predisposes Italy to spearhead measures to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in Libya. 

The Berlin Process also established the basis for cooperation between the Libyan conflict parties through the creation of a 5+5 military committee and four technical working groups with representatives from both conflict sides. Thus far, the authority of these fora to negotiate high politics, such as a truce or the unification of national institutions, on behalf of either faction has been limited. But the need to implement effective measures against COVID-19 across frontlines could revitalize their role in the eyes of the warring parties as mechanisms to coordinate a response.

Germany Should Redirect Its Aid to Support Measures to Fight COVID-19  

Germany, the initiator of the Berlin Process, could support this process by suggesting a rededication of the working groups for disease control, or by proposing the creation of an additional working group to work out the conditions for a national response to the corona crisis. Jointly with its European partners, it should furthermore urge the signatories to the Berlin accord to seize upon UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for a global humanitarian truce to resume the 5+5 joint military talks – if not for a permanent ceasefire, then at least a temporary truce until the pandemic has been contained. Beyond such multilateral measures, Germany, as Libya’s single largest donor to stabilization and migration projects, could redirect  – or upgrade – some of its aid to support anti-corona measures. Such bilateral support could be conditioned on tangible joint steps by both conflict factions towards a coordinated approach to containing the virus.

Combatting COVID-19 in Libya ultimately lies in Germany’s and Europe’s immediate self-interest. If the current exploitation of COVID-19 to gain advantages on the battlefield continues unabated, the consequences will not only be detrimental to the wellbeing of the Libyan people. They will also run counter to the German interests in Libya, which made it assume a leading role as conflict mediator in the first place: the concerns over Libya’s destabilization and the resulting rise in the number of refugees embarking to Europe via the Mediterranean.

The concurrence of the Berlin Process and the COVID-19 pandemic is testing Germany’s resolve in Libya. But it also provides a window of opportunity for achieving progress on the diplomatic parquet. Rather than using the COVID-19 crisis as an occasion to retreat from the scene, Germany should use its diplomatic clout to push for joint efforts between the warring factions in Libya to fight not each other, but a virus that is affecting all sides of the conflict.

Naher Osten & Nordafrika Frieden & Sicherheit COVID-19

Thomas Claes

Thomas Claes is in the Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Libya project in Tunis. He also heads the foundation’s regional trade union project as well as a project on social justice and the impact of international financial institutions in the MENA-region.

Jannis Grimm

Dr. Jannis Grimm is a Libya policy consultant at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Middle East and North Africa department and the Regional Coordinator of the foundation’s trade union work in the region. He has served as a policy analyst for several research institutions and has held positions in Egypt and Turkey.