The UN's faith in Libyan peacemongers

To reach a deal signed Thursday, the UN focused on people in Libya most interested in peace, not just the most powerful that rule parts of the country. This bottom-up approach, if it works, is a model in diplomacy.

AP Photo
From left to right, Mohammed Chouaib, head of delegation from the UN-recognized government in the eastern city of Tobruk, Libya, Fayez Sarraj, Libyan Prime minister and Dr. Saleh Almkhozom, Second Deputy Chairman of the Libyan General National Congress, react after signing a U.N.-sponsored deal aiming to end Libya's conflict Dec.17, in Sikhrat, Morocco. The signing of a U.N.-sponsored deal aims to end Libya's conflict by forming a unity government with the Libyan members from the country's two rival parliaments.

In the history of peace deals, a pact signed Thursday aimed at ending Libya’s civil war could be one for the books. Brokered by United Nations envoy Martin Kobler, it largely bypasses the biggest players – the guys with guns – who command rival governments in the east and west. Instead, it was anchored in those Libyans, such as mayors and civil society activists, who most want peace.

The UN has many reasons to arrange a peace in Libya. Four years after the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the oil-rich North African country has become an expanding base for Islamic State and other terror-exporting groups. It is a major terminal for Middle Eastern and African refugees to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. And it is awash with weapons that fuel conflicts in other African states.

Yet to reach a deal, Mr. Kobler focused mainly on the silent majority of Libyans fed up with the violent chaos and who don’t see their interests being met by the contending militias. And unlike in many other Arab societies, many Libyan peace activists are women – so much so that several have been killed for their efforts. Last month, a large group of Libyan women, who were forced into exile, met in Switzerland to help shape the UN’s agenda for the deal.

Kobler’s strategy relied on the hope that a deal signed by low-level peacemakers will soften the dueling rulers in the cities of Tripoli and Tobruk into accepting a formula for a government of national unity. If the deal works – and that will require strong international unity – Libya might just be able to repel Islamic State, rev up its oil exports again, and keep itself from splitting apart.

In some ways, Libya’s conflict is similar to violent gang wars in American cities. And as Boston discovered in the 1990s, the trick in curbing urban violence is to focus less on the warring parties and more on the peacemakers, such as neighborhood clergy, the mothers of teenage boys, and community activists. They are usually the gangs’ weak spot, or the social and spiritual order that is needed for peace.

Diplomacy is not always top down, just as peace is not merely the absence of conflict. If Libya’s peace pact holds, it will be because it was built on the power of a popular consensus for peace, not the power from the end of a gun.

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