Listening to the world's displaced

With a record number of people forced from their homes last year, the focus must be on their hopes for peace. Libya is an example where big powers must back local initiatives for national unity.

Migrants are seen after being rescued by the Libyan coast guard in Tripoli, Libya.

The worldwide total of people forcibly displaced by violence, persecution, or gross human rights abuses reached a record 79.5 million at the end of 2019, according to a United Nations report released today. Forty percent were children. One of the more urgent hot spots is Libya. A 2011 revolution in the North African country ended a 42-year dictatorship but also unleashed ethnic and regional tensions that have since kept it in constant turmoil – and ripe for foreign intervention.

The U.N. estimates that 1.3 million Libyans need emergency humanitarian relief. More than 200,000 are internally displaced. Libya is also the gateway for African migrants trying to reach Europe. Smuggling routes crisscross its desert expanses. Islamic State cells have sought to exploit rival factions to their own gain.

Both the economy and Libyan society are in tatters. Yet it is also clear that this is not what ordinary Libyans want. At the local level, towns that once fought each other are setting aside ethnic animosities to coordinate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Urban youth-led civil society initiatives, connected via social media, are giving voice to aspirations for democracy, women’s rights, and national reconciliation. In a country divided by tribes and other influences, there is still a shared culture of disdain for powerful central government and a desire to build national unity from the grassroots.

The biggest obstacle to the peace that these local movements seek is outside meddling. Attracted by Libya’s oil reserves – the largest in Africa and ninth largest globally – and driven by regional power ambitions or security concerns, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have stoked proxy wars between local Libyan groups.

At the latest peace conference, held in Berlin last January, the rival Libyan leaders refused even to meet. The resulting communiqué called for a joint military commission and a renewed commitment to an existing embargo on exports of arms to Libya. But just months later, in early June, Turkey deployed troops and military hardware to expel a Russian-backed faction trying to take Tripoli, where Ankara’s preferred proxy sits.

“As the foreign intervention increases, the Libyans themselves are getting lost in the mix, their voices crowded out,” says Stephanie Williams, acting U.N. special representative for Libya. “We must enable responsible Libyans to write their own future.”

That observation provides a clarifying motive for international policy toward all troubled states producing displaced persons and providing fertile terrain for terrorists and other violent actors. If the democratic aspirations of ordinary Libyans can be honored and supported, it might set an example for how to end violence and persecution elsewhere. The best route home for the displaced and the shortest distance to achieving economic stability and security is to provide space for local peace initiatives to take root. 

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