On November 9th, the International Criminal Court announced that in 2017 it will focus on prosecuting war crimes in Libya after five years of violence, lawlessness, and humanitarian disaster in the North African country. The issues in Libya were referred to the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, by a fifteen member Council with the intent to “seek justice for the countless civilians who have been victims of the widespread crimes in Libya since 15 February 2011”. Her comments come at a time when Libya, with competing internal governments and a tanking economy, appears to be teetering on the edge of becoming a failed state. Some American government and military figures, such as General David Rodriguez, the top American general in Africa, believe that the nation is a failed state. The ICC’s turn to Libya emphasizes the urgency in maintaining the stability of the country, in which the United States has a direct national security interest. From the U.S.-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 to now, how did this North African country reach the brink of failure, and why would this failure be catastrophic for the region and for U.S. interests?
Following the NATO-backed ouster of Gaddafi, which ended in his bloody execution, no organized effort was made by Western nations to disarm the various militias that existed, or to ensure the legitimate establishment of a cohesive post-Gaddafi government. Instead, an interim government, the National Transition Council, or NTC, was established. The NTC proved unable to control the infighting that sprang up between former rebels and lacked legitimacy needed to peacefully unite the nation. The turbulent time following the implementation of the NTC was marked by this internal strife, until 2012 when elections were held to a General National Congress (GNC). However, the GNC did little to improve the situation in Libya. Presently in Libya there exists two competing governments: the GNC and the United Nations sanctioned Government of National Agreement (GNA). This political confusion only adds to the chaos in the country, from both security and economic standpoints.
The dismal security situation in Libya is a function of government infighting, lack of a security apparatus, and remaining conditions of the 2011 revolution. Large swathes of the country are controlled by armed militias, and recent gun battles between competing militias have rocked Nasr Forest district of Libyan capital Tripoli. In addition, and perhaps most pressingly, there has been a gradually increasing extremist presence flourishing in Libya’s security vacuum. Although diminished, ISIS has a presence in Libya along with elements of Al Qaeda and smaller extremist factions. Libya is of great strategic value to terrorist groups such as ISIL, given its prolific ports, resources such as oil, and large stores of weapons left over from the revolution. These groups have also taken advantage of Libya’s black-market economy and use their relative freedom in the tumultuous country to recruit fighters. The United States has great cause for concern about the presence of these groups and the safety that Libyan disorder grants them. By taking advantage of the power void, radical groups have consolidated personnel and resources in Libya to strike at other targets in the region and plan attacks against Western nations. If Libya were to fully devolve into failed-state status, the influence of these groups would only increase.
Libya’s economic troubles present further pressing issues. Ninety-five percent of the country’s export revenue is from oil, Libya’s most valuable resource. However, as a result of the political and security issues the country has faced over the past five years, Libya has been unable to efficiently harness this resource and its economy has declined as a result. According to the World Bank, Libya is only producing oil at one-fifth of its potential, resulting in a loss of sixty-eight billion dollars in oil revenue since 2013. This catastrophic loss of revenue has plunged the nation into an economic recession- the country is now drawing depleting cash reserves from its central bank to counter its deep deficit, and its economy is on the verge of total collapse. Officials from the GNA and the Libyan National Bank are convening in Rome to create an agreement to rescue the country from the current economic crisis. This is crucial to Western and U.S. interests because an economic collapse in Libya would only exacerbate the already dire security situation, leading to more unrest both internally and across the region.
From the NATO intervention in 2011 to the current financial and security crisis, Libya has faced intense internal chaos. Although it is very near failure, it is crucial to Western and US interests that Libya does not go the way of Somalia. This would create even more turmoil and violence within the country and the region, potentially inflicting wide-reaching damage across the Middle-East, Africa, and beyond. Parties with interest in the situation must follow the lead of the ICC and devote political and economic capital to remedying the grave conditions in Libya if there is to be hope for stability in volatile North Africa.