Swift and decisive action by the international community has stopped a humanitarian disaster from emerging so far in Libya, but the country’s transition to genuine democracy will take time and require concerted global support, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned today.
“For now, we have prevented a humanitarian catastrophe,” Mr. Ban said in a statement to an international conference, held in London and involving dozens of countries and regional organizations, on the situation in Libya.
Mr. Ban said “thousands of lives” were saved by the actions of the international community, with a Security Council resolution earlier this month authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and then individual United Nations Member States launching air strikes as part of the implementation of that resolution.
“When the air strikes began, Government forces were poised to enter Benghazi,” he said, referring to the city in eastern Libya that has fallen under the control of the opposition movement to Muammar al-Qadhafi. “A bloodbath appeared to be inevitable…
“Yet we also know: air operations, alone, will not resolve the crisis. Nor will it bring about a political solution that meets the aspirations of the Libyan people.”
The Secretary-General pledged the ongoing support of the UN to resolve the crisis in Libya and noted that the world body was already engaged in “strong diplomatic efforts.”
He reiterated his call for an immediate ceasefire between the military and opposition forces, and said he and his Special Envoy for Libya, Abdul Elah al-Khatib, remain in close contact with both Libya’s authorities and the opposition. Mr. Khatib is slated to return to Libya shortly.
“His aim is to keep direct channels of communications with all sides of the conflict and to use these contacts to help resolve the conflict and to bring about a settlement that accords with the will of the Libyan people.”
UN humanitarian officials are also preparing an inter-agency needs assessment for eastern Libya, with many agencies reporting difficulties in accessing civilians caught up in the fighting.
Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told journalists that the agency had been able to get some supplies into Libya but not to the cities either siege from, or under the control of, military forces.
The first boatloads of people to reach Europe after fleeing Libya have arrived in the past few days in Malta and Italy, stretching the reception capacities of those countries, she said. Many of the new arrivals are Eritreans and Somalis and more boatloads are expected.
In total, around 380,000 people are estimated to have left Libya since the unrest – part of wider protests across North Africa and the Middle East – began and another 13,000 are stranded at the country’s borders with Tunisia and Egypt.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is also voicing concern that food supplies are gradually being consumed and not replenished.
In his statement today in London, Mr. Ban stressed that the international community must maintain a “coordinated, effective response” that prioritizes saving civilian lives and ending the hostilities.
“Soon, Libya’s people will have to re-engage with each other. Our long-term interest is to help them do so, focusing on the establishment of transitional arrangements that would meet the democratic aspirations of the Libyan people.”
The Secretary-General backed the call of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron for a Contact Group to deal with the situation, saying there must be close coordination between the UN, the League of Arab States, the African Union (AU), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the European Union (EU).
“We know that any stable democracy must be grounded in political, economic and social development. This will require a strategy based on an integrated framework and firm commitments from us all. We will have to address such issues as economic reforms and job creation, justice and reconciliation, human rights, capacity- and institution-building, political dialogue, electoral assistance and security-sector reform.”
Mr. Ban noted that “the transition to a democratic government and society will take time” given the scope of Libya’s problems.
“The Government regime has not encouraged civil society. It has just been one-man rule. Therefore, we need to be very strategic in helping them to have a very smooth transition to the rule of law and fuller democracy. The decades-long repression of political parties, civil society organizations and the media also pose substantial challenges.”