Exclusive Q&A: U.S. Ambassador to Libya discusses efforts to end fighting, Coronavirus response

تونس ـ بشير زعبيه Sat 04 Apr 2020, 07:40 PM
alwasat radio

The U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, sat down for an interview with Alwasat to outline his country's efforts in "ending the fighting immediately, and engaging the parties in the UN-led negotiation process," noting that the U.S. government is "in contact with the Government of National Accord (GNA), with the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LNA) and all parties in an effort to achieve this."

Ambassador Norland said the Coronavirus crisis has increased the urgency for a humanitarian truce, which would lead to progress on the draft ceasefire negotiated at the 5+5 committee meetings.

He called on the parties who made commitments at the Berlin Conference to fulfill those pledges, and expressed deep disappointment that parties are not living up to their commitments.

The ambassador stressed the importance of making rapid progress on the auditing of the Central Bank of Libya, noting that the implication of the continued obstruction of the audit is that someone is trying to hide something.

The $6 million USD announced by his country as health assistance to address the Coronavirus crisis is part of the overall U.S. assistance effort to Libya, which since 2011 has amounted to approximately $715 million he said.


1- Many Libyans see some sort of confusion or lack of clarity in the American stance towards the worsening crisis in Libya. And ever since President Trump's controversial call with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the first week of the war, the US position seems to draw nearer to this side or the other. Could you please inform the Libyan public about the nature of your country's position regarding what is happening in Libya?


Hello and Salamou Alykom.  I really hope that you and your family are doing ok as this Coronavirus begins to hit the region.  

In terms of the U.S. position on the conflict, let me just be absolutely clear about this, the U.S. position is that we want to bring an ending to the fighting now. We believe that all fighting should be suspended and that the sides should move to engage immediately in the UN-led negotiating process.  

The first step in all this would be for the LNA’s bombardment of Tripoli to halt immediately and this would allow the other side to begin to deescalate on its part.  The U.S. position is that we want a negotiated settlement and an end to the fighting right now. We are in touch with the GNA, we are in touch with the LNA and with all parties in an effort to make this happen. 


2- In your public letter to “the political and military leaderships in Libya and the Libyan people,” you warned against the dangers of the spread of the Coronavirus in the country, and you proposed a package of measures to confront it, including stopping the fighting. And in this context you called upon Field Marshal Haftar to suspend his campaign against Tripoli. This would allow the two sides to return to the draft ceasefire agreement that was put in place through the 5 + 5 negotiations”; however, this has not materialized, so, what are the appropriate steps you deem necessary to achieve that?


We believe that the Coronavirus crisis lends added urgency to the call for a humanitarian truce, and that was the reason we called for such a truce that could lead to progress on the ceasefire document that was negotiated between the two sides in the 5+5 meeting in Geneva on February 23rd.   We believe there is every reason for the two sides to embrace that document and to move forward into a full ceasefire. The current Coronavirus crisis makes this absolutely imperative. 


3- In your last letter to the political and military leaderships in Libya and the Libyan people, you said that the United States recognizes that external parties were responsible for fueling the conflict in Libya, and that Washington would address this through diplomatic channels. Are we going to see the results of these efforts on the ground, soon?


I very much hope so. Ghassan Salame and the UN have put in place an effective architecture for a genuine peace process.  The Berlin Conference in January got the parties to produce the right words, the right commitments. What we are looking for now is for the parties to live up to those commitments and to have the actions match the words that they have agreed to.  From our perspective, those external parties who think that their objectives are going to be advanced by fighting have it completely wrong. The fighting is counterproductive to the things that we believe that they are trying to achieve. That’s why we think the things that make the most sense right now are to move immediately into a ceasefire and into political negotiations. 


4- You said that freezing the deployment of foreign fighters, stopping the fighting and hostilities is an absolute necessity to help the health authorities contain the spread of the Coronavirus epidemic, how would you rate the response to this call so far with the apparent failure of the truce?


We have been in touch with Libyan organizations, public health organizations, and international public health organizations like the WHO. We are very impressed at the efforts they are trying to mount across the country to anticipate and deal with this crisis. But their efforts are hampered by the ongoing fighting which makes it dangerous to operate, which diverts resources from the efforts that they need to put into combatting the virus. So, we are deeply disappointed that so far the parties to the Berlin Conference, to the agreement that was reached there, are not living up to their commitments, and frankly we think that they are going to pay a price in terms of Libyan public opinion at some point here. 


5- The European Union launched this week - on Tuesday- a maritime operation to monitor the arms embargo to Libya, in implementation of the UN resolution. What are the efforts of the United States in this regard? Will your country support this trend?


The United States certainly supports Operation Irini launched by the European Union.   We look forward to that getting into place as soon as possible. Our understanding is that it has not only a maritime dimension but also a satellite surveillance dimension so it should be possible to monitor arms embargo violations, not only on the maritime borders, but also across Libya’s land borders as well. 


6- The continuation of the Libyan crisis over a period of nine years, is an evidence of the failure of the international community in dealing with this crisis. How do you see the chances of the continued political track to resolve it, in light of the international community’s preoccupation with the Coronavirus pandemic and its repercussions?


I actually believe that the Coronavirus crisis is going to increase the pressure on all sides - inside and outside the country - to set aside the fighting and focus on this public health crisis.  We know that there are authorities in Libya, national and international, trying to do their best to prepare for the crisis and combat the spread of COVID-19. The fighting stands directly in the way of those efforts and so there is a growing realization on all sides we believe that - in the interest of the Libyan people - the fighting must stop so the virus can be contained. 


7- In your letter, you attached importance to the issue of paying salaries, and you pointed out that the Libyans need a stable source of income to face the crisis. And since you realize that the main source, and perhaps the only one source of income on which Libya depends, is oil; and that oil fields and terminals have been closed (for a long time) despite the calls of the international community, including your country, to reopen them, and which did not happen. How could the salaries of Libyans be secured, and is there a more serious international position to restore oil production to normal?


There is two issues at stake here.  One is the restoration of oil production, we think that needs to happen immediately.  We understand from discussions with the National Oil Corporation (NOC) that just from a technical point of view, if the oil production is not restored very quickly, then the infrastructure is going to become paralyzed, and Libya’s oil production, well into the future, will be affected. 

That’s one issue. But the second issue has to do with the ability of Libya’s financial and economic institutions to work together in the interest of the country as a whole.  Particularly, as this COVID-19 crisis looms. 

Look, we believe Libya has perfectly competent technocrats who know how to manage the resources. They need the support, the encouragement and the mandate to get together to resolve these issues, to make sure that the institutions work effectively together. And so we support the call for meetings to make this happen. We do not think this is about personalities, it should not be about personalities.  

The United States has played an important role in trying to help Libya’s economic institutions function well together in the last couple of years.  We would hate to see those efforts be in vain particularly as this crisis looms. Right now, we think there is a strong imperative for the competent people in Tripoli and other parts of the country to get together, maybe by video conference - we know it is hard to meet in person - to get together as quickly as possible to focus especially on the issue surrounding what is needed financially and economically in order to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Beginning for example with the issue of paying salaries to the health workers who are putting their health and lives on the line to deal with this crisis. 


8- You also referred to allowing an external audit and review of the Central Bank of Libya accounts and considered that this would be an easy step that would help the world see that Libyan leaders are committed to transparency and fighting corruption, and that such an audit was ready to start, but you have said that this matter remained “for some reason stuck”, what was that reason?


I really do not pretend to know the reason, but I hope that it can become unstuck as quickly as possible.The audit is very important. It has to do with the transparency surrounding how Libya’s resources are distributed.   The implication of the audit continuing to be stuck is that somebody is trying to hide something. I’m confident that as soon as an audit is conducted effectively it is going to help people understand better just how Libya’s resources are distributed and make sure as equitably as possible.  This is one of the issues that underlines the conflict and it is really important that the audit moves forward quickly. 


 9- The European Union announced the launch of IRINI operation aimed at monitoring the implementation of the UNSC resolution banning the supply of arms to Libya. Do you support this step? Will IRINI mission include the sea, air and land?


 See response above


10 - Many Libyans believe that the option of sanctions against those who obstruct the efforts to find a solution to their country's crisis is important and would help pave the way towards a solution. Why did we not see escalatory steps from the international community in this direction? And why the obstructers and their supporters are not mentioned by name?


The United States has employed a number of sanctions already and we reserve the option to employ additional sanctions, for example on those working with the Wagner group from Russia.  Sanctions are a powerful tool, but they also take some time to implement. Right now, there is a sense of urgency about the situation. From our perspective, we think people should move ahead and do what they need to do in terms of suspending military operations and addressing the COVID-19 crisis, and not waiting for sanctions to be put into effect that somehow require them to do this. 


11 - The US recently announced that it will provide $6 million to Libya to support the response to COVID-19.  How will the funds be used?


The $6 million that was announced by the United States as health assistance in the context of the COVID crisis, is going to go to organizations working inside Libya, principally, international health organizations, but also working with some Libyan partners to try to do what we can to help contain the spread of the virus and to help those who have been inflicted by it.  I think it is important to point out that this assistance is part of a long-standing U.S. assistance effort towards Libya. Since 2011, we’ve spent $715 million in overall assistance to Libya and we plan to continue this kind of support in the coming months and years. 


End of the interview 

Let me just say in closing, thank you for the opportunity to do this interview.  For us, it is very frustrating not to be in Libya, our Embassy is still in Tunis but it is our plan to return to Libya as soon as possible to present my credentials to the Prime Minister and to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.  We hope that the fighting will stop as soon as possible, which will permit us to return. In the meantime, we are going to do what we can, from here next door, to monitor the situation in Libya and bring U.S. resources and influence to bear to try to help the people in Libya.