Veteran United Nations diplomat Ian Martin, head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has worked in conflict zones throughout the world. However, as Libya’s July 7 election looms, he may face his toughest challenge yet.
As a specialist in post-conflict planning, Martin was closely involved in the transitional stages of devastated areas such as the Gaza Strip, East Timor and Rwanda.
Appointed in September 2011 as UN special envoy for Libya, he has been directly involved in planning the country’s future – preparing for the role the UN and the broader international community would play after the revolution came to an end.
Throughout this period, he has been engaging and consulting closely with Libya’s National Transition Council (NTC) and more recently with the country’s Higher National Election Committee (HNEC).
Al Jazeera’s David Poort interviewed Martin about the July 7 elections, the security situation and the future of Libyan democracy:
David Poort: Where do you start in a country without democratic experience?
Ian Martin: We had to start from scratch. There was no electoral law, no electoral administration, no political parties, no free media etc, and civil society was only just beginning with the revolution itself.
In that context, it should be said that the electoral commission has done an extraordinary job in being as ready as it was to conduct what has been an extremely successful voter registration exercise on May 1, as well as candidate registration for the first time – all from nothing.
DP: The first elections in Libya in over four decades. History in the making?
IM: Yes! It is worth mentioning something that many people have forgotten, but the Libyan people haven’t; the UN played a critical role in the emergence of an independent Libya in 1951, when a UN commissioner assisted Libya with the adoption of the very first constitution.
But, as you rightly say, for more than four decades there has been no electoral experience to draw on. In my earliest discussions with the NTC, and indeed with Libyan civil society, it was clear that one of the most central tasks they would like the UN to support would be a democratic transition. This means not only the holding of these elections, but also then looking forward to constitution making, a constitutional referendum and the eventual elections under the new constitution.
DP: What is the role of the UN in the elections?
IM: We have an electoral team embedded with the electoral commission working both in their headquarters here in Tripoli as well as in Benghazi and Sabah. They are there to offer international experience on all the aspects of the election operation. In addition to that, we have a team of UN police advisors who have been here from the beginning, with a broad mandate to assist the development of the Libyan police force, who at the moment are advising the minister of interior on the election security plan.
DP: The timeframe for the elections was very tight, forcing the vote to be postponed. Why the rush?
IM: The postponement was inevitable, and sensible, and should not in any way be blamed on the election commission. Firstly, the commission was only given the entire details of the electoral framework by the NTC quite late. They then had to wait for the vetting of candidates, a process that was not carried out by the electoral commission itself, but by a separate body.
Overall, it turned out to be a very short delay on what was an extremely tight timetable. This was not necessarily due to technical reasons, as the delay allowed the political entities that are competing in the proportional representation part of the election to present their manifestos and candidacies, and inform the voters. Therefore, the delay should be seen to be more positive than negative in my opinion. I don’t believe there will be any operational reasons for a delay, although the security situation is of concern. Security issues can always disrupt elections but I hope that this is not going to be the case in these elections.
DP: Shouldn’t Libya take more time to address the poor security situation before holding elections?
IM: I would argue the opposite. I think a government that is able to act on the basis of a mandate of democratic legitimacy is needed to control the security situation and the integration, or mobilisation, of the former revolutionaries into the army.
While there is a view to postpone the elections until the security situation has been addressed, it is clear to me that in this context, a government that has a strong legitimacy, and a longer term mandate than the interim government has had, is essential to address the security situation.
DP: Do you acknowledge that the security situation has gotten worse recently?
IM: Certainly there have been more security incidents, with the concern around them growing over the last few weeks. It is much harder to analyse the cause of these incidents, though some of the issues in Kufra in the south, or in Zintan, are essentially local conflicts that were already there before the revolution and have now resurged with the elections.
I cannot pronounce what the different links are between these rivals, but as in any post-conflict election, there are spoilers who simply don’t want things to unfold according to the roadmap.
DP: Are you not afraid of bloodshed on July 7?
IM: It is inconceivable that the first election process in four decades taking place in a post-conflict situation will be perfect. Criticisms have been made from different perspectives about the electoral law, the allocation of seats for the different constituencies, and so on, but this is a first election. That should be emphasised.
The long-term electoral system that Libya would choose is a matter to be decided as part of the constitution-making and law-making process for the first full election. This is an initial National Congress that will provide the basis of constitutional drafting. It is a much-needed election, and one which I believe the Libyans have shown they want, and have the capacity to deliver.
DP: There are people who have called for a boycott against the elections. Will that have an impact?
IM: I don’t think there are a lot of people who do not want these elections. I think the enthusiastic turnout of voter registration in all parts of the country shows that, as well as the determination of particular towns who press ahead with their own local elections, there is an overwhelming wish in Libya to have legitimate leadership through the electoral process. There are small groups that may not want that, but I think one shouldn’t overstate that.
DP: Do you believe Libya will overcome the call for federalism?
IM: Some of those who called for federalism also called for a boycott of the electoral process. However, there is nothing in the voter registration figures to suggest that many in the population would want to stand aside of the electoral process.
Of course, there is an important constitutional discussion ahead as to the structure of Libya moving forward. It was a federal state between 1951 and 1963 and many people who are not in favour of federalism see a strong need for decentralisation in Libya. I think we need to distinguish here between the desire for decentralisation – which is very strong in the east and south, and even in some cities in the west – and the call for federalism, a notion that appears to have a much smaller degree of support.