Interview with the Special Envoy for Libya Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib

Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Libya, Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib, speaks to reporters

14 July 2011 – Brokering a political solution to the conflict in Libya is the job of the Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Libya, Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib, who was at UN Headquarters this week to brief the Secretary-General and the Security Council on his latest diplomatic efforts and developments in the North African nation.

Following his closed-door meeting with the Council, Mr. Al-Khatib told reporters that with the conflict in Libya entering its fifth month and showing no signs of waning, it is critical for the parties to redouble efforts towards a political solution as well as to alleviate the suffering caused by the fighting.

Mr. Al-Khatib, a former foreign minister of Jordan, spoke with the UN News Centre on his work, before returning to the region on Wednesday.

UN News Centre: When you were first approached by the Secretary-General about this assignment, what went through your mind?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: What went through my mind was the complexity of the situation, first and foremost. But also the desire to help the Libyan people, the Arab country of Libya, to get out of this crisis and to find a political solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people. This is what I have been doing for the last four months. I thought if I could help the Secretary-General and the United Nations in finding a political solution, that will be an important contribution, not only to Libya butI am working on behalf of the Secretary-General to try to help find a political solution. to the whole region.

UN News Centre: How familiar were you with Libya before you took on the assignment?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: I can’t claim that I was an expert on Libya, but I knew Libyan politics to some extent. I served more than five and a half years as my country’s foreign minister, so I had many encounters with different personalities in Libya and I knew that that country was facing certain challenges that, in this particular crisis, needed the efforts of the international community, and that of the Arab world and African countries, in order to help the Libyan people meet these challenges and find a political solution.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) meets with his Special Envoy Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib, April 2011.

UN News Centre: How important is it to have someone from the Arab region handle this assignment?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: I think it should be helpful because we know the culture and to some extent the personalities involved in both sides of the conflict, and I think that it adds to your ability to engage and come up with ideas that may be acceptable to both parties.

UN News Centre: You have made numerous trips to the country, including to both Tripoli and Benghazi. What has the atmosphere has been like in your visits to Libya?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: This is a country under crisis, a society under pressure. I do not stay for long periods of time when I visit Libya because of the logistics involved. However, on my latest visits I have seen that there is growing hardship. For instance, you see long lines of people and cars waiting at gas stations. You see reduced movement on the streets. I have seen some places affected by bombing from the air on my way from the airport to the offices where I conducted my meetings. You feel a certain sadness because this country is a rich country, with huge resources which would allow for a very advanced level of development.

Special Envoy Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib briefs the Security Council on the situation in Libya, April 2011.

UN News Centre: The Secretary-General has said that a process of negotiations has begun but that a solution is still a long way off. What can you tell us about the talks, who is taking part and what is being discussed?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: We are trying to encourage both parties to respond to our ideas about certain ways to handle the situation – to agree to a ceasefire linked to a political transitional process. People are conducting these talks with the UN, so we are going back and forth between them, listening to their views and encouraging them to engage on a more sustainable basis with us. The issues to be addressed are complex. What would a political transition look like? What interim political structures could be put in place, and who will be represented in them? How long would the transition last? What are the necessary reforms to ensure a democratic future for the Libyan people? My most recent discussions have focused on getting both sides to define their views on these points as a basis for negotiations to move forward.

A worker with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies serves up a meal to a recently returned Tunisian fleeing unrest in Libya, on Tunisia-Libya border, March 2011.

UN News Centre: What is an average week like for you?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: I travel a lot. I am on the phone a lot. When I am not traveling, I am engaging with the parties. I try to utilize much of my time to bridge the gaps, to help people exchange views and encourage them to think in a very constructive manner.

UN News Centre: Some observers say that the whole operation is getting bogged down into a stalemate – what are your thoughts on that and does that impact on your work to help bring about a political solution?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: It’s not up to me to assess the military situation, but I think every crisis and conflict needs to be solved in a political manner. We need to solve it politically and I do not believe that at the end of the day the military confrontation can provide the solution that people aspire to. In the end it has to be a political solution.

Refugees from Libya arrive at a transit camp in Tunisia, near the Libyan-Tunisian border. They are among thousands to have fled Libya in the past few months, March 2011.

UN News Centre: The conflict has gone on longer than some might have predicted or hoped for. In what sort of time-frame do you see it being resolved, if at all?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: I cannot really make a prediction. The sides remain far apart on key issues at this stage, distrust is very high, and there is constant fighting, which also affects the environment for talks. But we are working very seriously, and I think that the Libyan people deserve our support in their attempts to look for a brighter future. I sincerely hope a solution will come sooner rather than later so that the Libyan people are spared more unnecessary suffering.

UN News Centre: Have you met with Muammar al-Qadhafi? If not, does that make your work that much more difficult?

Special Envoy Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib addresses the press at UN Headquarters, 11 July 2011.

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: No, however I have met with his son and senior Libyan officials. There were arrangements to meet with him more than once, but it did not work as planned. When the military action started, it became more complicated to arrange meetings. Notwithstanding, I believe I have had adequate communication with the government. Both sides have made clear they will work with the Secretary-General’s good offices in seeking a solution.

UN News Centre: Where does the UN stand on the demand of the opposition that Muammar al-Qadhafi must give up power in order to resolve the crisis?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: I think the UN is bound with what is in the Security Council resolutions, especially resolution 1973, which calls for an immediate, comprehensive ceasefire for addressing the humanitarian needs and providing humanitarian protection for the Libyan people and also for fulfilling the legitimate demands of the Libyan people – this is the mandate in the Security Council resolution. And this is where the United Nations stands on this.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Libyan people to decide their future, the way in which they wish to be governed and the country to be ruled. Having said this, clearly there can be no return to the status quo that existed before the crisis. I have emphasized that in my discussions, in particular with the Libyan leadership.

A depot for aid supplies in a transit camp on the Libya-Tunisia border. The supplies will go toward assisting the thousands of refugees arriving at the camp from Libya, March 2011.

UN News Centre: It seems that trust is one of the factors missing between the parties – how important is it to establish this?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: I think there is a very high [level of] distrust and the gap is very wide between the two parties. The government sees the opposition as responsible for bringing international military actions against the country. The opposition is convinced that without those actions there would have been annihilation of the civilian population in Benghazi. They are fearful of any solution that does not guarantee a political change. This is why it is difficult but also so very important to find a political process that allows the Libyan people to fulfil their aspirations for a better future and in a country that enjoys democratic rights.

UN News Centre: What happens after the guns stop firing in Libya?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: I think there is a need for a process of reconciliation; there is a need for a process of democratization, of building democratic institutions; and also there is an urgent need for a process of reconstruction and rebuilding the country and allowing its people to enjoy its wealth and resources.

A Tunisian man near a transit camp for refugees on the Libya-Tunisia border. The camp was established to accommodate the thousands fleeing the conflict between the Libya government and rebel forces, March 2011.

UN News Centre: How does the UN come into those equations?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: The UN is working on two levels. I am working on behalf of the Secretary-General to try to help find a political solution. And there is a special adviser, appointed by the Secretary-General, in order to prepare for the post-conflict situation in different areas: reconstruction, law and order and many other areas, to pull all the agencies of the UN together to help streamline the international effort to help the Libyan people.

UN News Centre: Libya is not happening in a vacuum, but rather as part of broader changes in the Arab world. What connections to do you see amongst these events and how optimistic are you that the region as a whole will emerge positively from this period?

Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib: This is a very crucial time for the whole region and I think that if we get Libya right we will give hope to many people in the region that they will be able to reform their societies, and start a process of development, of democratization, of deciding their future and their fate – it’s very important.