Andy Smith
Mine-action specialist

UNMAS in Libya - another critical failure

[Last updated in November 2012]

The UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) began its work in Libya in April or May 2011 (from a Cyprus base) and were to organise the removal of mines and the explosive remnants of war. The then interim government of Free Libya assigned an Army Colonel to act as their liaison person and UNMAS set itself up as the leader of Mine Action in Libya.

The UNMAS office was staffed by people without relevant experience in Libya, but they did their best to co-ordinate the efforts of international NGOs who moved in to help with the Mine Action agenda. Calling this collaboration a Joint Mine Action Coordination Team (JMACT), they published regular newsletters detailing the work that had been conducted. I have these on record and it is fairly uncontrovertial for me to say that the JMACT achievements often looked minimal - with a greater stress being placed on Mine Risk Education than the removal of immediate threats. This is in line with 'traditional' approaches to establishing a long-term Mine Action programme, but was not appropriate for dealing with an emergency post-conflict situation in which mines had hardly been used and many ordnance contaminated areas were needed immediately. Some staff of the NGOs under the JMACT umbrella contacted me to complain about the UNMAS lack of direction which prevented them doing work that needed to be done. Libyan friends contacted me to say that UNMAS was insulting them by not reporting the far greater amount of emergency clearance being conducted by Libyan nationals.

For example, because NATO avoided bombing schools and hospitals these buildings were routinely used by both sides in the fighting, then withdrawn from in haste leaving a litter of abandoned and unexploded ordnance that presented a threat to the population moving back. Most of these problems were cleared by Libyans, working through the revolutionary brigades or as individuals. Semi-formal battle area clearance groups of Libyan volunteers have operated all over the country. As early as May, the Libyan Mine Action Centre (LMAC) was started and the first monitoring of 'liberated' ammunition storage areas had begun. (Yes, it wasn't comprehensive, but it was a start that deserved publicising.)

In May 2011, I became a founder member of LMAC, advising from outside Libya. I advised them to work with UNMAS but UNMAS refused to have anything to do with them - apparently saying that individuals from Tripoli were tainted by association with the Ghaddafi regime. It is hard to imagine how their Colonel in Benghazi achieved a Colonel's rank without being associated with the regime, and even harder to understand why UNMAS took it upon itself to decide who was an acceptable representative of Free Libya. The founders of LMAC had worked in Mine Action in Libya under the old regime, had supported the revolution, and had begun voluntary Mine Action work as soon as possible. No one was better prepared to lead LMAC during and after the revolution.

As the months passed more and more Libyan teams were conducting essential battle area clearance with never a mention by UNMAS/JMACT. Many worked in a manner that would not meet international standards, but they got the job done quickly and 'managed' the risk to civilians in a way that undoubtedly reduced injuries. Being flexible about the standards in an emergency situation is hardly new - when necessary in the field, every responsible demining agency does it. Meanwhile a few Libyan groups tried to work to Libya's own Mine Action Standards (based on the International Standards) and I have seen them work to as high a standard as many international NGOs. That they worked unpaid, or paid minimally by Libyan businessmen, is a remarkable indication of the level of social cohesion and commitment to peace that existed in Libya at that time. When UNMAS publicised the problems (often inaccurately) and did not mention the achievements, this presented a warped picture that did the Libyan led peace effort no favours.

In November 2011 LMAC was formally recognised by the new government of Libya. When the Minister of Defence was appointed, his first directive was to appoint LMAC as the MoD's executive arm to deal with Mine Action issues and the securing of Ammunition Storage Areas. I was with LMAC in Tripoli at the time and still advised that LMAC should partner with UNMAS because UNMAS had access to the funds that were necessary if the group were to be paid. Of course, this was a case of advising on a 'least bad' option, but the desire to support a peaceful transition in Libya was paramount. The LMAC people were disillusioned with UNMAS because of their protracted lack of respect, but I argued that the UNMAS staff in Libya were inexperienced and their disrespect was probably more political than personal.

LMAC now had a governing body comprising half former soldiers and half former revolutionaries - a sustainable mix of people and one that included the UNMAS Liaison Colonel from Benghazi. They had a Technical Agreement signed with the US Government for a project to secure the Ammunition Storage Areas, and they had an increasing number of committed volunteers. The country had a brigade of former soldiers trained to international standards in 2009/10 by MECHEM, just waiting to be reformed and set to work.

But UNMAS ignored all this. In the middle of December 2011, UNMAS, the UN and JMACT saw no reason to even mention LMAC and the work they were doing when they launched their "Urgent Mine Action Appeal" for almost 20 million dollars to spend in Libya in 2012 (including a generous percentage for UNMAS, naturally). In brief, the appeal stressed Libya's problems without balancing them against the achievements of Libyan people. This works against peace-building during which positive messages about the people's achievements can have rippling copycat consequences, and negative messages can do likewise.

UNMAS' New York leadership seems to have been more interested in revising the UNMAS history, especially with regard to the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) at that time (they now pretend that the IMAS have always been UN standards, never "International" which is insulting to those who gave time freely for an international effort). UNMAS claims that its primary role is as a focal point for 'coordination' but their achievements in Libya imply that they cannot achieve the required focus to coordinate with nationals. Also, their myopic tunnel-vision seemed to leave them unaware of the role that Mine Action should play in helping promote peace in Libya.

As 2012 started, UNMAS began to talk to LMAC but not as the leader of Mine Action in Libya, as an organisation that they should control. Their disrespect extended to not referring to them by their official Libyan name - a Mine Action Centre - until January was well under way - and pretending that they were 'newly formed' (so implying falsely that perhaps UNMAS had a hand in that).

NGOs began to offer LMAC the specialist help they asked for, but UNMAS sought to control it with the imposition of the standard UNMAS/GiHAD bureaucracy that is not needed for what will be a short-term intervention because the long-term Mine Action work will be conducted by Libyan nationals with Libyan funding - so should be controlled by Libyans as Libya sees fit. UNMAS could not realistically object to this when LMAC has a set of national Mine Action standards based on the 2009 international standards (more up-to-date than many countries - I know because I wrtote them) - or when UNMAS' coordination in Libya left so much to be desired.

UNMAS had wasted valuable time by ignoring LMAC. Whether this was to protect its own role or because they were ill-advised does not really matter - because it was seen as self-motivated, disrespectful and ignorant. They ignored the very widespread clean-up efforts of Libyan nationals - so providing evidence for the view that UNMAS staff were blind to the need for Libyans to lead all sustained peace-building efforts. Specialist assistance should be accepted when appropriate, but Libya should not cede control to UNMAS. And if some donor assistance must be UN coordinated, that would be better done by the UNDP country office - with which LMAC staff have had good experiences.

I arrived back in Libya in late March for a three month contract at the request of the LMAC Directors. One of my first roles was to negotiate a merger of UNMAS/JMACT assets with LMAC. I conducted negotiations with Max Dyck, first meeting him at the temporary LMAC offices. I was pleased that he expressed a willingness for LMAC and JMACT/UNMAS assets to merge but when he stated that this would take 18 months I expressed some incredulity. I asked to see the JMACT assets so that I might understand the complexity of a merger. By invitation, an LMAC Colonel and I attended the JMACT office in residential accommodation at Palm City (a luxury tourist resort) where we were shown one computer and met two staff along with Dyck, those being the assets on offer. I advised the Directors to negotiate the merger time frame down to a maximum of three months, after which selected JMACT staff might be retained if they proved able to work with national counterparts.

Dyck meanwhile went to the Army Chief of Staff and signed agreements with international commercial companies to conduct EOD work in Libya without LMAC’s consent. The commercial companies were not registered in country and had not applied for LMAC accreditation. The resulting lack of trust meant that the negotiations over a merger came to an end. Within weeks Dyck had established a shadow MAC and deployed his contractors so ignoring the wishes of the Minister of Defence (who was LMAC’s master). Supported by UNSMIL, UNMAS began a dirty tricks campaign that included a rumour that LMAC was not really part of MoD because it was partly US funded.

A need to increase the work of LMAC was paramount but there were protracted delays in getting essential equipment, premises and vehicles. These were exacerbated by some ex-pat Embassy specialists with agenda in apparent conflict with that of LMAC. Demining INGOs in country responded positively to requests and some training (in Arabic) and equipment (computers, printers, telephone) were sourced. Finally, a move to permanent offices meant that LMAC could become far more active, and that formally began with the issue of licences to the approved INGOs operating in country.

In July 2012 UNMAS announced that it was formally moving into Ammunition Management and that JMACT would cease to exist - although UNMAS would remain in a Mine Action coordination role until the Libyan Government assigned that responsibility elsewhere - so continuing to ignore the fact that the responsibility had been assigned to LMAC eight months before. Fortunately, the INGOs in country, many unimpressed by the UNMAS effort, had already recognised LMAC as the National Authority. [Given that the UNMAS staff in country have no experience in Ammunition Management, I can only hope that their role in that field was limited.]

With NPA, FSD and SBF leading, I hoped that the approved international Mine Action NGOs operating in country - Santa Barbara Foundation (SBF), Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Danish Demining Group (DDG), Handicap International (HI), and Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) - would continue to support the emergent national authority and help it to evolve appropriately for Libya. This could have been achieved without an overlay of bureaucracy dictated by the UN or foreign embassies.

Donors should give their money direct to LMAC or to the INGOs that work with LMAC. But international donors should avoid any urge to dictate what LMAC needs. For example, donors should not push inappropriate procedures or equipment on Libya - such as an "instant" MDD/EDD capacity (without the most basic training provisions) or heavy demining machinery. Both Mine Detection Dogs and heavy machines are not useful in clearing damaged Ammunition Storage Areas (the major tasks in Libya). Dogs licenced in one country cannot be moved to another and start work immediately - and it is shameful that the German who ordered them in has extensive GiHAD experience but remains so ignorant. Heavy machines made in the donor country may be convenient for the donor country's economy, but they are not wanted. If they were, Libya already has very many that were oversold to the old regime and sit rusting.

October 2012 postscript
False briefings and the UNDP solution

The political situation in Libya has moved on, even if things are not moving in the way that the international community would like. Libyan delay in forming a government reflects one of the better aspects of the old Jamahiriya (Libya is still “the Great Arab Jamahiriya”) by seeking to find consensus. Better that time is spent getting fundamental agreement now rather than imposing something that includes avoidable frictions.

Of course this is complicated by the death of Chris Stevens and continued nervousness about a delayed American response. Forget the planes of Britain, France and even Norway - everyone in Libya knows that the NATO support for their revolution depended on US support. It has been really good to see the general approval of Obama and of the special respect reserved for Hilary Clinton by many Libyans. This seemed to prove that the 'minimum intervention' approach was working for all parties - until that extremist attack on the US outpost in Benghazi after which everyone feared a disproportionate response that would bring down the house of cards. Many are grateful to the US administration for giving Libya a chance to do what it can to set things right. The people of Benghazi have tried. The Government and MoD have tried. But uncertainty and fear still remains.

This is relevant to LMAC because its donor group has been led by the USA since it was formally made part of MoD at the end of November last year. It may be the current uncertainty over continued US commitment that has allowed the UN to take advantage and push its own agenda.

Following its lack of success in Mine Action, UNMAS (Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate) in Libya is now virtually invisible. But UNSMIL includes the old UNMAS staff under the title Security Sector Arms & Ammunition Advisory Section. This is continuing to run the JMACT meetings supposedly coordinating the efforts of all Mine Action INGOs - and still claims to maintain the 'National database' of hazardous areas. It also claims to be working with LMAC, rather as it has claimed to support LMAC in the past. Everyone there knows how good it has been at working with nationals and coordination generally, and also with LMAC.

I am no longer there, but today I was sent a UN briefing about LMAC that is a collection of misleading statements and lies.

An example of that UN briefing being “misleading” is the statement that there have not been any meetings of LMAC’s committee members to date. This implies that, since November last year, the Board of Directors has not met and that decisions have not been taken. In fact, the Board has met often - although one member has always been missing. Last November I advised that the Board should include the Colonel from Benghazi who had been the UNMAS liaison man from the early days (Colonel Youssef). I advised this because I believed that UNMAS would want to work with LMAC. Bad advice. I have never met Colonel Youssef in Libya (have outside) because he has always kept at arms length from LMAC and maintained his support for the authority of UNMAS. Anyway, the LMAC Directors take majority decisions and Colonel Youssef’s absence has not prevented them meeting and making decisions often. There may not have been meetings attended by all Board members - but there have been frequent meetings of a quorum.

An example of a lie in that report is the pretence that there is not a single group in Libya with government approval to deal with Mine Action issues (including those associated with Ammunition Storage Areas - ASAs). UNMAS was present when the MoD issued its first ever Directive which gave LMAC this responsibility. UNMAS also witnessed the signing of the Technical Agreement between the Libyan MoD and US Government over ASAs in which LMAC was named as the "executive agent" of the MoD. But when UNMAS found that the LMAC Directors would not agree to UNMAS being in charge for at least eighteen months, negotiations to merge assets and efforts stalled. I know because I was involved in those negotiations (and audio-recorded them if anyone doubts that the LMAC desire for agreement was real). Frustrated, UNMAS sought to undermine the LMAC and made an agreement with the army Chief of Staff that gave their liaison Colonel control over LMAC. Given that LMAC already had powerful international support, this could not be imposed on the existing MAC, so Max Dyke set up a shadow MAC in offices close to LMAC’s. Of course, the Army Chief of Staff did not really have the power to countermand a Ministerial decree and eventually his mandate to Colonel Youssef was formally cancelled by the Minister himself. UNMAS had tried to undermine LMAC and fallen flat on its face. But in the meantime it had signed illegal contracts with commercial contractors who were not registered to work in Libya, not accredited by LMAC and not doing work that the GoL had approved through its legitimate agency. It is highly questionable whether these contracts were put out to tender legitimately. LMAC had asked UNMAS for an explanation of this - and an explanation was promised, but never given.

So UNMAS must whitewash its mistakes to itself and the world in its current briefing about LMAC. On its behalf, UNSMIL has had no problem downplaying the significance of the Ministerial Directive and the Technical Agreement that Max Dyke had witnessed being signed late last year. It seems that Max Dyke was not destabilising the Ministry of Defence by seeking to pit the army Chief of Staff against the Minister of Defence and pursuing his own agenda regardless of the wishes of Libyans - he was just genuinely confused. Oh yes, of course. Bless him.

And now - when peace hangs in the balance as never before and the government is unable to function - UNSMIL has authorised the same group that failed before to keep pushing its own external agenda and to reinvent history with its pretence that there is no organisation with the legitimate authority to coordinate MA and ASA action in Libya. Their production of a briefing paper about LMAC that is selective with the truth is just politics - but to include easily proven lies under a UN logo undermines the standing of all UN agencies quite unnecessarily.

And how do the other UN agencies react? Well presumably they believe their internal UN briefings. UNDP has supported Mine Action in Libya before - and I was there for them in 2009. In those days, the CVs of candidates had to be presented to the Libyans for approval before a final decision to appoint was made. Now UNDP has decided to provide LMAC with a CTA again - but this time the Libyans will not get any say in the selection. To appoint someone they do not approve will not help anyone - except perhaps the neo-colonial UNSMIL agenda expressed in the UNSMIL mandate. Actually the UN is required to act “in full accordance with the principles of national ownership” - but that statement implies a lot more than it has delivered in Libya to date.

Obviously, a UNDP Chief Technical Advisor (CTA’)s role should include bringing the UN efforts under LMAC coordination. The INGOs are already on board (and have helped LMAC get where it is) so the big challenge would be to bring the ex-UNMAS effort on board. It would be easier for someone working within the UN system to ensure that false briefings were corrected and that UN plans started from where we are - not where some would have us believe we are. That would certainly mean maintaining national ownership, design and management of LMAC. Sadly, none of that is within the proposed CTA’s remit. The UNDP CTA’s role is severely restricted and does not include supporting LMAC as the coordinating body with the responsibilities that the government has given it.

When I was shortlisted for that CTA position, I cancelled the telephone interview saying that “If no other candidates have the support of the LMAC Directors" they should reschedule my interview. Dodging the condition that the LMAC directors should get a choice, they rescheduled. Then they rescheduled again - stretching the selection process into November. So it seems my delayed interview was giving UNDP an excuse not to appoint anyone at all. That probably fitted someone’s agenda so, since I could not have accepted the restrictions of the job anyway, I withdrew my application.

Most countries rely on international funds for their Mine Action activities. They have little choice but to accept UN leadership and apply the UN systems and templates that we have all seen and admired around the world. Libya does not need to do that. After things stabilise, Libya’s income means that the international agencies will withdraw. It’s problems are not the same as elsewhere. The context is unique. The currency has not collapsed, the people are educated and proud. The Libyans want to establish their own systems that suit their context and will be genuinely sustainable without outside control. Without the same wealth, Croatia went its own way and its efforts have not been less effective than any UN led efforts elsewhere. Libya can do this too and the UN should help, not introduce confusion and pretend that they have not made critical mistakes.

On 21st October 2012, having fallen foul of apparent incompetence and deceit, LMAC and Libya were losing. But, of course, unexpected stuff happens and the revolutionary wheel is still turning so things may yet improve. Some of the old UNMAS crew may be trying to genuinely work together with LMAC even now. For example, there was a kind of “joint” ops meeting at LMAC today albeit a meeting led by the UN Operations Manager. So there is reason for some hope - if not a lot.

To avoid others being held to account for these words, I have resigned my membership of LMAC today. All blame for my responding to their request and trying to be genuinely supportive of a national endeavour is mine alone. My thanks and my apologies to all who have encouraged me in my efforts to support Libya and LMAC. Please continue to support Libya and LMAC yourselves. And please encourage the UNSMIL effort to genuinely do likewise.


November 2012 postscript

I am not the only observer to see the UN's involvement in Libya in a questionable light. The following is a quotation from an article in Contemporary Arab Affairs , 5:1, 1-26 (pages 23, 24), with the title:- Post-Qadhafi Libya: interactive dynamics and the political future, written by: Youssef Mohammad Sawani, [Libyan University, Tripoli, Libya, former Director of the Gaddafi Foundation (who resigned in February 2011 to join the uprising)].

“..There is a fear that foreign intervention may corrupt everything, especially since the West and the United Nations have begun to advocate and market plans for the longer term ....

“This appears clearly in the plan announced by the United Nations that appointed a special mission to Libya. This plan proposed by British diplomat Ian Martin endeavours to guarantee a direct presence for civil and military groups of the United Nations on Libyan territory for an unspecified term. The plan contains the following provisions:

  • Re-imposition of security and the rule of law.
  • Leading a comprehensive political dialogue, stimulating national reconciliation, and deļ¬ning the requirements for the formulation of a constitution and elections.
  • The expansion of the powers of the state including strengthening the emerging institutions and restoring effective public services.
  • Protecting human rights particularly for vulnerable and fragile groups and supporting transitional justice.
  • Undertaking rapid steps to launch economic revitalization.
  • Coordinating support and assistance of various international entities.
  • Securing supportive relations between Libya and its neighbours.

“The real danger is that this is transpiring without a clear role for Libyans .... There is genuine anxiety that foreign intervention in Libya may corrupt the entire process. Hope remains, however, that the Libyan people will not easily rest content that their country should become merely a petrol station for Europe or that it should be run by Western embassies...”

“....Foreign powers may choose support or patronage of one side or another among the competing Libyan factions. Though all foreign forces have expressed respect for the will of the Libyan people, their choices and the process of democracy-building in Libya, the matter of the extent of their support, no doubt, invites legitimate question.”

The UNSMIL provisions listed above sound very laudable and necessary aims for the government of Libya - but when they are the stated goal of any outside agency they look like a transparent declaration of colonial intent.

The elections have now been held and, eventually, a government agreed. The new Libyan government is NOT a mirror image of any Western democracy. It is Libyan and the best hope for building a sustainable peace. I trust that the UN Special Mission for Libya will now back off (claiming their hard-earned laurels if they must).

It seems strange that Mine Action has got caught up in this kind of disruptive politics but perhaps that illustrates the current desperation of UNMAS? As well as claiming the International Standards (largely written by internationals not employed by the UN), UNMAS is also seeking a new role in Ammunition Management. When UNMAS globally has so comprehensively failed to provide a coherent lead in Mine Action over much more than a decade, trusting it with such an important new role appears just a little absurd. It would only make sense if past failings were acknowledged and those responsible were replaced by people with responsibility, intelligence and integrity.



To my surprise, it seems that LMAC still exists despite the ongoing political confusion that outside "advice" has consistently made worse.... I still have high hopes that the people in LMAC will win through.

Funny old world.