Oral evidence: UK-Libya relations, HC 609
Tuesday 12 July 2022
Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 12 July 2022.
Members present: Tom Tugendhat (Chair); Chris Bryant; Neil Coyle; Bob Seely; Henry Smith; Royston Smith; Graham Stringer.
I: Fathi Bashagha, Prime Minister appointed by the Libyan House of Representatives.
Witness: Fathi Bashagha.
Q1 Chair: Welcome to this afternoon’s sitting of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We have with us Fathi Bashagha, who is the elected leader from the legislative assembly of the Libyan Government, and one of the candidates who holds power in that country. This is not a formal position of endorsement by the British Government, or indeed by the British Parliament, but an invitation to an individual to give evidence about the situation in Libya and to hear more about how the UK could benefit from a stronger relationship with the country in North Africa. Sayyid Bashagha, may I open it to you?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): Thank you so much for the introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to be with you today. I thank the Chairman of the Committee for giving me this opportunity to speak to you on issues of importance to my country, to North Africa and Europe. I speak to you today from the ruins of Sirte city, which witnessed a historic operation to rid it of the largest stronghold of the Islamic State ISIS—ISIL—in North Africa. Operation Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous claimed the lives of more than 700 martyrs. When I was co-ordinating military operations, the American and British alliances played an important role in helping Libya in this military process. Although this happened six years ago, the residential neighbourhoods of the city are still destroyed and people of the city are still suffering. We look forward to fruitful co-operation with the United Kingdom in the reconstruction and other areas that we will mention later.
Libya is at a crossroads now. More than a decade after the revolution that got rid of the Gaddafi regime, and despite all the tireless efforts of the United Nations and the international community to reform the situation inside the country, we are still in chaos. The Prime Minister who was chosen in Geneva is not really controlling all the land, yet the United Nations and some other international actors continue to support him—including the British Government, unfortunately. He is now sitting in Tripoli protected by a limited number of militias, some of which are believed to be linked to international terrorist groups. With the resurgence of terrorist group activity, especially in southern Libya, lawlessness and militia control are back. We are also seeing the blackmailing of state institutions and the seizure of decision-making power, as well as high indicators of human rights violations.
Under the Government that was chosen in Geneva, we have seen the revenues that Libya receives in exchange for its natural resources shamelessly used to protect its members’ personal interests, rather than for the benefit of the Libyan people, and an unprecedented rise in the prices of food and medicine without the Government dealing with the situation. The electricity crisis has also worsened, despite the large amount of money allocated to the electricity sector, according to governmental data. Also, in the first incident of its kind, students have spent this entire academic year without books, because of the conflict and the race for commissions and deals.
Unfortunately, we have also witnessed the return of political and institutional division and the rise of hate speech and incitement to violence. We have seen the failure to fulfil the dream of the 2.8 million Libyans who were looking forward to change through the presidential and parliamentary elections that were meant to be held on 24 December last year, according to the Geneva and Berlin processes. Libya has also almost become an arena where international parties are making settlements. What is happening in Ukraine also has an effect and impact on Libya at a political and security level.
The Libyan people are not satisfied with this unfortunate situation. The best evidence of that is the demonstrations and protests that the country has witnessed during the past few weeks in all regions of Libyan soil, the largest of which were in the capital, Tripoli.
In February this year, I was elected as Prime Minister of Libya by the House of Representatives during an open voting session. That was broadcast live in the local media with the recommendation of the members of the High Council of State. The special representative of the Secretary General of the UN was briefed on all the voting procedures. Mr Dbeibah was chosen after a closed vote in Geneva in March 2021—a process that looked suspicious and corrupt, as was recognised by the United Nations itself. Mr Dbeibah refused to accept the result of the House of Representatives vote of no confidence, even though that was from the same Parliament that granted his Government legitimacy in an official session in Sirte.
When I entered Tripoli last May to carry out my duties and to work as Prime Minister in a peaceful way, Mr Dbeibah ordered his militias to shoot me and those who support me in densely populated neighbourhoods. To avoid bloodshed, I withdrew because I believe it is important to avoid losing more Libyan lives at the moment. Over the past few months, I have put together a Government that is ready to move the country towards the elections that are needed so badly at the moment.
In my Roadmap to Recovery, which you will be looking at later, I have made clear how I will work to achieve this and how I intend to address many problems that are facing Libya today, including the illegal presence of foreign fighters and mercenaries inside the country. Libya is unable to do all this without the support of the international community. We look forward to the United Kingdom playing a most prominent and major role, especially as most of the countries are not rejecting my Government and I am accepted among many Arab and European countries.
My Government will work to provide investment and reconstruction opportunities and is more than ready to co-operate with you and work with you in the field of energy and security, and the transit trade as well, and to reduce or mitigate the flow of illegal migrants crossing into southern Europe through our country. We will work with allies to make Libya a regional fortress against terrorism and, most importantly, to get mercenaries and foreign forces out of my country, because they are illegally present. That is the top demand of the Libyan people. Thank you very much.
Q2 Chair: Thank you very much indeed, Mr Bashagha, for your report and your explanation of the situation as you find it in Libya today. You spoke a lot there about the reconstruction of the country and the efforts that can be made to improve the situation for Libyans. Perhaps you could also explain some of the importance of the connection between Libya and the United Kingdom. Where do you see the advantages for the United Kingdom in this relationship? How do you see the partnership working?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): First, Libya knows Britain very well and Great Britain also knows Libya very well. We have a very long relationship when it comes to modern history. Even after the world war, we had a good relationship with Britain.
At the foundation of the Libyan Kingdom, the British Government and British culture were there. Back then, the British Government helped us to form our financial system, and the civil administration system and methodology always came from Britain, as well as the police and army systems. When we discovered and explored the oil resources of Libya, Britain was one of the first countries to invest in the oil sector in Libya. Back in 2011, Britain’s help was eminent and important for the success of the revolution.
However, we hoped the UK would play a bigger role after that. We had a very good alliance against ISIS back in 2016, but since then we have not seen much interest from the British Government in Libya. The efforts of the British Government on the Libyan file were, to be honest, quite poor, looking at the kind of challenges we are facing and the problems we have at the moment.
Q3 Chair: Thank you very much indeed. You were recently in the United Kingdom. Did you get a chance to meet any Government officials?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): Yes; in fact I met the Education Minister, the Energy Minister and the head of the North Africa department in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Chair: Not the Foreign Secretary?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): No.
Q4 Chair: Were you to meet the Foreign Secretary, what points would you make to her? What would you say to a British Foreign Secretary is the most important deliverable of the relationship?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): First of all, we aspire to have stronger co-operation with the United Kingdom Government and we have to expand the ways we co-operate, because it is not even there at the moment, to be honest. The British Government do not look interested in Libya at the moment, although the embassy is here, which means we should have much better co-operation. The stability of Libya is important not only for the Libyans but for the region in general—the North African region, the Mediterranean basin and the southern countries of Europe. It is very important for the region in general. The UK can have a major role to play in Libyan resources and trade and investment opportunities and can work with us on those sectors.
On the other hand, if the chaos continues in Libya, it is going to be very dangerous for the region, because it is a very large country, we have a very expanded area of desert and the current situation on the borders is not really ideal. This is going to be very dangerous in the long run: the terrorists and organised crime in the region are going to be a threat not only for Libya but also for Europe.
On the investments, the UK can always invest in the oil sector, the energy sector, the trade sector and even in trade zones, in addition to security in respect of the police and the army. The British Government can definitely help us in capacity-building and development programmes for our security personnel, both in the police and in the army.
There is also a question that I would like to ask the UK Foreign Minister about leaving Libya like this: is it in the interests of Europe and Britain?
Q5 Chair: Excellent. May I ask one last question? The Foreign Secretary told this Committee that she would happily meet you and Mr Dbeibah; have you requested such a meeting since you returned to Libya?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): To be honest, I have not requested a meeting with her yet, but I am in direct contact with the British Ambassador in Libya, and we are chatting and talking regularly about the updates. However, I am quite disappointed with the results after my election by the Parliament, and the reactions of the international community and governments. Even at the embassy, I have a good relationship with them, but they do not address me as the Prime Minister yet.
To be honest, I expected a much better co-operation, especially since it is the very first time, probably, in the last decade that we have a full consensus between Libyan parties on a Government, because I was accredited by the Parliament and also recommended by the High Council of State, with no problems. At the threshold level, there was always the feeling that I am not really supported enough. That is why I did not really request a meeting; I was waiting for an invitation by the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom.
Q6 Graham Stringer: Welcome and good afternoon, Mr Bashagha. You recently stated that the release of oil blockades in Libya will depend on whether the Government of National Unity approve your budget. Will you continue with that commitment, even if it harms the people of Libya, and how likely is it that the budget will be approved?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): Our first priority is always the safety of the Libyan people. We do not intend to cause any escalation or chaos. We have now been waiting more than 200 days before taking over, because we want it to be a peaceful takeover of power. We believe in democracy and we want this to be a purely democratic process.
Our budget is approved by the House of Representatives. The Governor of the Central Bank of Libya will commit to it, because it is a legal budget, so he has to commit to it. Libya has been working since 2014 without an approved unified budget, which of course opens the door to plenty of opportunities for corruption. Many deals and commissions are being done in the shadows, which makes our economic situation even worse.
This budget is a good budget for Libya, because it has a reference. There is a law for it, there are regulations, and audit and oversight mechanisms will be put in place. Audit processes will take place as normal. We also have chapters that are clear about where the payments will go. There are three main chapters: salaries, Government expenditures and development.
On the legal side, the budget is absolutely legal and good to go. We are looking forward to starting our work and the projects we requested under this budget, which the House of Representatives approved.
Q7 Graham Stringer: Isn’t it inevitable that because a large percentage of Libya’s wealth is dependent on revenues from oil, ordinary people in Libya will be harmed if the blockades continue?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): Yes of course that is true. I believe that the blockage of oil revenues will make the situation worse for Libyans. It may also have an impact on the global market, affecting the price per barrel of oil, which may increase slightly as a result of the blockade.
The population of the oil crescent—the people who live there—have been dealing with pollution because of the oil refineries, knowing that the wealth comes from under their feet and that, at the same time, the money collected from the oil is being transferred from the National Oil Corporation to the Central Bank of Libya account; that the Central Bank of Libya will then transfer it to the Government of National Unity, headed by Mr Dbeibah; and that the Government of National Unity will then give this money to militias and use it in corrupted deals here and there.
The emergency budget mentioned in the budget of the GNU is around 8 billion Libyan dinars. Not one cent from that budget was allocated to the oil crescent region. So the people who live there see their money being used in the wrong way, and they are not even getting anything out of it. That makes them disappointed and angry about the situation. That is why they did this oil blockade, which is partial, actually—it is not a full blockade. However, I believe it will all be easily resolved once we receive our budget. One of the things that everyone agreed on is that, once we receive our budget, which is approved by the House of Representatives, the oil revenues will be back to normal and the oil closure situation will be resolved.
One last note about the emergency budget: according to Libyan financial law, there is no supervision, audit or overseeing of an emergency budget. It is an amount that the Prime Minister, himself or herself, is free to use, without supervision, without anyone overseeing the allocation of that emergency budget. In my budget that was proposed to Parliament and approved by it, I did not include an emergency budget at all, because I believe it is a way for corruption—it gives more room for corruption.
Q8 Chris Bryant: Thank you very much for joining us. I want to ask about migration, immigration and border control. First, can you tell us what the situation is in terms of refugees fleeing Libya at the moment and people travelling through Libya, mostly through the central Mediterranean route into Italy?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): Thank you for your question. Back when I was the Interior Minister in Libya, under the previous Government, I had close co-operation with the UN about the situation with immigrants and the illegal migration issue. We dealt with the detention centres; we made the situation much better in those detention centres. We worked closely with the EU, Italy and Malta to develop the livelihood of the places where they stayed, and the care that they get. We also dealt closely with the UN in that regard. All of that led to a clear decrease in the flow of migrants to Europe in an illegal way. After that, I left.
To give an update on the current situation in Libya, as far as I know, and according to recent reports, migration is mismanaged now. The number of refugees coming from countries on the southern border of Libya is now much bigger—many multiples bigger, actually.
There is one very important factor here, which is the situation in Ukraine and how it impacts negatively on food security. It will really badly affect the African countries, and that might lead to bigger numbers of migrants coming to Libya and wanting to go to Europe. That is going to be a disaster for the EU and for Libya, and also a humanitarian disaster for everyone.
Q9 Chris Bryant: My next question is about the Stabilisation Support Authority, which has a terrible reputation—Amnesty International has condemned some of its activities. It is running some of the detention centres. What changes would you like to see there? There is an argument that the UK should consider sanctioning the people who are running it, because of the human rights abuses there.
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): First of all, I would like to say that it is not a legal authority. It was illegally founded by the Presidential Council. According to Libyan law, security authorities should be founded only by the Parliament, not the Presidential Council.
I understand that you received reports about migrants and detention centres, but there are also some civilians. The SSA is not really working on migrants and detention centres, but they work on Libyan centres and civilians. There are some violations, and the problem is that Libyan citizens cannot really complain about this. They fear for their lives if they complain or report it to the judicial or security authorities.
There is one more point I would like to add regarding the detention centres for the migrants, if that is a part of your question. I founded a human rights department in the Ministry of Interior back when I was the Minister. We did a really good job in this regard. We worked with the detention centres closely and we had a team of officials who were capable of doing these things and using the best practices. Unfortunately, now, as far as I know, that office is not there anymore, on the instructions or the order of the current Minister of Interior.
[Chris Bryant took the Chair]
Q10 Royston Smith: Thank you for joining us today. We are grateful to you for giving up your time. Looking at the scenes behind you, stability and security is still a big issue in Libya. To your knowledge, what is the extent of Wagner Group operations in Libya at the moment?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): Regarding the current security situation, back in 2011, when the international alliance pulled out following the revolution, they left a big gap in Libya. That big gap led to much foreign intervention, especially from neighbouring countries and those in the region, and that led to bigger divisions and bigger conflicts. That was when we had civil war several times. A result of all that was regional conflict in Libya, and that definitely led to us having mercenaries and foreign forces on Libyan soil.
One of the main reasons behind this was the absence of the British Government and the international community’s assistance with regard to the security situation. Yes, Wagner was a part of the conflict, and it is still in Libya, but its presence is less strong than it was back in 2020. However, Libyans are in general against the presence of foreign forces. Libyans may accept foreign forces on their soil who are there to train Libyan forces and to help the Libyan army, police and so on with capacity building. Otherwise, they are absolutely not welcomed by the Libyan people, who do not want any foreign military forces in the country.
Q11 Royston Smith: You recently stated that you support the removal of all foreign fighters from Libya—and you pretty much said that in your answer. How do you intend to do that?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): I believe that the first step towards removing foreign forces in general from Libya is for us to have one unified government that can work on all Libyan soil without restrictions, just like my Government. What we aim for as a Government is to have foreigners come and help Libya with reconstruction, investment and new projects. We want companies to be here to work with us on oil and gas and on reconstruction, but not foreign forces. As Prime Minister, I will never allow foreign forces to be present in Libya.
Q12 Royston Smith: But there are reports that the Wagner Group is operating in Libya, and that it has been using Russian military weapons. There are Wagner operatives in the Ukraine conflict too—the Russians always deny any involvement in that. Is it your understanding that there are Russian weapons in Libya? Are they brought in by Wagner? To your knowledge, are they supplied by the Russians?
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Gaddafi made plenty of weapon deals with Russia. Most of the weapons in Libya at the moment come from Russia, from normal rifles to warplanes and warships. It is really hard to differentiate between those weapons and tell if they came to Libya now, back then or something in between—maybe in 2011. It is really hard to differentiate and hard to tell. What is more important at the moment is that there are enormous amounts of ammunition and weapons in the country, and that is going to be a very big threat for the region in general, not only for Libya. The situation will definitely continue, and will be even worse if the instability continues. The stability of Libya will lead to better control of the situation. Of course, that is the best for Libyans and those of other regions.
Q13 Chair: Thank you very much. Mr Bashagha, it has been really helpful to us to understand some of the situation in Libya. We have briefly lost our Chairman; you may know that he is standing in a contest himself, to be Conservative party leader and Prime Minister, so he has gone absent on other duties. It falls to me to say an enormous thank you for your time this afternoon. We wish you and the people of Libya well. Thank you.
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): Before I thank you, I have one more thing to say. I have had a very good relationship with the UK since 2011. We have wanted to be friends with the UK and the British Government since our election. We wanted that and requested it, but unfortunately we do not feel welcomed at all. This is something that is quite disappointing for us. On the other hand, Russia accepted our Government. They actually want to deal with us and they invited us—me and my Ministers. It does not make sense for us to hear that you do not want to be on our side—don’t want to be our friends in this regard—but you do not want us to deal with other countries or other Governments that are willing to be our friends and to support us.
Thank you very much for your time, and special thanks to the Chairman and all the esteemed ladies and gentlemen in the room. I hope that we have a very good relationship in the future and that the co-operation between Libya and the UK expands and becomes deeper. We are looking forward to the future with you. Thank you so much.
Chair: The one thing you can be assured of from us is that the Foreign Affairs Committee does not always necessarily agree with the British Government or the British Foreign Secretary. Quite a lot of that Government is going to be changing, but the Foreign Affairs Committee is probably not going to be changing. Thank you very much for your time.
Fathi Bashagha (Translation): Thank you. Goodbye.