Positive messages spread across social media this past June in support of an announcement by Libya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs about the adoption of a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP). In practical terms, it is difficult to imagine any attempts at feminizing the political infrastructure—let alone adopting it on a foreign policy level. But what does it mean to implement an FFP and how has it played out in Libya?
A feminist foreign policy is defined as:
“…The policy of a state that defines its interactions with other states, as well as movements and other non-state actors, in a manner that prioritizes peace, gender equality and environmental integrity; enshrines, promotes, and protects the human rights of all; seeks to disrupt colonial, racist, patriarchal and male-dominated power structures; and allocates significant resources, including research, to achieve that vision. Feminist foreign policy is coherent in its approach across all of its levers of influence, anchored by the exercise of those values at home and co-created with feminist activists, groups and movements, at home and abroad.”
As of 2019, seven nations had committed to advancing a feminist foreign policy, with Sweden leading the way in 2014. Much of the initial international pushback against Sweden’s adoption of an FFP misunderstood its importance and deemed it “irrelevant”—as though the inclusion of half of the world’s population was not a pressing issue for the international community. In implementing an FFP, Sweden ensured the involvement of women from different fields and civil society organizations, creating a gender balance in its foreign policy visits, missions, and dialogue with other countries, particularly post-conflict ones. One major impact has been in the way that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) now deals with conflict on the ground: multilateral decisions are approached with FFP mainstreaming in mind. Further, male-only panels and male-only delegations are rejected unless they adhere to the He for She initiative.
In 2020, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) was facilitated by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) following UNSC Resolution 2510 to support a Libyan-led peace process. The forum commenced in Tunisia and concluded in Geneva, where a transitional government—”The Government of National Unity” (GNU)—was borne by a body of 75 members selected by UNSMIL. Seventeen of the total 75 seats were occupied by women—a representation of only 22.6 percent. Only five out of 35 ministries were held by women, most notably Dr. Najla Elmangoush, who became Libya’s first female Minister of Foreign Affairs. The government assumed its duties in March 2021 and its legitimacy was set to expire on December 24th—the day that national elections, which never took place, had been scheduled. Thereafter, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh refused to leave his post and the term of the transitional government was extended to June 2022.
During this transitional phase, Libya has focused on implementing the outcomes of the LPDF roadmap, which includes protecting and fostering the strides women have made over the past decade. In Geneva, the female delegation made important statements on Libya’s commitments to key UNSC resolutions promoting a Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda, like Resolutions 1325 and 2467, and the WPS agenda more generally. Elmangoush also announced Libya’s commitment to a feminist foreign policy, making it the first African country to do so. At the Generation Equality Forum, Elmangoush stated, “launching a feminist foreign policy would not only help Libya in achieving its stabilization, but would also stabilize our region.”
Despite this, the country has not seen many changes since the announcement that would sufficiently ensure women’s involvement and inclusion on the ground level. Instead, there have been a number of alarming developments in Libya.
In mid-November, protests were reported in the capital of Tripoli rejecting a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed with the UN regarding WPS, which specified that Libya must adhere to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The protesters claimed that CEDAW was in violation of Islamic principles and values. In line with this claim, various Libyan media organizations and social media accounts spread narratives claiming that FFP, CEDAW, and WPS are at odds with Sharia’a law. The Commission of Civil Society (CCS) in Libya— a state institution founded in 2011 as a platform for CSOs in Libya—has engaged women and vulnerable communities since its creation. However, it also released a communiqué launched against the mainstreaming of Resolution 1325.
Furthermore, the treatment of Minister Elmangoush is cause for concern. The political role played by Elmangoush on the international stage has showcased the importance of negotiation, dialogue, and cooperation to achieve better relations with other states. However, she has faced exclusionary tactics from the presidential council, such as being suspended and “banned” from traveling for “administrative violations.” She has been subject to personal abuse since the beginning of her term.
The current political climate is already worrying as women have become more vulnerable to marginalization. This may be further exacerbated following Fathi Bashagha’s appointment by the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) as interim Prime Minister in February 2022. Thus it is important to consider how an FFP could ensure women’s active and sustainable participation in decision-making on issues that will impact them and their livelihoods. Given the extension of the GNU’s duties to June 2022, the upcoming months could potentially change Libya’s socio-political environment.
Because the GNU is a transitional government, it cannot single-handedly ensure appropriate implementation of an FFP or the WPS agenda in Libya. Nonetheless, the conversation has started and it is an important one. It is vital to sustainable peace that all parties who suffer from conflict and violence are represented at negotiating tables, become a part of peace-building efforts, and partake in decision-making on international, national and sub-national levels—including women.
However, there is a serious communication gap. Campaigns and outreach by policymakers are necessary to provide accurate information about what an FFP means, what WPS means, what Resolution 1325 entails, and how a curated national action plan could benefit and uplift Libyan women. There is a widely circulated discourse that instrumentalizes religion, customs, and tradition to eliminate women from decision-making that directly impacts their livelihoods. A successful FFP will have to be informative, compatible with the contextual reality, and easy to understand in order to garner the acceptance of the public and institutions such as the CCS. Both the government and civil society must ensure their commitment to including women. The application of an FFP would provide positive changes to the livelihoods of women, youth, and men impacted by supra-territorial violence, deterrence, and repercussions of war.
Transforming Libya’s foreign policy to become more feminist would signify a way forward for peace, security sector reform, and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration—traditionally male-dominated spaces. But while diplomacy and foreign policy are largely male-dominated areas, their impact is felt by the women who bear the brunt of the consequences. As Cohn states, international security is driven by toxic-masculinities derived from male-dominated spaces.
Nouran Ragrag is a Masters of International Studies and Diplomacy graduate from SOAS, University of London.