Just days before the end of his tenure facilitating peace talks in war-torn Libya, the UN's special envoy for the country finds himself enmeshed in controversy after taking a job in the United Arab Emirates — a principal supporter of one of the main parties to the country's conflict.
The revelation that Spanish diplomat Bernardino Leon had taken a position with the newly created Emirates Diplomatic Academy was announced by the UAE on Wednesday. Shortly after, the Guardian newspaper revealed a series of emails between Leon and officials in the country dating back to this summer, a period when he was overseeing negotiations between the two principal sides in Libya's conflict, one of whom — the internationally recognize House of Representatives — is backed by the UAE. The development threatened to cast a damning coda on Leon's tenure as envoy, and raises concerns about the impartiality of special representatives appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
The Tripoli-based General Nation Congress (GNC), which opposes the House of Representatives, seized on the news, sending a letter to Ban criticizing Leon's decision, and calling the envoy biased.
Libya has been locked in conflict since a 2011 revolution and NATO air campaign led to the ouster and death of former leader Muammar Qaddafi.
The emails reportedly leaked to the Guardian and other outlets, including Middle East Eye, included a string of communication between Leon and Emirati officials dating back to the end of last year. The emails appeared to show Leon favoring the House of Representatives; in one dated that month, Leon wrote to the UAE's foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, that a "classical peace conference" was not preferable "because it will treat both sides as equal actors."
On Thursday, following his final briefing to Security Council members, Leon calmly defended his decision to take a post in the UAE. Admitting that he could have "done things differently," Leon insisted that he had followed all UN rules when he arranged to take the new post while still employed as envoy.
Under UN guidelines, mediators like Leon are instructed to "not accept conditions for support from external actors that would affect the impartiality of the process."
Pushed by reporters, Leon said that his personal finances played a role, but didn't address why the opportunity he settled upon happened to be in the UAE.
"I don't have the money to survive for a long time," said Leon. "So I have to work somewhere."
According to the Guardian, his job as the first director general at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy will pay £35,000 per month — a bit more than $53,000 at current exchange rates. The academy trains Emirati diplomats, conducts research about diplomacy, and its board of trustees is chaired by the Emirates' minister of foreign affairs.
In an email reference by the paper, two UAE ministers discuss Leon's contention that he is unable to find sufficient housing in Abu Dhabi with the roughly $95,000 stipend that was being offered.
On Thursday, Leon said the public should be aware the leaks could be "intended to affect the Libyan" political process.
The UAE's Gulf neighbor Qatar supports the GNC and its ally, the Alliance of Libya Dawn, an Islamist force based in Misrata. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, enjoys support of the national army headed by General Khalifa Haftar. More than 4,000 people have been killed in fighting during the past year and a half.
Last month, Leon presented a power-sharing agreement but both sides quickly criticized the proposal.
UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said on Thursday that Leon was scheduled to leave his post "in the coming days," to be replaced by veteran German diplomat Martin Kobler.
"The Secretary General would expect all of his envoys not to let his search for their next position impact the work they are currently doing," said Dujarric.
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