Libya: Europe's New Libya Mission Draws Criticism

Early morning view over the city of Benghazi, Libya.

European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday to launch a revamped mission to try to monitor and enforce an international weapons embargo on warn-torn Libya. After meeting European counterparts, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced naval assets would be deployed to the Mediterranean to help enforce the ban.

The German foreign minister told reporters the planned EU mission was a major step toward fulfilling the EU’s commitment made in Berlin last month at an international conference to honor the routinely flouted arms embargo in a bid to stabilize the North African country.

“We all agreed to create a mission to block the entry of arms into Libya,” said Italy's foreign minister, Luigi di Maio, after the meeting in Brussels.

The new mission is a revival of Operation Sophia, which was launched in 2015 with the dual mission of curbing human trafficking from North Africa to Europe, while also trying to enforce the U.N. arms embargo on Libya. But few observers believe the new mission will have much impact as EU naval assets will be deployed at least 100 kilometers away from the Libyan coast.

The decision to circumscribe the mission to a limited geographic zone, one that easily can be circumnavigated by gunrunners, was the only way to overcome opposition to the deployment of warships by several European leaders led by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The Austrian leader has for weeks argued that deploying ships in the Mediterranean Sea would act as a “pull factor” for migrants trying to reach Europe from Libya.

With fears mounting that Europe could see another massive influx of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa — thanks to political turmoil in Lebanon and a Russian-backed offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the north of his country — EU critics of a deployment off the coast of Libya said the mission would morph quickly from embargo-enforcement to rescuing migrants.

EU warships would have little choice but to pick up migrants trying to make the perilous Mediterranean crossing, they said, repeating what happened to Operation Sophia, which had its naval assets stripped away last year under pressure from the populist coalition that was then in power in Rome.

Operation Sophia was named after a migrant child born on a German frigate to a Somali mother in 2015. Her mother chose the name at the suggestion of the doctors who helped with the delivery.

In a recent interview Kurz warned a naval mission would be “a ticket to Europe for thousands of illegal migrants.” He told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper that the vessels would inevitably encourage another migrant influx. Under international law ships — military or civilian — are obliged to rescue people in distress at sea.

Libya has been a key gateway for Europe-bound migrants and asylum-seekers. France and Italy have been backing opposing sides in the long-running conflict in the country between an internationally recognized government in Tripoli, which has Rome’s support, and forces from the east of Libya commanded by the renegade general Khalifa Haftar, which are backed by Paris.

According to Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, the “maritime assets will be withdrawn” from any area should their presence attract migrants hoping to be picked up at sea. Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said if the EU ships proved to be a “pull factor” for migrants desperate to reach Europe “the mission will be stopped.”

In Berlin last month EU leaders joined other powers, including Turkey, Qatar, and Russia, in agreeing to do whatever was needed to implement the U.N. arms embargo and observe a cease-fire. They pledged to ensure their respective international allies stop supplying arms. But within hours of the agreement, which was brokered by Germany’s Angela Merkel, there were reports of the embargo being violated.

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply frustrated with what’s happening in Libya.” He added: “The truth is that the Security Council embargo remains violated.”

On Sunday the U.N. deputy special envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams, described the arms embargo as a joke.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said Monday that he hopes the new mission will be in operation by the end of March. Borrell admitted negotiations over the maritime mission had been combative, but that several states have volunteered vessels. “There will be no shortage” of ships, he said.

Borrell had been highly critical of the stance of Austria’s Kurz, saying it was absurd for Austria, a landlocked country without a navy, to block the revival of Operation Sophia. But on Monday he struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that some member states had “legitimate concerns” about the “potential impact on migration flows.”

He said the EU would do what it can to enforce the embargo but added “we cannot station troops along the Egyptian-Libyan border.” Egypt has been a backer of Gen. Haftar and has reportedly supplied eastern forces with artillery.

Ahead of the Brussels meeting, the EU’s top general had warned that a failure to revive a military mission to enforce the arms embargo on Libya would mean the bloc had failed to live up to geopolitical ambitions. In an interview with Politico, Italian General Claudio Graziano said if Sophia wasn’t revived, it would send “an extremely negative message” and would mean the EU is “not able to find a solution.”

Humanitarian organizations are criticizing the terms of the new naval mission.

“Foreign policy aside, this is hugely concerning from a humanitarian and human rights perspective,” tweeted Liam Kelly, Libya country director for the Danish Refugee Council. He added: “Under International Maritime Law, every State has a duty to render assistance to persons found at sea in danger of being lost and rescue persons in distress. This proposal is exactly the opposite - to withdraw assistance if it is deemed likely to be needed.”

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