Report

Libya to Europe: Please Don’t Come to Our Rescue

Libya's U.N. envoy expresses skepticism over European plans to fight migrant smugglers in Libyan territory, saying it will cause more trouble than it's worth.

Rescuers help people in the sea after a boat carring some 250 migrants crashed into rocks as they tried to enter the port of Pantelleria, an island off the southern coast of Italy, on April 13, 2011. A fishing boat which had sailed across the Medittarenean from Libya ran aground today on rocks on the tiny Italian island of Pantelleria, killing two women, the ANSA news agency reported.  Italy is struggling to cope with a mass influx of immigrants from north Africa, many of whom risk their lives by sailing across the often stormy Medittaranean in makeshift vessels.   AFP PHOTO/ Francesco Malavolta    ==ITALY OUT== (Photo credit should read FRANCESCO MALAVOLTA/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescuers help people in the sea after a boat carring some 250 migrants crashed into rocks as they tried to enter the port of Pantelleria, an island off the southern coast of Italy, on April 13, 2011. A fishing boat which had sailed across the Medittarenean from Libya ran aground today on rocks on the tiny Italian island of Pantelleria, killing two women, the ANSA news agency reported. Italy is struggling to cope with a mass influx of immigrants from north Africa, many of whom risk their lives by sailing across the often stormy Medittaranean in makeshift vessels. AFP PHOTO/ Francesco Malavolta ==ITALY OUT== (Photo credit should read FRANCESCO MALAVOLTA/AFP/Getty Images)

Europe is poised to try to help Libya stem the lethal human trafficking trade that has imperiled the lives of tens of thousands of desperate migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life in Europe.

But Libya’s U.N. ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, is essentially saying “not so fast.”

The Security Council’s four European members — Britain, France, Spain and Lithuania — have crafted a resolution that would grant Europeans broad authority to use military force to seize suspected smuggling ships on the high seas or in Libya’s territorial waters, according to a diplomat familiar with the draft. The resolution, which European foreign ministers are scheduled to take up on Monday in Brussels, would also allow European forces to pursue human traffickers in Libya.

It’s unclear how many European navies are prepared to participate in a concerted interdiction effort on the high seas, and it seems highly unlikely that any European countries would relish the chance to send combat forces into a country riven by a bloody civil war.

Dabbashi doesn’t want to wait to find out. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Dabbashi expressed deep reservations about the European plan, which he said could violate Libya’s sovereignty. He also fretted that Libyan fishermen might get caught up in the international operation and have their boats, their only source of income, destroyed. “It will be very difficult to distinguish between fishermen and trafficking boats,” he said. “It could be disastrous for fishermen.”

The ambassador’s concerns echo public and private misgivings being expressed about the European plan from the United Nations, the United States, and Russia. The resolution would be adopted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, a provision that is traditionally invoked to impose sanctions or authorize military action. The European text, which may be shared with the 15-nation Security Council later this week or next week, also would permit the detention of smugglers and the scuttling of their ships. In addition, foreign powers would be allowed to mount attacks on Libyan soil to seize any “assets” the smugglers might use to further their illicit trade.

The initiative is being driven most fervently by Italy and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, an Italian. Rome has shouldered the greatest burden of accommodating the massive flow of tens of thousands of desperate migrants into Europe. In previous efforts to stem the tide, Italy sought unsuccessfully to rally international support for a U.N.-backed stabilization force in Libya.

European powers cast the diplomatic push on humanitarian grounds, but Dabbashi voiced suspicion that Italy and other European powers were actually seeking a blank check to carry out offensive military operations on Libyan soil and Libyan territorial waters. The European approach, he said pointedly, could “raise more problems than it solves.”

The European diplomacy follows one of the deadliest months for the nearly 60,000 migrants that have fled unrest in Africa and the Middle East for Europe since the beginning of the year. In one particularly horrific incident, a boat carrying more than 750 migrants capsized off the coast of Sicily, killing most of the passengers.

“In the first 130 days of 2015, 1,800 people have drowned in the Mediterranean,” Peter Sutherland, the U.N.’s special representative for international migration, told the Security Council Monday. “That total represents a 20-fold increase over the same period last year – and at this pace, between 10,000 and 20,000 migrants would perish by autumn.”

The migrants come from as far away as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Syria, where political repression or long-standing conflicts have fueled a mass exodus. The largest numbers are transiting through Libya, which is in the midst of its own civil war, and are paying a fee of $5,000 to $15,000 for their passage to the southern shores of Italy, according to the United Nations. “They face a substantial risk of death,” Sutherland said. “But, clearly, the situations from which they flee are even more dangerous.”

European governments have faced intense criticism for mounting what has largely been a lackluster response to the rising migrant death toll.

Last November, European leaders shuttered an Italian naval operation, dubbed Mare Nostrum, that patrolled international waters in search of smuggling boats and sought to prosecute the traffickers. The program, which is credited with saving thousands of lives, was considered too costly by its European funders. A newer, less ambitious European program, called Operation Triton, only operates within about 21 miles of Italy’s shores, and has only six vessels at its disposal, according to Sutherland. Mare Nostrum had 32.

The push for a Security Council resolution is aimed to show renewed European resolve. It comes as the European Commission on Wednesday announced a new European migration plan, which would triple funding for a European maritime operation aimed at rescuing migrants at sea, establish a quota system for distributing refugees throughout Europe, and forge a common security policy aimed at dismantling traffickers networks and fighting the smuggling of humans.

On April 23, the European Council endorsed a plan favored by Mogherini “to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture, and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers in accordance with international law.”

The European call for the use of force has faced some skepticism at the United Nations, where U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Russia, and the United States have expressed public or private reservations about the plan. “Destroying the boats in not the appropriate way, it’s not the good way,” Ban told reporters during a visit to the Vatican. He voiced concern that destroying boats could damage an already ailing local economy.

Russian officials, for their part, have voiced regret for supporting a resolution in 2011 that paved the way for a NATO-backed overthrow of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, saying they were fooled into believing that the mission was designed only to prevent the mass slaughter of civilians. Moscow remains skeptical about the latest European plan. “We think it’s just going too far,” Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said late last week.

The United States has not publically criticized the European proposal. But during a May 11 closed-door Security Council debate, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, asked a series of pointed questions about the European plan, according to three diplomats briefed on the meeting. One of her biggest: Whether creating a European force designed to deliver rescued migrants to Europe for processing might actually encourage people to try to make the risky passage.

Power and other American diplomats have also privately raised concerns with foreign officials about the wisdom of trying to adopt the resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, a provision used to authorize sanctions or the use of military force. Washington worries that governments in other parts of the world, including Asia, might seek authorization for military force against their own migrants using the provision.

Some diplomats, however, say they suspect the U.S. is reluctant to see the Security Council getting into the business of addressing migration issues because it doesn’t want to set a precedent that might invite other governments to call for council consideration of American migration policies.

Speaking to the Security Council on May 11, Mogherini sought to downplay the military nature of the operation, saying the Europeans had no intention of sending an intervention force onto Libyan soil. She also assured council members that the effort was not aimed at forcing refugees to remain in Libya, where many faced detention in extremely harsh conditions.

“Let me explicitly assure you that no refugees or migrants intercepted at sea will be sent back against their will,” Mogherini told the council. “Their rights under Geneva conventions will be fully honored.”

Asked to expand on Power’s remarks in the closed-door meeting, a U.S. official said that the Obama administration wanted to ensure that “any response that imposes consequences on smugglers and their assets should avoid putting migrants in further danger.”

But the official, who declined to be identified by name, said: “We support Europe’s effort to take a comprehensive approach to resolving these migration challenges and would emphasize that – as laid out in the EU council’s conclusions – a sustainable solution must include elements to expand search and rescue operations, increase legal avenues to migration, provide protection to refugees, and help source and transit and transit countries to manage migrants and refugees more humanely, in addition to cracking down on smugglers.”

European officials, meanwhile, are calling on Libya’s leaders to write a formal letter to the U.N. granting their consent for a new mission.

But any effort to secure Libyan backing is complicated by the fact that two rival factions — the internationally recognized government, headquartered in the eastern city of Tobruk, and a coalition of Islamists and fighters from the Misrata-based militia — are in the midst of a bloody civil war. Any decision to use force would require the formal consent of the government in Tobruk, which fled the Libyan capital of Tripoli last summer. But it would also require the approval of the rebels, who now control Tripoli and many of the country’s main ports. The failure to secure both parties consent, U.N. officials warn, could undermine U.N.-brokered talks aimed at forming a government of national unity in Libya.

While Dabbashi didn’t rule out the possibility that the Libyan government might ultimately agree to an outside maritime force, he set potentially insurmountable terms. “If we have to ask for assistance we will ask for assistance of the Security Council to extend the authority of the Libyan government over all of Libya,” he said.

That is a non-starter as it would run contrary to U.N. efforts to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement, according to diplomats. But they said they remain confident that they can secure the support of the key Libyan parties.

“We know what Dabbashi thinks, but at the end of day, if we are going to get a request from the government, it’s not going to be a letter written by Dabbashi,” said one U.N.-based diplomat.

The Libyans are not the only ones to harbor serious doubts about the European plan. “Nobody really thinks the European Union has a very convincing plan,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. “There is a lack of clarity over how these operations would work [and] there is a lot of fear that this will end up in situation where the Europeans blow up harmless civilians. The U.N. secretariat is unconvinced it’s a good idea, Ban Ki-moon is unconvinced it’s a good idea.”

Gowan said the Italian government has failed to build European and U.N. support for a peacekeeping force in Libya, and the current strategy offers an opening to enlist greater support for military involvement in Libya. “This is partially a genuine response to migration crisis but it’s also an alibi for a serious European intervention in Libya,” he said. There is a lot of “genuine skepticism” about whether this constitutes a viable strategy capable of addressing Europe’s migration crisis, Gowan added, or a “lowest common denominator” pact that simply papers over differences within Europe.

“To be honest it looks like a half-baked baked plan that could go seriously awry,” said Gowan. “My suspicion is a lot of people are hoping maybe Russia and China will kill this off and save everyone a lot of embarrassment.”

Francesco Malavolta/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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