Europe to Seize Libyan Weapons on the High Seas

The U.N. Security Council is moving to crack down on Libya's illicit arms trade.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19:  Members of the United Nations Security Council hold a meeting on the situation concerning Iraq on September 19, 2014 at UN headquarters in New York City.  Secretary Kerry attended the Council for supporting the new Iraqi government and the Iraqi people.   (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19: Members of the United Nations Security Council hold a meeting on the situation concerning Iraq on September 19, 2014 at UN headquarters in New York City. Secretary Kerry attended the Council for supporting the new Iraqi government and the Iraqi people. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

The U.N. Security Council moved Tuesday to make it harder for the Islamic State and Libya’s other armed groups to illegally obtain weapons, with the world body authorizing the interdiction of ships on international waters suspected of smuggling weapons into and out of the North African nation.

The move is part of a wider effort by the United States and its European allies to stem the unregulated trade in Libyan arms, which have flooded the region since the fall of former strongman Muammar Gaddafi and provided Islamists in the Sahel and beyond with ever greater firepower. It also aims to reinforce Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord and starve the Islamic State and other anti-government forces of money and military supplies.

Libya has been the subject of an arms embargo since the final months of Gaddafi’s reign in 2011. But the ban has been poorly enforced. For more than a year, a U.N. panel of experts has been urging the U.N. Security Council to establish a maritime force to prevent the movement of arms in and out of Libya. Tuesday’s resolution, which was unanimously approved by the Security Council, aims to fill those gaps in the existing embargo. But diplomats acknowledged that the measure would have little impact across Libya’s borders with its neighbors.

The new resolution, which authorizes any state to implement the arms ban, will primarily be enforced by a European maritime force, called SOPHIA, which has previously been mandated by the Security Council to pursue smugglers ferrying refugees and migrants seeking entry into Europe. It will now allow the naval force to inspect any vessel bound to or from Libya if there “are reasonable grounds” to believe the ships are carrying arms. If weapons are found, the resolution also grants permission to seize and destroy them.

“The existing arms embargo has not fully stopped the flow of weapons. Illicit weapons are undermining the peace and security of the region,” Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, told the council. “They are enabling terrorists to murder, to maim, to bring yet more chaos to the people of Libya and the region — people who have suffered for too long.”

Russia had been reluctant to support a new resolution granting the West new powers to use force in Libya, citing the NATO intervention that resulted in the overthrow of Gaddafi. Russia and China also pressed for a provision specifying that ships could be seized only with the consent of the state that registered the vessel.

Russia and Egypt have also pushed back on the full embrace of the GNA by the United States and Europe, stressing that Libya’s Parliament, known as the House of Representatives, which is based in Tobruk, has yet to recognize the new Tripoli-based government. Egypt has been a strong backer of Tobruk-based government and provides military backing to the Tobruk-based commander of the Libyan National Army, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a committed anti-Islamist. The United States maintains that it is prepared to work with Haftar to fight the Islamic State. But they have insisted he pledge loyalty to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

“Behind his resolution is hidden another agenda, one which is not going to unite the long-suffering Libyans,” a senior Russian diplomat, Vladimir Safronkov, told the council after the vote. “It is possible someone is seeking carte blanche to resolve or manage the weapons flow to Libya as they see fit. Today, that means helping some Libyans against others.”

The United States and Britain, which drafted the resolution, argued that a provision requiring a given state’s approval to seize arms would undermine the entire effort because it would take too long to secure such consent. In the end, the two sides struck a compromise to avert a veto. “The draft that will be put to a vote includes a reference to making good-faith efforts to first seek the consent of the vessel’s flag state prior to any inspections,” according to analysis of the vote by the Security Council Report, an independent think tank that tracks the U.N. security body. In addition, the British stripped out language granting states “all necessary measures” to interdict vessels, according to the analysis. “Some council members wanted further guarantees that this was not a blanket authorisation to use force; as a result of these members’ concerns, compromise language was added.”

Libya has emerged as an increasingly important battleground in the war against the Islamic State, especially as the Islamic State loses ground in both Syria and Iraq. Since 2013, it has steadily expanded its presence in Libya, sending some of its top leaders there to establish a major stronghold in North Africa. Today, there are as many as 5,000 Islamic State fighters, mostly Africans, and the movement continues to urge new recruits interested in joining its holy war to head to Libya instead of Syria and Iraq.

“It’s much harder for them to get into Syria now,” Brett McGurk, the special envoy for the global anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters in Washington on Friday. “So they tell their recruits, ‘Maybe don’t do Syria; think about going to Libya.'”

McGurk said the creation of a U.N.-backed government, based in Tripoli, gives the anti-Islamic State efforts a badly needed boost as Libyan militias loyal to their new government mount a major push to reclaim Sirte, the main Islamic State stronghold in the country.

“They are making some real progress,” McGurk said. “If the government of Libya, of course, requests help from the international community, I think they’ll find a very willing partner.”

But the terrorist organization has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to project violence even while its control of territory in Syria and Iraq has been shrinking. In the latest, gruesome example, a lone American gunman inspired by the Islamic State killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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