EU stops Operation Sophia and sends warships to stop Libya weapons trafficking

EU shifts warship to eastern Libyan to stop weapons trafficking and oil smuggling, wounding down migrant rescue mission Operation Sophia

The German frigate Saschsen was previously dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean to support military action against the Islamic State
The German frigate Saschsen was previously dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean to support military action against the Islamic State

EU foreign ministers in Brussels have agreed to launch a new mission to enforce the weapons embargo against Libya.

Following on from the Libya peace conference in Berlin this January, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that a new Libya mission would entail a "maritime component" by dispatching navel vessels.

The EU has agreed to deploy warships to stop the flow of weapons into Libya, and to wound down the military mission that rescues migrants and refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, said the new operation with naval ships, planes and satellites will enforce the United Nations arms embargo on Libya.

Countering critcis, especially Italy and Austria, that the operation could turn into a rescue mission, Borrell promised the ships would be withdrawn if they became “a pull factor” that encouraged people to attempt the risky crossing from Libya to Europe.

Operation Sophia was suspended last year over Italy’s protests that EU vessels were rescuing migrants in distress at sea, and allowing them disembark at Italian ports. And more recently, Austria’s government opposed the mission being restarted by arguing that sending EU ships along the Libyan coast would lead to a rise in Europe-bound migrants. 

The new mission will see EU ships dispatched only to the eastern Mediterranean, where the Libyan National Army is based in Libya, and far away from the sea routes used by migrants around the Government of National Accord controlled areas in the west. But with arms smugglers seeking to evade EU observers, it is unlikely European vessels will limit themselves to patrolling only this region.

Weapons and foreign mercenaries have been pouring into the war-torn north African country, exposing Europe’s weakness in its own neighbourhood. Over the weekend, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams, described the arms embargo as a joke.

Libya’s latest cycle of violence has pitted Gen Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army, against the UN-backed government of the prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj.

Haftar is being funded and armed by the United Arab Emirates, while Russia has provided mercenaries. Sarraj is being supported by Turkey, which has sent as many as 2,000 fighters from Syria. Europe’s diplomatic clout has been hampered, as EU nations have found themselves on opposing sides, with France supporting Haftar and Italy backing Sarraj.

An internal EU memo, released by the London-based civil liberties group Statewatch, underscores that the EU does not expect to be involved in rescuing people. “Naval assets can be deployed in the areas most relevant to the implementation of the arms embargo, in the eastern part of the area of operation or at least 100km off the Libyan coast, where chances to conduct rescue operations are lower,” it says.

Operation Active Surveillance will not monitor activties related to oil smuggling and instead of disrupting human smuggling, it will  “[support] the detection and monitoring of human smuggling and trafficking networks through information gathering and patrolling in accordance with international law”.