George Vella casts doubts on EU warship mission to block Libyan arms trade

EU sea operation to block arms shipments to Libya met with scepticism by President George Vella, who questions why land and air routes weren’t also targeted

President of the Republic George Vella
President of the Republic George Vella

An EU mission to block arms shipments to Libya through sea blockades has been met with scepticism by President George Vella.

Wading into territory usually left to government ministers, the former foreign minister questioned how Operation Irina, launched by the EU this week, would be capable of preventing weapons from arriving to Libya if it focused only on sea routes and ignored the possibilities of transporting arms by air and land.

EU governments decided on Tuesday to deploy warships in the central Mediterranean to inspect vessels suspected of funnelling weapons to and from the war-torn state. 

Unlike Operation Sophia, credited for saving thousands of lives between 2016 and 2018, the operation is limited to enforcing the arms embargo and it remains unclear how the warships will respond to calls for assistance by migrants stranded at sea.

In a Twitter post on Wednesday, the President asked: “how does the EU hope to control arms supply to Libya by blocking only the sea routes?”

“What about massive supplies by air and land,” Vella, who was previously Labour foreign minister under both the Sant and Muscat administrations, asked.

In a post on Twitter, President George Vella was sceptical about how effective the EU mission would be
In a post on Twitter, President George Vella was sceptical about how effective the EU mission would be

The decision to launch operation Irini has been hailed by the European Parliament as one aimed at bringing stability amidst a civil war pitting the U.N. backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the strongman of the east of the country, Khalifa Haftar.

Sarraj is backed by Italy, Libya’s former colonial power, and also by Qatar and Turkey. But Haftar is backed by France, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and most recently Russia.

While the UN arms embargo is a prerequisite for ending the Libyan conflict, the mission will also monitor and gather information on illicit exports from Libya of petroleum, crude oil and refined petroleum products.

But it isn’t clear how the EU hopes to control the arms supply to Libya by only blocking the sea routes considering that armaments also arrive by land and air. It also remains unclear how migrants rescued at sea by military ships enforcing the embargo will be treated.

Operation Sophia – named after a girl born on a German frigate that had rescued her mother – saved between 43,000 and 50,000 lives between 2015 and 2018. It was discontinued after countries, including Austria and Italy, said it acted as a “pull factor” for asylum seekers. Although it had a wider mandate to halt traffickers and smugglers, it was stripped of all its naval assets following objections from Italy’s then hard-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who claimed the operation encouraged more migrant departures – despite data showing the contrary.

To help broker a deal, Greece offered its ports from which migrants rescued at sea will be relocated on a voluntary basis among member countries. 

Senior diplomatic sources told Politico that to avoid rescuing migrants in distress, the mission’s commander can decide “to redeploy the vessels more east or more north, anyway outside the pull-factor zone.”

But according to the EUObserver, Operation Irini will not disclose how member states decide where to send any migrants rescued at sea.

Irini will also continue training the Libyan Coast Guard, under the guise of improving human rights and sea rescues. However, most people rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard are sent to any number of notorious detention centres peppered throughout a country in the grips of civil war.

An EU foreign affairs spokesperson was quoted by the EUObserver saying that special confidential arrangements have instead been made on where to disembark people, should Irini have to rescue them at sea. “The operational plan is a confidential document, it is a classified document, so I am not at liberty to go into details on this,” he told reporters in Brussels.

International law requires vessels to rescue anyone in distress at sea. The EU and its member states have increasingly shored up barriers to prevent migrants and refugees from reaching mainland Europe, forcing many to seek help from NGO rescue missions which are currently out of action due to the COVID-19 crisis.

NGOs, in turn, have faced government-led criminal lawsuits, and threats to send their boat captains to jail.

Around 15,500 people have crossed the Mediterranean to reach the EU so far this year, according to figures provided by the International Organization for Migration. Hassiba Hadj Sahrouai, a humanitarian affairs adviser for Doctors Without Borders, said the EU had “completely abandoned” the idea of rescuing lives, criticising the EU’s “cynical” cooperation with the Libyan coast guard despite proof of massive human rights violations committed by the coast guard.

Although Irini was officially launched earlier this week, the mission is still only a reality on paper: EU member states  have made some pledges and contributions in terms of ships and aerial assets and the assembly of the EU’s military mission has been described as an “ongoing process”.

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