Malta, United States edging closer on Status of Forces Agreement

Malta and the US are getting closer to a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) but red lines on jurisdiction for US personnel on Maltese soil are sticking points

Malta and the US are edging closer to a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA)
Malta and the US are edging closer to a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA)

Malta and the United States government are edging closer to a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that could bring the two governments closer on important matters of military intelligence as well as security in the Mediterranean. 

For the past 20 years, Washington has been putting out feelers with Maltese leaders on the establishment of a SOFA – an agreement that establishes the rights and privileges of U.S. personnel in Malta as support of the larger security arrangement. 

For the Americans, a SOFA would be key towards enhanced interception of the smuggling routes in the Mediterranean, especially around the Hurd’s Bank area, an offshore bank to Malta’s east that is used to bypass US sanctions on illegal transhipments. 

As always, Malta’s red line on the SOFA is the issue of jurisdiction on US personnel based in Malta: the Americans are said to be insisting on “concurrent jurisdiction”, that is a system where both American and Maltese courts have jurisdiction. But the Maltese are jittery about the demand, a situation that would lead to both parties quibbling over having any prospective criminal case heard in the court they perceive will be most favourable to them. 

The United States has been active in encouraging Malta to step up its efforts in countering fuel smuggling activities that have used Maltese ships and the State petroleum company’s storage tanks to store smuggled Libyan fuel oil. 

United Nation sanctions to enforce Libyan embargo rules would grant the United States a route to easily board ships it suspects of carrying smuggled oil and weapons. But a SOFA would allow a faster relationship for Malta to have American naval muscle in its backyard to deal with such situations. In 2019, Hurd’s Bank – which falls outside the island’s jurisdiction – was being used by crisis-hit Venezuela to receive some 616,000 barrels of gasoline and 500,000 of vacuum gas oil in cargoes that sailed from the Black Sea port of Taman, to Malta.

The question of whether foreign minister Evarist Bartolo is a supporter of having a SOFA with the United States was perhaps answered by himself in one of his Facebook posts on Sunday morning, after MaltaToday published this story in print. 

“Throughout the centuries, countries have sought to create a base in Malta to attack other neighbours and control maritime routes. Should Malta be used in wars against other countries? Should it be involved in these wars? Should we not have the best of relations with as many countries as possible to export our product, services and tourism to them? 

“Malta is neutral: a country that does not enter the wars of others, nor is used in war and is part of no military alliance,” Bartolo said – although Malta, constitutionally neutral since 1987, today is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace.

American interest in maritime security

In a meeting with finance minister Edward Scicluna, Marshall Billingslea – the United States’ Department of Treasury’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing – had expressed American concern over Russia’s role in the financing of Maltese operations involved in fuel smuggling, especially over possible indications that the fuel was being sold for an eventual destination to blacklisted Syrian forces, or to Khalifa Haftar’s army. 

Hurd’s Bank – a veritable Wild West for transshipment on the high seas – is a site of significant transfers of oil products through an informal ship-to-ship network. 

The Americans are lawfully allowed to board Malta-registered ships under the Proliferation Security Initiative bilateral treaty, if authorised by the Maltese authorities.