Europe and its Libya problem

Europe and its Libya problem
Analysis: The European Union's shift from humanitarian patrols to military raids in the Mediterranean will hurt vulnerable migrants harder than any people-smugglers, says Vijay Prashad.
4 min read
20 May, 2015
Migrants heading to Europe from Libya face an unsympathetic reception [Getty]

Europe is confounded by the refugee crisis.

This year alone, 60,000 refugees have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. At least two thousand of these refugees have died during the perilous crossing.

These numbers have set Europe on edge. All consideration of humanitarianism appears to have vanished from the continent that seems otherwise keen to protect civilians.

Lebanon, a country of four million, is currently host to more than a million Syrian refugees. The population of Europe stands at 750 million. A European refugee count from Syria comparable with Lebanon's would stand at around 187 million - not the few hundreds of thousands who await asylum applications in Europe.

The is no question that Europe has a problem, but when compared with the crisis in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Europe's problems are next to nothing.

The United Nations has called the plight of refugees making the dangerous journey to Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea "a tragedy of epic proportions". It asked the European Union to do something to avert the crisis.

What will Europe do?

On Monday, the European Union authorised member states to take military action against the people smugglers.

Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief, said European armed forces would destroy "the business model of the traffickers", by obliterating their vessels - so they can't be reused.

     The EU plan is deeply flawed.

The EU's jets and warships will go into action by June 22.

The EU plan is deeply flawed. First, the smugglers do not rely upon the reuse of ships. They often put the refugees on-board boats without any pilot; there is no expectation that the boats - often nothing more than life-rafts - will be recovered for re-use.

Second, the EU does not have the mandate to operate in Libyan waters or in Libya. In other words, EU militaries will not be able to destroy smugglers' boats before they take on their human cargo.

Third, the EU will not be able to operate within Libya without consent from both warring Libyan governments - one in Tobruk and the other in Tripoli. Coordination with the Libyan governments is essential, but impossible.

To get around the second problem - access to Libyan waters - the EU's Mogherini has been trying to push a UN Security Council resolution. This resolution would have to come under the UN Charter's Chapter VII, the section that allows the use of military force.

The United Kingdom has drafted such a resolution with active support from France, Spain and Lithuania. However, the Russians have made it clear that they will not provide the EU with carte blanche to begin bombing in Libya once more.

An ambassador from another Security Council member-state told me privately that the appetite in the Council for a Chapter VII resolution is as low now as it was in the aftermath of Nato's war in 2011.

At that time, Nato had overstepped the Council's interpretation of UNSC resolution 1973 - destroying the Libyan state rather than merely protecting civilians. No such new authorisation will be easy to win from the Council.

     It will be very difficult to distinguish between fishermen and trafficking boats.
- Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's UN ambassador

Furthermore, the Libyan ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi - who represents the Tobruk government - has made it clear that Libya will not permit EU troops inside its territorial waters.

"It will be very difficult to distinguish between fishermen and trafficking boats," he said. The Tobruk assembly said it was "very worried" about the EU proposal.

Tripoli is equally opposed; its prime minister, Mohammed Khalifa al-Guwail, welcomed direct contact - something that the West has so far avoided. Without Libyan partners this proposal should die an early death. But it will not.

The end of humanitarianism

The West came to the UN Security Council in 2011 to ask for a resolution based on the UN doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

The idea was that if the UN did not act, civilians would be killed inside Libya. The R2P doctrine is controversial, because it relies upon powerful countries to decide which conflict deserves an R2P intervention. Western foreign policy has often driven the agenda, and has undermined the logic of R2P.

Indications that the West is going to try out a more reliable narrative are now on display.

The EU has suggested that Libyan smugglers are hiding Islamic State fighters amongst the refugees. There is no evidence of such a plot - but it is sufficient to stoke the imagination of fear.

The EU could now make the claim that it needs to use armed force not to prevent humanitarianism but to fight terrorism. Search and rescue of the refugees will go by the wayside, as the EU's arsenal will instead be turned towards a military operation.