What's In Blue

Posted Tue 7 Apr 2020

Libya: Closed VTC on the EU Operation “Irini” in the Mediterranean

Tomorrow (8 April), the Security Council is scheduled to hold a closed VTC on Libya. The focus of the meeting will be the new EU military operation in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED IRINI), which was launched on 1 April as the follow-up mission to the EU military operation in the Southern Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED SOPHIA). The meeting was requested by Russia. Pedro Serrano, Deputy Secretary-General of the European External Action Service, and Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo are expected to brief. Traditionally, meetings on the EUNAVFOR MED SOPHIA take place in an informal interactive dialogue format, so that an EU representative can brief, as only UN staff are able to brief in closed consultations. According to the new working methods adopted by the Security Council due to the COVID-19 pandemic, closed VTCs are apparently substituting for informal consultations.  A non-UN official is permitted to participate in this closed VTC session, however.

In resolution 2292, adopted on 14 June 2016, the Security Council decided to authorise: “Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations […] to inspect […] on the high seas off the coast of Libya, vessels bound to or from Libya which they have reasonable grounds to believe are carrying arms or related materiel to or from Libya”. The goal of this authorisation is to support the implementation of the Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya. The measures were last renewed in resolution 2473 of 10 June 2019.

Some difficulties arose in the past year regarding the re-authorisations of EUNAVFOR MED SOPHIA by the EU Council, whose decisions require unanimity. In March 2019, the EU extended the mandate of EUNAVFOR MED SOPHIA but temporarily suspended the deployment of its naval assets. It seemed that an extension of the existing mandate was not agreeable to all EU members. The Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2437 noted with concern that the suspension of the deployment of EUNAVFOR MED SOPHIA’s naval assets “de facto means that it has not been possible to inspect and seize vessels in international waters off the coast of Libya, on suspicion of smuggling […] arms”.

EUNAVFOR MED IRINI will have naval, aerial and satellite assets to implement its mandate. The main difference between this operation and EUNAVFOR MED SOPHIA seems to be that the implementation of the arms embargo is EUNAVFOR MED IRINI’s primary task. According to the EU Council decision to launch EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, a secondary task is to disrupt “the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks”. The priorities of EUNAVFOR MED SOPHIA were the reverse. Other tasks continue to include training of the Libyan coast guard and navy officers and information-sharing with the Panel of Experts assisting the 1970 Libya Sanctions Committee.

According to an EU press release on the launch of EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, the EU decided on the establishment of the military operation following the Berlin Conference on Libya, whose conclusions were endorsed by the Security Council in resolution 2510. Russia, which attended the Berlin conference, abstained on the resolution.  Participants of the Berlin Conference committed themselves “to unequivocally and fully respect and implement the arms embargo”.

It seems that Russia has continuously raised the question of whether EUNAVFOR MED IRINI’s mandate was still within the scope of the Security Council’s authorisation. Looking ahead at the upcoming renewal of the Security Council authorisation in June, it appears that Russia, as well as South Africa, posed questions in relation to the operation during the 26 March informal meeting on Libya. It seems that the EU and its member states argue that operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI’s mandate still falls within the Security Council’s authorisation.

A year ago, General Khalifa Haftar, head of the eastern-based militia known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), launched an offensive towards Tripoli and against the internationally recognised and UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based there. Both the GNA and the LNA receive foreign military support in breach of UN sanctions, including the arms embargo.

In a 1 April letter to the President of the Security Council (S/2020/269), the GNA raised concerns that operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI “is not sufficient to implement the arms embargo”, arguing that the LNA receives support via land and air.