North Africa LibyaBlog Analysis

Arms embargo off Libya. What is the outcome of Operation Sophia? (v2)

(B2 – exclusive) The European operation EUNAVFOR Med / Sophia already has in its remit a mandate to control the arms embargo. But this mandate has been used very little. Six inspections and two seizures in three years is rather low

Boarding team (Polish) during a 'friendly approach' (credit: EUNAVFOR Med / Archives B2)

The European Union has an executive mandate, with the possibility of use of force, under a United Nations resolution (2240 ​​and 2316 in particular).

170 'friendly approaches'

If we look at the various public data (UN), confirmed at B2 by other means (EU), the results are limited. From June 2016 to June 2019, the operation carried out more than 2377 'hailings' - checks by radio channel of vessel identity - and conducted 170 'friendly' approaches - checks carried out , with the ship's consent.

Six inspections

Six inspections were therefore carried out: on September 14, 2016, the Med Prodigy, leaving for Misrata, was checked. Without detection. the Luffy, is suspected and 'hailed', on several occasions between November 2016 and March 2017, but the Europeans face a refusal; the ship asserts the exception of sovereignty in the name of the (recognized) Libyan government in Tripoli.

And two seizures

Weapons seizures were only made, according to our information, on two occasions on the same ship, the El Mukhtar, at two different times, May 1 and June 19, 2017. Leaving Misrata for Benghazi, the El Mukhtar is thus controlled on May 1, 2017, by a Lithuanian boarding party belonging to the German ship Rhein. On board the ship, rocket launchers, land mines... a small arsenal not really intended to ensure peace, but above all intended to fight against Haftar (read: Weapons aboard a Libyan ship. A first entry for Sophia).

Flat encephalogram since June 2017

Since June 2017, the encephalogram of the European operation, listed as 'arms embargo control', has been flat. The UN group of experts is categorical. The operation “ did not report detecting arms trafficking activities in international waters ". Since June 2019, it has been worse, no checks have been carried out, the maritime operation has no more ships. We are then closer to the comedia dell'arte than the military operation. As for Sea Guardian, NATO's sister operation, it has few ships in the area, and avoids like the plague getting its finger in the gears of controlling the arms embargo. Too embarrassing...

A lean balance sheet

This inglorious record is surprising given the existing traffic in the Mediterranean, where despite the difficulties of detecting traces of arms trafficking, report after report, UN experts document regular violations of the embargo, by land, by air and by sea (benefiting from intelligence from several countries… and from Operation Sophia).

A congenital weakness?

Control of the embargo was never appreciated as a primary task of the operation, whether for Rome or the commander of the operation or the High Representative at the time (F. Mogherini). This weakness also gave rise to a severe explanation of the text, in 2017, behind the usually closed doors of the Political and Security Committee (COPS). The French ambassador at the time severely criticized the management of the operation for letting a ship slip away, with its cargo of weapons, or even for turning a blind eye (read: The Libyan government circumvents the arms embargo. With Sophia's consent?).

A politically delicate control…

Easy to say, controlling the arms embargo on Libya is also very politically delicate. By nature, the sea being the only means of supply (along with the air) for the government in Tripoli, it could be targeted more than the government in Benghazi. Indeed, Haftar's troops can more easily obtain supplies by land, thanks to their Egyptian ally. Which actually poses a 'small' political and legal problem. If weapons are seized, it would target the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNA) – supported by the international community, Europeans included. In addition, it would inevitably involve Turkey, a NATO ally. Identifying the perpetrators of the violations then becomes very delicate. And the temptation is strong not to do so, to avoid being placed in a situation that is impossible to maintain.

…and difficult to carry out in practice

UN experts recognize that the task of detecting weapons on board ships is not easy. The weapons are hidden in containers with " false information » mentioned on the shipping documents. It is then necessary to intervene by force: “ 1) carry out a physical inspection of the full load, 2) use detection dogs to locate weapons and explosives in one container among others and 3) have sufficiently reliable intelligence to justify an intervention ».

A necessary naval presence

Comments. Monitoring the arms control embargo, without means of acting on the spot, is relatively illusory. We can monitor, monitor, document as much as we want, the traffic continues. As long as the 'offenders' are not arrested and the weapons seized, this measure appears quite theoretical. The presence of seasoned ships and sailors, making it possible, at least, to ensure a few seizures, is a clear deterrent factor. It does not eliminate the transport of weapons, all the experts will say that, but it makes it very complicated.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)


The Europeans alone responsible for controlling the embargo

The European absence is fatal to the control of the embargo. The European Union's aero-naval operation is, in fact, the " only regional mechanism acting under the authorizations » given by the United Nations Security Council to verify compliance with the arms embargo « in the southern part of the central Mediterranean “, recognizes the UN report. No further action off the Libyan coast” by Member States, acting in their national capacity or within the framework of regional organizations » was reported to the UN. In other words, the Europeans cannot defer to anyone else. It is the European Union, and it alone, which is responsible for controlling this embargo on behalf of the international community.


Read also:

Paper completed at 10 a.m. with a § comments on the necessary naval presence

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).