Will the European Union go ahead and militarily dismantle migrant smugglers’ networks operating in Libya without authorization from the United Nations Security Council and resistance to the plan from Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general?
Federica Mogherini, the head of foreign affairs and security of the European Commission and a former Italian foreign minister, made a big show of diplomacy at the UN on May 11, meeting with the Security Council to discuss a proposed draft resolution to inspect, seize and dispose of the vessels in the network that smugglers use to transport slews of migrants nearly round the clock from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and other close Southern European ports. The proposal, at its most basic level, could save lives, Mogherini emphasized.
But not all members of the Security Council could even comprehend the draft proposal and its huge repercussions, as it had not been circulated beyond the permanent-five members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — to the 10 elected members, except for Lithuania and Spain, European nations.
In what Mogherini is calling a two-pronged approach to “save lives” and “dismantle the networks and assets” of smugglers, Europe is desperately catching up to the realization that it has waited too long to address the migration of refugees transported recklessly on boats from Africa to Europe in ever-rising numbers, frequency and death tolls.
The impetus for Europe’s recent reaction to devise concrete plans came after April 19, where 700 migrants drowned on a boat that sank off the coast of Libya. The International Organization for Migration says that more than 1,700 migrants have died trying to make the crossing from Libya to Europe this year alone.
Many of the migrants are fleeing conflict — like in Syria — but also incredible poverty in West Africa and oppression in the Horn of Africa.
Calling it an “unprecedented situation,” Mogherini told the Security Council in a public session that “2015 looks even worse than the previous year and consider that in 2014, 3,300 migrants died trying to enter the European Union by sea.”
Mogherini, who edits if not writes most of her own speeches, was changing the wording in the one she read to the council until the last minute, so that her entourage could not distribute the speech to the media for hours after she spoke. She has been traveling from Beijing to Tunisia and other points to lobby for the European proposal.
She said that the rapid pace of migration “means that three out of four people who perished by crossing a border in the world, died in the Mediterranean Sea. This tells us that our first priority must be to save lives; to prevent the loss of lives at sea. We believe, in the European Union, that this is a huge responsibility that we all share, not only as Europeans but also globally.”
The European Union is using its Atalanta Operation to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa, which has been deemed successful, as a model to help end the threat by smugglers in Libya. The smugglers’ networks — vast, multilayered operations — are being called profiteers of the highest sort by Europeans, as the smugglers boat hundreds of migrants from one continent to another at great risk to their lives.
“It is not only a humanitarian emergency, but also a security crisis, since smuggling networks are linked to, and in some cases finance, terrorist activities, which contributes to instability in a region that is already unstable enough,” Mogherini said, not elaborating on the terrorists’ activities or names.
Moreover, the Atalanta piracy model is flawed, says Ban’s office and countries on the Security Council who do not savor a militarized approach to resolving the onslaught of migrants from Libya, a country that has fallen into anarchy. Russia has deeply questioned the legality of seizing and possibly destroying smugglers’ vessels, as has the United States, whose stance on the draft resolution was called “conservative,” by a European Union spokesman.
For once the two countries — Russia and the US — are aligned on a geopolitical matter, one diplomat noted.
The UN has called the migrant situation “far more complicated” than the piracy goings-on in East Africa, and that the European plan could “trap asylum seekers” in Libya.
In addition, it is not clear whether the European military plan will be endorsed by the two governing factions in Libya, one of which is based in Tobruk on the eastern Mediterranean. That area is not where the bulk of the smuggling occurs. Seeking approval from the Tobruk side could seriously jeopardize the peace talks being conducted, however fitfully, by the UN to try control the conflict in Libya.
“All sides” in Libya, Mogherini said to the press after the council session, understand the need to work with Europe on the problem.
Yet the European Union, which is meeting again on the migrant crisis on May 13, seems bent on immediately forging ahead in channeling its resources on destroying the smuggling networks, or “criminal organizations.” How far those organizations extend beyond Libya into European criminal bands has also not been mentioned.
Mogherini conceded that there was much work ahead in ironing out a draft resolution among the Security Council members — notably, other diplomats say, persuading Russia and the US to be on board.
“No one will be sent back against their will,” Mogherini said, taking questions from the press regarding international humanitarian law and what would happen to boats that were seized by European military with migrants on board.
Mogherini offered little information as to how Europe was going to work with African countries — like Mali, which may be on the verge of collapse — to resolve the root causes of the migration flow. Neither Chad nor Angola, two African elected members of the Security Council, had seen the draft resolution.
As a Chadian diplomat said in an aside, it is totally unclear what would happen to the masses of migrants who may be harboring in Libya to make the sea trek if the smugglers were suddenly attacked from the coastline. Will the migrants slip further into criminal clutches in Libya, a reporter asked Mogherini.
The European foreign ministers are meeting on May 18 as well to further hash out their military plan, which could be carried out, it appears, without Security Council approval if a vote by the members is not taken soon enough.
One European diplomat on the council put it succinctly: If the European Union takes the next step of heading to the Mediterranean in a show of force, it means it has decided the plan is indeed legal.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.