Mogherini Calls for Operation Sophia, but HRW and Amnesty Condemn Italy and Libyan Coast Guard – Al Marsad

Federica Mogherini, the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, expressed hope that the EU member states would reach an agreement to ensure that the European Union Mediterranean Naval Force (EU NAVFOR Med), commonly known as Operation Sophia, is vigorously reactivated. However, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused the GNA-affiliated Libyan Coast Guard of crimes and abuse against migrants, and Italy and other EU member states for their continued support and lack of criticism of the violations by their Libyan counterpart.

[Libya, 14 November 2019] – In a press conference after the EU defence ministers concluded their meetings in Brussels on Tuesday, Mogherini stressed the need to reinvigorate EU NAVFOR Med to its full potential and enable it to reach its targeted effectiveness, according to the Italian news agency, AKI.

The European Union High Representative stated that progress has been made with regards to the EU member states’ discussions on the maritime landing mechanisms for the Operation Sophia.

Operation Sophia, or as it was officially named the European Union Mediterranean Naval Force (EU NAVFOR Med), was launched in 2015 with naval vessels and aircraft patrolling waters off the coast of Libya in an attempt to disrupt human trafficking networks flooding Europe with illegal migrants.

According to AKI, Mogherini said, “I always reiterate that Operation Sophia, without naval vessels cannot carry out its assigned tasks.” She stressed the need to accelerate the reinstatement of all assignments of the Operation Sophia: “We hope that an agreement will be reached in the forthcoming weeks leading to the return of the EU NAVFOR naval vessels to the Mediterranean Sea.”

The European Union Mediterranean Naval Force (EU NAVFOR Med) also provides a training programme for the Libyan Coast Guard in addition to monitoring the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution No. 1970 that imposed an arms embargo on the North African oil-rich country.

EU NAVFOR MED Training Programme and the case of Al-Bija

Operation Sophia was launched in 2015 with the task of neutralising established refugee smuggling routes in the Mediterranean sea, along with saving lives of refugees attempting the crossing. However, Operation Sophia has come under intense criticism in Libya for its collaboration with the Libyan Coast Guard which still includes in its ranks the UN-sanctioned human trafficker, Abd al-Rahman Milad (al-Bija). Al-Bija is currently a commander in the Libyan Coast Guard. According to the GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha an arrest warrant has been issued for al-Bija, yet the Libyan Coast Guard denies receiving any such request for his arrest.

Further revelations surfaced last month when an Italian newspaper claimed that al-Bija was a member of a Libyan delegation to Italy hat met with officials from Italy’s Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, EU, and the IMO. Al Marsad obtained exclusive photos of the itinerary which provided details of the programme. 

The programme of the “Study Visit of the Libyan Delegation to Italy” was organised in the framework of the “Sea and Desert Migration Management for Libyan Authorities to Rescue Migrants” or SEA DEMM (See Them) which is funded by the Regional Development and Protection Programme (RDPP) for North Africa. The programme showed that the delegation, which included al-Bija, were to meet during the study trip with EUNAVFOR MED Op. Sophia for an update on past and future training programmes for the Libyan authorities; and with IOM Rome, the Italian the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Interior’s Central Directorate for Immigration and Border Police, and the Italian Coast Guard at their Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center.

The UN-sanctioned human trafficker, Abd al-Rahman Milad (al-Bija), currently a commander in the Libyan Coast Guard.

A UN security report circulated two years ago, in June 2017, described al-Bija as “a bloodthirsty human trafficker responsible for shootings”, at the Mediterranean Sea and “suspected of drowning dozens of people.” He widely considered to be the ringleader of a criminal organization operating in the north western coastal city of Zawiya, 45 kilometers to the west of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

The Guardian reported that “in February 2017, the then Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti signed a memorandum with the leader of Libya’s UN-recognized government, Fayez al-Sarraj, introducing a new level of cooperation between the Libyan coastguard and the Italians, including the provision of four patrol vessels.” The controversial deal, according to The Guardian, “has empowered the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrant dinghies at sea and bring them back to Libya, where aid agencies say the migrants and refugees suffer torture and abuse. The deal, which entailed Italy providing funds and equipment, was made by Minniti, a former communist with deep connections to Italian intelligence and the levers of the Italian state, in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants to its shores.”

That a known UN-sanctioned Libyan human trafficker was able to take part in a Libyan Coast Guard delegation in a EU-funded high level programme put a massive question mark on the whole initiative, particularly Italy’s own agreement with the Libyan Coast Guard which was renewed this month once again amidst continued controversy.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Condemn Italy and the Libyan Coast Guard

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both accused the Italian government of being responsible for crimes against humanity in Libya because of its policies on the handling of illegal immigration and the return of migrants to Libya despite knowing what they would be exposed to.

Human Rights Watch said in a joint statement with Amnesty International published on its official website that in a lawsuit filed on 11 November at the European Court of Human Rights, said that the Libya Coast Guard, operating under the Government of National Accord (GNA), had committed crimes and violations against migrants. They accused Italy of contributing as a third party to these crimes, cooperating with the Libyan Coast Guard in returning migrants to Libya.

The press release said: “In the case of S.S. and others v Italy (no. 21660/18) applicants are seeking justice before the court, claiming that Italy breached its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights by cooperating with Libya to enable its coast guard to intercept people at sea and take them back to Libya. The applicants have told the court that people returned to Libya are routinely exposed to torture and other abuses in Libya, including through their routine containment in detention centers, where they are held arbitrarily.”

The statement said that both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch “have consistently documented the ongoing human rights abuses against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Libya, and condemned the EU’s, including specifically Italy’s, cooperation with and support to Libya in ways that has led to the prolonged arbitrary detention and abuse of people in Libya.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said that Italy and other EU members states are fully aware of the situations and the violations that have occurred yet continue to offer “support to Libyan authorities in order to contain people in Libya, without conditioning this support on measures to prevent serious human rights violations, such as closing the detention centres and releasing the thousands of people unlawfully detained. On the contrary, aid to the Libyan Coast Guard to return people intercepted at sea to indefinite detention in Libya, continues unhindered.”

The statement described the deplorable tract record of the Libyan Coast Guard in no uncertain terms: “Libyan coast guard obstructed the Sea-Watch 3 crew, who had begun to rescue people, by throwing objects at them, and beat and threatened the rescued, some of whom had jumped overboard during the operation. The Libyan Coast Guard took 47 people back to Libya, where they were detained and exposed to abuses. The Sea-Watch boat rescued and disembarked a number of other survivors in Italy including 15 of the applicants in the case. An unknown number of people died, including the small children of two of the applicants.”

© Al Marsad English (2019)

FURTHER RESOURCES

EXCLUSIVE: More Evidence that Trafficker Al-Bija Attended Training in Italy

GNA Naval Force Deny Intercepting German Rescue Ship