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  • Rory O'Keeffe

France's sanctions plan against Libya (and the plan's manifest problems)

France has threatened sanctions against the Libyan ‘government’ after French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the sale of men into slavery in Libya as ‘a crime against humanity’.

It has been well-known to the EU’s investigators, and indeed to almost anyone who has taken any serious interest in Libya since 2015, that refugees arriving in the state are regularly being kidnapped, beaten, ransomed, in some cases raped, tortured and murdered or sold into slavery, under which circumstances they are put on boats to the EU only when they are so weakened they cannot work any more. IOM issued a detailed report on this exact issue, documenting the practice and several examples of it, in March this year. Even at that point, some observers wondered why it had taken it so long.

The mistreatment, enslaving and killing of refugees is not, in fairness, being carried out by the entirely illegitimate ‘government’ forced on Libya by the international community so that someone could ‘invite’ airstrikes on Libyan cities IS had taken over, and which is so unpopular it still meets in a locked naval facility in Tripoli, or indeed by the other, equally-illegitimate ‘government’ which meets in hiding in Tobruk, on Libya’s border with Egypt, and is propped up by Khalifa Haftar, who started the state’s second civil war (ongoing) by mutinying against the Libyan army and leading some of its members into a war in which he has organised Egyptian airstrikes on Libya’s capital, Tripoli.

But it is being carried out by some of the dozens of illegal militias who have thrived in the war, which is the second in the last six years, and is now more than three and a half years old.

The EU has ‘responded’ to their activities by paying the Libyan coastguard to turn into a sea militia, whose major purpose is not saving lives at sea, but using any means including violence to prevent refugees reaching the EU, and demanding that refugees be sent to other states in the Sahel, including Niger, whose residents can’t feed themselves, and Chad, which has itself been engaged in violent exchanges among its major political groups almost non-stop since the late 1970s.

But on 14 November, CNN broadcast a video of one of the slave auctions in Libya, which has – despite the fact that EU observers and aid organisations have been recording exactly these practices for almost two years – changed some of the EU’s rhetoric.

Macron – in fairness correctly – said: ‘what has been revealed ... definitely falls into the category of trafficking of human beings.’

France has raised the issue at the UN Security Council, for a debate which began on Tuesday, and Macron said he hoped it would ‘lead to concrete action and resolutions.’

The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French parliament: ‘Libyan authorities have decided to probe the abuse of migrants. The investigation must go fast and if the Libyans are unable to move forward we must engage an international procedure of sanctions.’

The problems are as follows:

  • No-one has seriously suggested that either government is responsible for slave-trading in Libya, so who would the sanctions be against?

  • The EU has known about the practice for anything up to 30 months, so why has it taken so long for it to respond?

  • Is France seriously suggesting that it will use sanctions to threaten a government it was instrumental in forcing on a Libyan state which never wanted it to begin with?

  • That government (and its Eastern counterpart) has effectively no control over most of Libya, so how will sanctions have any effect?

  • The state is in a multi-sided civil war, in which some cities are under siege, others are effectively out of access, and the Egyptian air-force has, throughout the last three and a half years, carried out unchallenged airstrikes on more than one of them. To put it cynically, who would notice if sanctions were imposed now?

A far more sensible, decent and effective result of the Security Council debates and discussions would be a UN peace-keeping force in Libya, and the protection of refugees and Libyan civilians – including urgent aid and safe shelter in the EU for the former (for at least as long as their asylum applications are being processed) and aid and security for the latter – set as absolute priorities for the international community.

Unfortunately, sanctions are cheaper.

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