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19th Oct 2018

Europe's cosy relations with Libya crushing human rights, says Amnesty

  • Gaddafi billboard in Libya. Captured migrants are 'exploited, beaten and abused in ways that can constitute torture,' Amnesty says (Photo: 10b travelling)

With Brussels midway through negotiating a pact with Libya on areas including migration and asylum, Amnesty International has sharply criticised relations with Tripoli, saying that so long as Colonel Gaddafi continues in effect to be the nightclub bouncer for Europe, dealing with the bloc's unwanted migrants from Africa, the EU will ignore the human rights situation in his country.

In a letter to the European Commission and a report published on Wednesday (23 June), the human rights group laments the situation: "Members of the EU have been actively seeking the collaboration of Libya in controlling the flow of migrants to European shores – turning a blind eye to Libya's dire human rights record, the absence of a functioning asylum system in Libya, and persistent reports of the abuse and ill-treatment of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants."

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The focus is on Italy, but the group is worried that the same attitude is being replicated in the ongoing EU-wide negotiations with the administration of hard-man Colonel Moammar Gaddafi, as anti-immigrant discourse gains favour among politicians across the bloc.

A "Friendship Treaty" signed between Italy and Rome in 2008 provided for bilateral efforts to combat so-called illegal immigration, notably a joint patrolling of the Mediterranean. In return for $5 billion in funds for construction projects, student grants and soldier pensions, Libya agreed to tighter control of its waters and to let Italy dump it with any migrants intercepted at sea.

Since May 2009, in violation of international law, the Italian coast guard has been returning refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants without checking whether any individuals on board were in need of international protection or basic humanitarian assistance, a development Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the hard-right and stridently anti-immigrant Northern League party, calls "an historic achievement."

While in the custody of Libyan authorities, the same people are "exploited, beaten and abused in ways that can constitute torture," says Amnesty. Thousands are held in overcrowded detention centres indefinitely, while risk being deported to countries such as Somalia and Eritrea to face further persecution.

Libya, which is not a party to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, does not recognise the need for people to receive international protection.

Two weeks ago, as commission officials were in Tripoli to discuss the Framework Agreement, the government expelled the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In the same week, Libya intercepted a boat carrying some 20 people, mainly from Eritrea, in the Maltese search and rescue zone. Their whereabouts are unknown, according to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, which has also recently criticised the EU-Libya relationship.

Libya for its part is very clear about its role as Europe's 'bouncer.'

During meetings with the country's General People's Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Co-operation - equivalent to a foreign ministry - in 2009, Libyan officials told Amnesty International delegates of their frustration that Libya is expected to "guard" Europe from incomers and is blamed by members of the EU for the influx of migrants.

In Malta in January this year, Libyan foreign secretary Mussa Kussa told reporters: "There are 6 million Libyans and we have 2 million illegal immigrants, this problem is really on the shoulders of the Libyan people ...We are working as guards to the EU, and Libya might not be able to continue doing this."

"The EU and individual member states must ensure that human rights are at the core of any agreement with Libya and that every agreement recognises explicit rights for migrants," said Amnesty's EU office director, Nicolas Beger.

Beyond the issue of migrants, according to the 135-page report, Libya makes dissidents disappear, flogs adulterers and detains individuals suspected of terrorism or of being opponents of the regime incommunicado and without access to lawyers. Such detainees are frequently tortured. Tripoli also maintains the use of the death penalty, mainly against foreigners, according to Amnesty.

However, such issues are overlooked by the EU, as well as the US and other countries, in favour of co-operation on counter-terrorism measures.

The country also remains a vital asset due to its oil riches. Its proven reserves are the ninth largest in the world, with great swathes of territory still unexplored.

UK firm BP, responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, signed an oil deal with Tripoli in 2007 worth some $900 million and plans to begin deep-water drilling in the Mediterranean soon.

On Tuesday, Libya's top oil official, chief of the national oil company Shokri Ghanem, assured British industry representatives and investors at a conference in London that the Gulf spill will not result in a halt to the project.

"I don't think it will impact our deep-water drilling," he said, according to Dow Jones. "This is part of industry risks."

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