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20th Sep 2019

EU guilty of Libya migrant 'tragedy', ICC lawsuit says

  • The EU's Mare Nostrum operation was wound up in 2014 (Photo: EUobserver)

EU states' efforts to "deter" migrants from Libya have helped kill more than 14,000 people and exposed 40,000 others to "crimes against humanity", according to a lawsuit filed at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

"'Deterrent effect' - what does it mean? It means [to] sacrifice the lives of some, in this case of many, to change the behaviour of others, to discourage others from doing the same thing," Omar Shatz, one of the co-authors of the lawsuit, told The Guardian, a British newspaper on Monday (3 June).

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  • Migrants were raped, tortured, and forced into slavery in Libya (Photo: © UNICEF/Romenzi)

"[EU officials] pretended that this was a tragedy that nothing could be done against, that they had no role in it. And we demonstrate very carefully that, on the contrary, they triggered this so-called tragedy," Juan Branco, another of the co-authors told the Associated Press news agency.

Shatz is an Israeli jurist who teaches at the Sciences Po university in Paris.

Branco used to work at the ICC and in the French foreign ministry.

The EU's decision to end a sea rescue operation called Mare Nostrum off the coast of Libya led to a gross increase in drownings, their 243-page document, submitted to The Hague also on Monday, alleged.

The operation rescued almost 151,000 people between October 2013 and October 2014.

But the EU replaced it with a different one, called Triton, with much fewer vessels which covered an "area up to 30 nautical miles from the Italian coastline of Lampedusa, leaving around 40 nautical miles of key distress area off the coast of Libya uncovered", the lawyer's document said.

An internal report by the EU's border control agency, Frontex, dated 2 August 2014 and seen by the lawyers, warned that "the withdrawal of naval assets from the area ... would likely result in a higher number of fatalities".

The first subsequent mass drowning occurred in January 2015. The overall death rate increased by 30-fold in the following years.

The EU's policy of returning migrants to Libya, despite the political chaos there, exposed a further 40,000 people to "crimes against humanity" in militia-run camps there between 2016 and 2018, the lawyers' document added.

"European Union officials were fully aware of the treatment of the migrants by the Libyan coastguard and the fact that migrants ... would face immediate detention in detention centres, a form of unlawful imprisonment, in which murder, sexual assault, torture and other crimes were known by the European Union agents and officials to be common," it said.

"In order to stem migration flows from Libya at all costs … and in lieu of operating safe rescue and disembarkation as the law commands, the EU is orchestrating a policy of forced transfer to concentration camp-like detention facilities," it added.

The EU policy constituted the "most lethal and organised attack against civilian population the ICC had jurisdiction over in its entire history," it said.

"We leave it to the [ICC] prosecutor, if he dares, if she dares, to go into the structures of power and to investigate at the heart of Brussels, of Paris, of Berlin, and Rome and to see by searching in the archives of the meetings of the negotiations who was really behind the scenes trying to push for these policies," Branco told the Associated Press.

Fatou Bensouda, the ICC's chief prosecutor, is already gathering evidence on alleged crimes in Libya, but the court declined to comment on whether it would take up the anti-EU case.

Commission denial

The EU itself dismissed the accusations in a statement by the European Commission, however.

"Our priority has always been and will continue to be protecting lives and ensuring humane and dignified treatment of everyone throughout the migratory routes," it said.

"All our action is based on international and European law," it added.

"The EU's track record on saving lives in the Mediterranean speaks for itself," Natasha Bertaud, a commission spokeswoman, also said, noting that it had rescued 730,000 people since 2015.

Josep Borrell, the Spanish foreign minister, speaking in Morocco the same day, noted that Libya's migrant-holding camps "cannot be referred to as torture detention centres".

"We are trying all means to help Libya provide migrants with the best possible conditions," he added.

A French statement called the ICC lawsuit "senseless".

Migrant arrivals to the EU via the Mediterranean Sea have fallen to just 26,573 so far this year compared to a peak of 1,032,408 in 2015, according to UN figures, but the death rate remains higher than ever amid Italy's refusal to let NGO rescue ships dock at its ports.

Libya aside, EU pressure on Morocco has also seen it stop some 89,000 people from trying to reach Europe last year.

Sudan threat

But escalating tension in Sudan, where the army killed at least nine people at a peaceful protest camp against military rule on Monday, and in Syria, where Russian-backed regime forces continued to bomb rebels in the Idlib region, threaten to increase flows of refugees.

"We are following the evolution of the situation very closely, including regarding today's attacks on civilian protesters, and we call on the Transitional Military Council to act responsibly and respect people's right to express their concerns," the EU said in a statement on Sudan.

"Any decision to intensify the use of force can only derail the political process," it added.

Opinion

The European choice in Libya

The EU has no principled stance, nor does it have a coherent strategy in the Arab world.

Libyan militia cash in on EU's anti-smuggling strategy

More people in Libya are being inducted into slavery as people-traffickers try to monetise their investment by selling them. A senior UN refugee agency official described it as an unintended side effect of the reduction of migrant boat departures.

Libya: EU first sends migrants back, then deplores deaths

Some 40 died following an attack at a Libyan prison, where people hoping to reach Europe are locked up. The EU commission wants an investigation but remains silent on how it trains Libyans to return rescued migrants to the country.

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