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12th Aug 2022

Boat-sinking operation poses 'risk' to EU image

  • EUnavfor Med is to be modelled on Atalanta, its anti-piracy mission in Somalia (Photo: eunavfor)

Another leaked EU paper on the Libya boat-sinking operation says it could harm Europe’s image and create false hope the warships are there to rescue people.

The paper, drafted by the EU’s military committee, a branch of the foreign service, on 12 May was published on Monday (25 May) by whistleblower site Wikileaks.

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It calls for “an EU information strategy” targeting Libya and north Africa “to facilitate expectation management”.

It says there's “a risk to EU reputation” if “loss of life be attributed, correctly or incorrectly, to action or inaction by the EU force”.

It also says military activity in Libya risks “destabilising the political process by causing collateral damage, disrupting legitimate economic activity, or creating a perception of [the EU] having chosen sides” between Libya’s rival authorities.

It adds: “the information strategy should avoid suggesting that the focus is to rescue migrants at sea but emphasise that the aim of the operation is to disrupt the migrant-smuggling business model”.

The operation, EUnavfor Med, is to be launched in June in reaction to the migrant crisis.

More than 1,800 people have drowned this year, a 20-fold increase on the same period last year.

Italy estimates 200,000 more are in Libya waiting to embark, creating a financial and political burden for frontline EU states.

The leaked military paper underlines that Frontex, the EU’s border-control agency in Warsaw, will remain responsible for search and rescue.

EUnavfor Med is to “provide protection to Frontex … assets, if requested and when in danger due to armed smugglers”.

But it notes naval assets should avoid being “fixed” to Frontex, so they can remain “committed to counter migrants smuggling/trafficking networks”.

On the communications front, it adds that Frontex “rescue operations … should not be publicised in order to avoid providing an incentive to migrants”.

The military committee’s warnings speak to complaints voiced against the EU plan in recent weeks.

The UN’s migration chief and leading NGOs have criticised the EU for putting migrants in the line of fire.

They’ve also criticised the small scale of Frontex’ humanitarian operation compared to the naval might being deployed to sink boats.

The military paper notes the warships, despite their mandate, will be in a tricky position if they encounter migrants whose safety is at risk, because “preservation of human life at sea is a legal obligation" under international law.

It also acknowledges criticism that if the Libyan coastline is locked off, migrants will embark from other points.

“The confrontation of migratory flows in the southern central Mediterranean could lead to the increase of migratory flows in other areas, especially in the western and eastern Mediterranean".

Ambition

It makes clear the scale of the EU’s ambition.

It notes that “Nato, AU [African Union], Arab League, third states’ (inter-alia Egypt, Tunisia, and, when feasible with a Libyan legitimate government)” assets should also be used.

It adds that “a potential force multiplier could be to utilise MS [member states’] naval assets transiting through the southern Med en-route to other areas of operation”.

It also contradicts EU foreign service press statements there won’t be military activity on land.

Its list of tasks includes: “seizure of vessels … neutralisation of smugglers' vessels and assets … hostage rescue … temporary detention of those posing a threat to the force or suspected of crimes”.

But it says smugglers’ land-based “enabling assets (logistical facilities, fuel, communication equipment)” are also targets.

UN

The EU is preparing a UN Security Council resolution to enable it to go ahead.

EUnavfor Med is to have three phases: intelligence-gathering; stopping and seizing boats; destruction of boats and other assets.

The military paper notes the impact of phases one and two would be “limited”.

But it says “consideration should be given in order to be prepared to adapt the operation or end it at phase two” if the UN says No.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, is due in Brussels this week.

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