8th Dec 2023


Why do EU arms end up in Libya despite UN ban?

  • Amount of arms already in Libya diminished role of UN embargo (Photo:

French arms sold to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) risk ending up in Libya, in violation of a UN ban.

But if the war is one of "who dares wins", then should EU states resort to realpolitik despite their code of good behaviour?

Read and decide

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  • Conflict spread after fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 (Photo:

Those were the questions posed by the latest EU figures, which showed France granted permits worth €14.1bn for arms deals with Egypt in 2018.

It also granted €9.5bn for the UAE the same year, the figures said.

And it granted €295m to Libya itself, records showed, where the civil war recently escalated to new heights.

None of that appeared to violate the letter of a UN arms embargo on Libya, in place since 2011.

France's €295m Libya permits, for instance, concerned "fire control" systems, such as military radars.

But a UN sanctions panel can approve imports of "non-lethal" items for "humanitarian or protective use", as well as some arms for the UN and EU-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

And other EU states also did minor Libya deals under a UN aegis in 2018, including Italy (€4.1m of armoured vehicles and explosive devices), Germany (€2.3m of vehicles), and the UK (€0.3m of explosives and electronics) the EU records indicated.

'Blatant' violations

France's mega permits for Egypt and the UAE did pose questions on compliance with the spirit of the UN ban, however.

They also posed questions on compliance with an EU "code of conduct" on arms sales from 2008, which says arms should not be sold if there was a "clear risk" they might be "diverted to an undesirable end-user" or used against "friendly and allied" targets, such as Libya's GNA.

The €25bn hoard of French permits for 2018 covered artillery, missiles, drones, and electronics, while previous French deals covered UAE warplanes.

But the UAE, as well as Jordan and Turkey, "routinely and sometimes blatantly supplied weapons" to Libya in violation of the UN embargo, a UN panel of experts, which monitors the ban, said in its last report. And Egypt did the same, the UN panel said in its previous survey.

Egypt and the UAE have backed Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar in his bid to topple the UN and EU-recognised GNA, led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

"Haftar isn't recognised and isn't allowed to get extra weapons from anyone, according to international law," Pieter Wezeman, from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), a Swedish think-tank, said.

But four husks from French anti-tank missiles, called javelins, turned up in a Haftar ally's depot and a French-made Mirage warplane took part in a pro-Haftar airstrike in Libya last year, the UN panel reported, in signs that French weapons were in fact trickling in.

The violations the UN experts reported were probably "the tip of the iceberg" of what was really going on, Sipri's Wezeman said.

And all that posed questions on what France was doing to make sure its arms did not end up in the wrong hands.

"What's the responsibility of the French? Should they be saying to their clients: 'You are, under no circumstances, to allow these weapons to be used in the Libya conflict?'," Sipri's Wezeman said.

War-torn Libya: Did France honour spirit of UN ban? (Photo:

EU trust

It also posed questions on the EU's role in monitoring compliance.

The UN sanctions panel can consult documents, such as shipping manifests, and classified information, including satellite imagery, from UN states' intelligence services to do its work.

But there was no internal oversight in the EU Council in Brussels, where member states meet, an EU source told EUobserver.

"We trust our member states. They have national rules and it's up to them to make sure weapons don't end up in the wrong hands. It's a trust mechanism," the EU source noted.

And there was no oversight in the European External Action Service, situated across the road from the EU Council in the Belgian capital.

"There's no specific EU monitoring on arms embargo compliance," an EU foreign service spokesman said.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell recently proposed to refloat a naval mission in the Mediterranean, called Sophia, to help police the UN line.

But as things stood in December, Sophia did "not have sufficient naval assets available to conduct physical inspections at sea", the UN panel of experts noted.

And even if it did, "if Egypt is supplying Haftar, he can also go over the land border, so the usefulness of Sophia would be limited," Sipri's Wezeman warned.

The French were by far the biggest EU arms suppliers to foreign protagonists in the Libya war, according to their EU declaration.

But other EU countries, including Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK also granted permits for more than €1bn of arms to UN sanctions violators Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and the UAE.

And if the UAE was striking targets in Libya using French-made Mirage jets, then the Mirages were probably refuelled by Spanish-made tanker aircraft and supported by Swedish-made radar planes, Sipri's Wezeman added.

The French defence ministry did not reply to EUobserver on Thursday (23 January).

France did previously say why its javelins ended up in a depot of the Libyan National Army (LNA), a Haftar ally.

"The French owned up saying they were from a French counter-terrorism team and were being stored there as they were no longer functional," Jeremy Binnie from Jane's, a British defence consultancy, told EUobserver.

But the French story did not add up, he said.

"That would have been understandable if the French were in an Islamic State operating area ... but their location raised the possibility French special forces were embedded with the LNA", Jane's Brinnie said.

Even if the French story was true, "LNA possession of the javelins was a violation of the end-user certificate signed when France originally procured the weapons from the US," Tim Eaton, from British think-tank Chatham House, added.

And if French forces were fighting alongside the LNA, they were fighting alongside brigades that were "prosecuting an offensive against a government [the GNA] which France, at least publicly, supports," Eaton said.

Libya war toll: looking for loved ones (Photo:

'Little world war'

The picture that emerged was one of realpolitik and arms proliferation in a conflict with geopolitical tentacles, which also involves Turkey on al-Sarraj's side and Russia on Haftar's.

"If Turkey sends troops to defend al-Sarraj, and it has said it's doing so, it could be the start of a little third world war," a Belgian security source, who specialised in arms smuggling to Libya, told EUobserver.

"You could have French special forces embedded with Haftar who shoot Turkish soldiers with al-Sarraj," the source warned.

But even if things did not get worse, the status quo still meant misery for the six million Libyans and 700,000 or so migrants who lived there, the UN said in a January report.

More than 280 people were killed and 140,000 fled their homes since April, the UN noted.

There were street battles in densely-populated towns, Islamist "terrorists", arms and drugs bazaars, kidnappings, human trafficking, and detention camps where thousands faced "torture and sexual violence".

For some, such as Sipri's Wezeman, the best way for the EU to dial down the violence was to exert diplomatic pressure on Egypt and the UAE to stop arming Haftar.

But for others, talk of arms bans on Libya was shutting the barn door after the horse had bolted because it was already full of weapons.

"Libya already had a huge arsenal before the UN embargo [in 2011] because France, Germany, Russia, the British, the Americans, and others had sold it enormous quantities of high-end equipment," Michel Koutouzis, a security blogger for French news website Mediapart, told EUobserver.

Libya was so full of arms its conflict had "an autonomy", Koutouzis, who used to work as an EU and UN investigator, added.

And the original sin lay with Western powers, not only for selling the stockpile to Libya's late dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, in the first place, but also for disseminating the weapons after he died.

"After Gaddafi fell, foreign special forces secured his arsenals before they even tried to secure ports or cities," Koutouzis said.

"As the conflict deepened, everybody had their little partners, and the special services quietly distributed arms to their proteges," he added.

The EU could turn down the Libya war by redoubling on a UN ban on oil and petrol smuggling, which feeds it with black money, Koutouzis said.

But direct military intervention, rather than sanctions or special forces operations, might be the only way to play a decisive role, he warned.

Libya port: EU and other powers armed proteges (Photo:

Who dares wins?

"Libya is a game of who dares wins and, so far, it's Turkey and Russia who dare," Koutouzis said, referring to the Turkish troop deployment and to media reports that covert Russian forces were fighting alongside Haftar.

"If you pose ethico-legal questions - ifs, buts, and maybes - you lose ... the EU are specialists in non-intervention," Koutouzis said.

And for his part, admiral Luigi Binelli Mantelli, a retired commander of Italy's armed forces, also took a hard-nosed view.

"At the moment, probably no one will win and the [Libya] crisis will last a long time, like the Syrian one," Binelli Mantelli told EUobserver on Thursday, referring to Syria's nine-year civil war.

The Libya conflict was "dangerous for the whole world" and took a "heavy" toll on refugees, he noted.

EU diplomacy might help by including Tripoli-region tribes in peace talks, he suggested.

But if EU powers, like France, were forced to back a winner to secure their interests, then Haftar was the obvious choice, Binelli Mantelli, who led Italy's armed forces until 2015, told this website.

Al-Sarraj had shown "poor, or even timid, control over the tribes and militias" in the Tripoli area, the Italian admiral said.

EU states "cannot openly support" Haftar, Binelli Mantelli, who was speaking in his personal capacity, underlined.

But "Haftar is the only leader capable of unifying the country, obviously not by democratic means, but we ... should stop trying to export our democratic ideas to places and societies which are unprepared for them," the retired admiral said.

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