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NATO, EU trying to improve Libya's legacy

Teri Schultz
October 27, 2016

Five years after a NATO-led intervention toppled then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the military alliance and the European Union are ramping up efforts to rebuild and reform the country.

Libyen Irische  Navy Rettungsoperation Flüchtlinge
Image: picture alliance / dpa

Attending a NATO defense ministers' meeting Thursday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced as a "very important step" the launch of the bloc's training program for 78 heavily-vetted members of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy. It's part of the EU's broader naval mission Operation Sophia, aimed at disrupting the migrant influx in the Mediterranean Sea. Mogherini thanked NATO ministers for their Wednesday night approval of reconnaissance and logistical assistance for the operation.

Human rights group calls for halt

Some human rights groups, however, say the NATO and EU initiatives will compound, not correct, the problems in the tumultuous north African state.

Ruben Neugebauer thinks such self-congratulation is completely unwarranted. His organization Sea Watch has asked the EU to call off the plans to train officers and upgrade equipment for Libyan forces. That's because of incidents, like last Friday, when a rescue ship from the privately-funded group answered a distress call in the Mediterranean just in time, Neugebauer explained, to see what appeared to be a Libyan Coast Guard vessel with armed men aboard purposely sink a dinghy struggling to stay afloat with roughly 125 people aboard.

The Berlin-based organization is a privately-funded initiative that describes itself as "dedicated to putting an end to the dying on the Mediterranean Sea." Neugebauer said the Sea Watch crew did everything it could to pick up the desperate passengers as the European-made Libyan vessel shut off its lights and raced away. At least four people didn't make it.

Mogherini's European External Action Service announcement describes the training program's objective as enhancing Libyans' "capability to disrupt smuggling and trafficking in Libya and to perform search and rescue activities which will save lives and improve security in the Libyan territorial waters." Neugebauer said the EU is much more interested in the first half of that "objective" than the latter.  "It's not at all caring about the humanitarian situation, but rather shutting down the border by all means necessary," he said, "and this is simply unacceptable for us."

Neugebauer said if the initiative launched Thursday proceeds -- as it obviously is, with 78 Libyan trainees already aboard two EU ships -- the bloc should "dump [its] Nobel Peace Prize right in the Mediterranean Sea." 

Trying times in Tripoli

But EU and NATO officials insist they're not glossing over known problems in Libya's governance and institutions.

Asked by DW Thursday whether there's deep enough vetting of Libyan partners,NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged the "situation in Libya is not easy" with different militias fighting each other, while the international community tries to shore up the UN-recognized government of national unity in Tripoli. "NATO's main focus is how we can build security institutions," he explained, in order to address these issues. "To be able to train the right people and to be able to build the right kind of forces," he said, "we need the security institutions which shall organize and lead them." 

EU officials use a similar logic to explain why they're choosing to forge ahead now with Libyan trainees, after a long process of narrowing down candidates. Officials underscore that a substantial part of the program involves becoming better versed in human rights and international law, trying to bring up the level to international standards.

Mogherini mentioned recently in New York that many of these migrants and refugees coming through Libya have already been on the run for a long time.  They "have been through a form of modern slavery," she acknowledged, and "often live in inhumane conditions in Libya" as well.  "We are working to improve their situation," Mogherini pledged.

Meanwhile, the UN's latest figures show that the crossing between Libya and Italy is becoming ever more deadly, with those who attempt it more likely to drown this year than in 2015.