Operation Sophia extension: effectiveness and consequence (Part 1/3)

As part of the aim to protect the European Union’s southern borders, Operation Sophia was established in May 2015 by the Council Decision (CFSP) 2015/778 with a mandate to help identify and neutralise all vessels that were part of human smuggling and other criminal activities in the central-southern Mediterranean. This has included boarding, search, seizure and diversion of all vessels suspected to be part of the human smuggling network, as well as supporting intelligence, surveillance and targeting activities.

In May this year, Operation Sophia was extended in its mandate for 12 months until July 2017. This extension has been followed by a military reinforcement which now means that not only will Operation Sophia be acting against migrant smuggling networks, but it will also be given the responsibility of searching vessels in contravention of the UN Arms embargo, in order to help diminish the weapons flow to the Islamic State operating in Libya.

The mandate extension (CFSP 2016/993) has been approved by the UN Security Council Resolution 2292 (2016) regarding the situation in Libya, engaging Chapter 7 of the UN Charter urging Member States to combat, by all means, threats to international peace and security and thereby allowing the use of force (“to use all measures commensurate to the specific circumstances to carry out such inspections, in full compliance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as applicable”, §4, l.2). This could indirectly imply the ability to act and react within Libyan Territorial Waters with or without Libyan State approval despite public assurances that EU assest can only act with permission of the Libyan authorities – but which authorities and which are legitimate? Meantime, the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has stated that it would go towards making the Mediterranean safer.

Directed from Brussels, the EU States are combining to send maritime assests to assist with the Operation. For example, the UK warship HMS Diamond will take part in this next step of Operation Sophia in its third phase, joining HMS Enterprise, as well as other international ships operating in the central Mediterranean.

It therefore seems to be a good moment to question the effectiveness of the operation and hereby weigh the pros and cons of the involvement of more ships in this European mission working in the same water space as multiple independent civil society NGOs who are currently rescuing migrants and refugees and working under internationally recognised humanitarian principles.

Although the EU Operation has been able to deploy considerable military naval and supporting forces in a short time, the actual size and scope of the EU Mission in comparison to realistic outcomes and risks should be questioned and reviewed, as they were by the UK House of Lords in May of this year. The following can for example be read in the 14th Report of Session 2015-16: “… however valuable as a search and rescue mission, Operation Sophia does not, and we argue, cannot, deliver its mandate. It responds to symptoms, not causes”.

 To be continued.

Melanie Glodkiewicz, Intern at Human Rights at Sea

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