An example of a Zodiac Sillinger on a Libyan coast guard boat off the coast of Libya in October 2019 | Photo: France 24
An example of a Zodiac Sillinger on a Libyan coast guard boat off the coast of Libya in October 2019 | Photo: France 24

The French Ministry of Defense announced in February 2019 that it would deliver six semi-rigid speed boats with gun ports to the Libyan coast guard by Spring 2020. On December 2, the government announced they would be halting this delivery after several NGOs filed a lawsuit against the action.

In February 2019, the French defense minister Florence Parly told French media: “The gift consists of six Zodiac Sillinger [fast rib boats with gun mounts]; which we will be delivering in pairs next spring." The boats were to help Libya's UN-backed government consolidate its control of the war-torn country, APF reports.

Since the announcement, a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including Amnesty France has been trying to block the delivery, saying that the boats are used for intercepting migrants at sea and returning them to overcrowded detention centers in Libya where they would face abuse and forced labor. A lawsuit was launched shortly after and on December 2, Amnesty France tweeted “Victory!” Writing “thanks to the pressure we put upon the government, the Libyan coast guard will not be using French boats to intercept migrants and refugees.”

‘A turning point’

Le Gisi, a French association that promotes freedom of movement and respect for the rights of foreigners, was another of the signatories. Their tweet also celebrated the results of their “collective action:” “France is renouncing its delivery of boats to Libya. A victory which should mark a turning point with regards to migration policy,” they wrote.

French Minister of Defense Florence Parly told the news agency AFP that her decision was in the light of “the situation” in Libya. AFP reports Parly had sent a memo to the administrative court of appeal in Paris which read that while things had been different at the time the delivery had been agreed, the current situation in Libya “did not permit them to deliver the boats.”

However, even at the time when the deal was struck, the situation was pretty tense in Libya. By April, which is when the current offensive between the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli and General Haftar in the east of the country began, the group of NGOs, including Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the Human Rights League turned to the administrative courts to try and challenge the decision.Libya's coast guard is reportedly lacking in equipment and training | Photo: Imago / Xinhua

A victory

At the first hearing, the Ministry of Defense claimed that the NGO objections were “ungrounded” because the delivery of boats was with the “unique objective of helping the Libyan state to consolidate the rule of law and reconstruct its military and naval capacities.” According to the ministry the boats were not directly intended to block migrants. The French newspaper La Libération said that the original deal had been with the Libyan navy and not with the coast guard.

However, Amnesty International questioned the models of boats being delivered. According to an InfoMigrants report in April 2019, the boat model “1200 Rafale” manufactured by the French company Sillinger has gun mounts on the front and the back of the boat. The boats in question are about 12 meters long and “capable of transporting about 25 passengers.” Amnesty asked why the French couldn’t simply “deliver the life-saving models that Sillinger manufacturers?” (Instead of the more military version they had chosen).A picture of the Libyan coast guard at work whilst a team of France 24 journalists were on board their boat in November 2019 | Photo: France 24 / InfoMigrants (archive)

Amnesty then listed “numerous examples where the Libyan coast guard has mistreated migrants and failed to respect basic human rights.” The President of Amnesty International France, Cécile Coudriou reportedly said that these boats would be used to send migrants “back to hell” to the “detention camps,” where they are “subject to multiple violence.”

After continuing the fight over the summer, the NGOs announced their victory, saying, had the French state continued to hold its line it would have “made it complicit in crimes against migrants and refugees in Libya.”

The statement from the group of NGOs continued: “The legal and public pressure has brought about these government concessions. It is above all a victory for the men, women and children who would have been brought back to Libya on these boats and could run the risk of being detained, tortured and raped.”

Further collaboration?

The press release continued that France and all other European countries should cease collaboration with the Libyan government if it meant that this collaboration could lead to the return of people to dangerous situations or the abuse of their human rights.

The Italian government meanwhile, at the beginning of November, renewed its own bilateral agreement with the Libyan coast guard and government for a further three years. The left-leaning daily newspaper La Repubblica reported on November 4 that Rome had recently delivered 10 more small speedboats to the Libyan coast guard. The Italian’s renewal of their agreement called for guarantees that the Libyan coast guard respect the human rights of migrants and cease returning rescued migrants to detention centers and prisons where they live in inhumane conditions and are subject to all types of violence.Libyan coast guard vessel returning migrants to Tripoli in 2017 Photo: picture alliance/M. Ben Khalifa

The Italian delivery was the completion of a promise made by former Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini from the right-wing anti-migrant League party. La Repubblica claimed that in the last two years “almost 40,000 migrants have been intercepted and brought back to Libya from the Libyan Search and Rescue zone in the Mediterranean.”

EU-Libyan agreement

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, the Libyan coast guard already has the use of several other boats delivered by Italy over the years, including eight rapid response boats measuring about 16 meters in length.

The European Commision has a fact sheet on its cooperation on migration in Libya. It was last updated in December 2018. Since 2014, it reads “the EU has mobilized 338 million euros on migration-related projects in Libya; 318 million euros under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and 20 million euros as bilateral assistance.”

Some of that money has gone towards the training of Libyan authorities, including the coast guard and port security personnel “on human rights and international standards.” A total of 91.3 million euros has been supplied for “integrated border management;” which includes training and equipment for the Libyan coast guard and the setting up of “basic operational rooms in Tripoli;” as well as ensuring that the Libyan authorities comply “with human rights standards in search and rescue operations.”Libyan coastguard boat carrying around 500 migrants, mostly African, arriving at the port in the city of Misrata | Photo: ARCHIVE/EPA/STRINGER

However, the British newspaper the Guardian wrote a report in November highlighting a “leaked EU report” in which the paper said the EU had “admitted […] that it cannot monitor the Libyan coastguard and that the detention of migrants is a ‘profitable business model’ for Libya’s government.”

In October 2019, the EU decided to continue with both the deal and the funding between the EU and Libya. The new EU Commission is currently discussing a new approach to managing migration, which could include assessing people’s asylum claims outside of EU borders.


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