On Wednesday, the German foreign ministry announced it would be extending its participation in the EU monitoring mission Irini in the Mediterranean, but it would no longer commit to training the Libyan coast guard, due to concerns about their treatment of migrants. The trainings are part of the Irini mandate.
Since its inception in 2020 Germany has been part of the EU operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI (commonly known as Irini) whose mission is to provide surveillance in the Mediterranean and also enforce a UN weapons embargo placed on Libya.
On Wednesday, March 30, Germany's foreign ministry announced it would be extending its participation for a further year. However, concerns were raised over the Libyan coast guard's treatment of migrants and the government therefore plans to end its cooperation in the training of the coast guard.
"The German government cannot currently justify the training of the Libyan coast guard by German soldiers in view of the repeated unacceptable behavior by individual units of the Libyan coast guard towards refugees and migrants, and also toward non-governmental organizations," said the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Andrea Sasse in a press statement, quoted by the Associated Press news agency (AP).
Human rights groups and the UN have been highlighting problems with the treatment of migrants in Libya, both by the Libyan coast guard and the authorities for years. Sasse told a press conference that they had "information that in at least two cases, the coast guard acted in a completely unacceptable and illegal manner. This concerns incidents in July 2021," reported AP.
Earlier this year, AP says it obtained a confidential report from the head of Operation Irini which highlighted the use of "excessive force" by Libyan authorities, at the same time as calling for the training programs to continue.
Also read: EU plans further cooperation with Libya
Germany extends participation in Operation Irini
According to the Foreign Ministry statement, Germany currently lends 300 soldiers to the operation, as well as naval patrols and reconnaissance planes. The German participation in Irini will continue until at least April 30 2023.
The German Foreign Ministry justifies its continued participation in the mission as a whole in order to try and prevent Libya falling further into division and conflict. It was due to hold elections in December 2021 for a transitional government but these were postponed.
By helping to enforce the arms embargo, Operation Irini, says the German Foreign Ministry, is important to reduce the ever-present risk of conflict in the country: "Operation Irini brings transparency to any violations of the weapons embargo."
Finally, the monitoring of this highly trafficked area of the Mediterranean in terms of migrant crossings, helps to prevent incidents and drownings, adds the Foreign Ministry. All the boats and planes taking part in the operation have an international responsibility to save those in danger at sea. However, the operation has been criticized for rescuing very few migrants.
Also read: Irini mission: One year, no rescues
'The situation is very tense in Libya'
The commander of Operation Irini, Admiral Stefano Turchetto, spoke to the Italian Nova news agency on March 30. He confirmed how important the current operation is, given the fragile and volatile state of Libyan politics.
Admiral Turchetto said that Operation Irini was not just bringing stability to Libya and the Mediterranean region but to the whole of the Sahel and sub-Saharan African region. "Operation Irini is currently one of the EU’s most important tools in helping stabilize Libya. It is there to implement the resolution from the UN Security Council."
Part of Irini’s mission is also to monitor migration from the Sahel region to Libya and on in to Europe. Another part prevents any potential illegal oil imports to the country which could fuel instability. Unrest in Libya, according to Turchetto also creates the conditions for human trafficking and arms smuggling as warring factions try to gain an advantage and an income in order to fight their wars.
"The situation in Libya is very tense," Turchetto told Nova news. "Libyan security is tightly connected with the security situation in the Sahel and vice versa. So Irini’s work in stopping illegal trafficking operations can have reverberations a long way from the Mediterranean where the mission mostly operates."
Operation Irini's training mandate
Training of the Libyan coast guard began under the previous EU operation in the Mediterranean, Operation Sophia. Irini was meant to continue this too, but according to Nova, this part of the mission has not yet started. Admiral Turchetto said that Irini has not yet started the training programs it was due to deliver because of political instability in Libya.
A new plan, reports Nova, has been put to member states in Brussels. "Irini has assessed the needs of the Libyan coast guard and created a document with capacity building and training proposals," said Turchetto. It has been sent to member states for approval. Turchetto said the training was supposed to help the Libyans rescue more lives at sea, but the plan still awaits all member state’s approval.
Currently, said the Admiral, two boats are operative in the Mediterranean. An Italian frigate and a Greek naval unit. Surveillance planes also operate from the skies. The Italians offer remote-piloted aircraft, and Poland and Luxembourg contribute two patrol aircraft and a naval reconnaissance flight to the operation. France, Germany, Greece and Italy also lend four aircraft to the mission when needed.
"In total I have six aircraft at my disposition which monitor the operational region," said Turchetto. Germany said it would continue to participate in the monitoring work of the operation and to "help fight the business model of people-trafficking networks," a government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit told AP.