17.08.2020 | Why Libya’s arms embargo is failing

Frequent violations of the weapons ban expose serious monitoring and enforcement flaws.

Click here to read the Alaco article in The Arab Weekly.


Amid mounting concern that the conflict in Libya could become as intractable as the Syrian civil war, international attempts to uphold the United Nations arms embargo are floundering, primarily due to the limited scope of the monitoring mission and the apparent lack of political will to enforce it.

Libya’s civil war, sparked by the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, escalated in April last year when Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who controls much of the east and south of the country, launched an assault on Tripoli, where the UN-recognised government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), is based. Turkey’s subsequent intervention on the side of the GNA enabled it to push back Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), which has been backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Russia and Syria.

The UN embargo, implemented the same year Qaddafi was defeated, has proven to be largely ineffective in preventing backers of the two sides in the conflict supplying them with weapons and other military support. The UN has singled out Jordan, Turkey and the UAE as violators. It said in a December report that they “routinely and sometimes blatantly supplied weapons, employing little effort to disguise the source”.

UN monitors have regularly issued reports providing evidence of embargo violations, but the diverging interests and loyalties of the UN Security Council permanent members seem to militate against meaningful penalties. It has led senior UN figures to despair. Stephanie Williams, UN deputy special representative to Libya, said in February the embargo has become a joke after violations continued following an international conference in Berlin in January whose participants, including Russia, Turkey, the UAE, Egypt and the Arab League, pledged to uphold the arms ban.

But just days after the conference, the UN observed numerous cargo and other flights landing at airports in the west and east of the country providing the warring parties with advanced weaponry, armoured vehicles, advisers and fighters. The deliveries, it said, had been made by member states, including several who participated in the Berlin conference.

Ghassan Salame ,head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), criticised what he called unscrupulous actors who “cynically nod and wink towards efforts to promote peace and piously affirm their support for the United Nations”, yet continue to double down on a military solution, raising the spectre of a full-scale conflict.

The European Union in late March launched Operation IRINI, a maritime deployment whose main purpose is to enforce the embargo – with a stronger mandate than the similar operation it replaced. As well as patrolling Libya’s coastal waters, the operation monitors air and land supplies – using planes, drones and satellites – but according to an April analysis by the Centre for European Reform these “will be harder to track, and impossible for IRINI to intercept”.

As Haftar’s forces receive much of their supplies by plane and across the border with Egypt, IRINI will have “little impact” on his activities, the CER says.  The GNA, meanwhile, is more reliant on supplies by sea than the rebels as it does not border an allied country nor possess a secure airport, notes a March comment by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

The SWP assesses that in order to enforce Libya’s arms embargo at the country’s border or at its airports, an extended and more robust UN mandate is needed. Russia and the United States, it adds, will certainly not allow this as permanent members of the Security Council, due to their respective interests and allegiances.

The limited geographical scope of IRINI poses a credibility problem for the EU. The focus on maritime surveillance means that it is more likely to spot embargo violations by Turkey. Yet it will not be seen as an honest broker if it begins sanctioning Turkish entities without also acting against Haftar’s backers.

That may be problematic, not just because the EU could struggle to gather the evidence to do so but also because, apart from Russia and Syria, it has strong ties with them. Indeed, Ankara has already called into question the objectivity of the operation. And EU members, several reportedly planning to push for sanctions against companies in three countries, including Jordan and Turkey, will be mindful that any major action against Ankara risks provoking retaliation, such as allowing Syrian refugees to move into Europe.

The Security Council appears just as, if not more, challenged when it comes to sanctioning. The US might veto proposals to sanction its allies, UAE, Egypt and Jordan. China would probably do the same if Belt and Road partner Turkey were targeted. Outside the UN, the US has the option of acting unilaterally against Turkey, Russia and Syria. But the Trump administration does not view Libya as a foreign policy priority,and penalising only those three states could be seen as unduly selective.

UN arms embargoes are hard to monitor, never mind enforce, and the Libyan embargo serves as an alarming reminder of their shortcomings. Some call for the measures to be better designed, yet even if verification methodologies are improved one may still be faced, as in the case of Libya, with compromised sanctioning authorities.