On 31 March 2020, EU NAVFORMED, Operation IRINI was mandated by the European Council to carry out as its core task the implementation of the UN arms embargo through the use of aerial, satellite and maritime assets. In accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2292 (2016) this mission was to be capable of carrying out inspections of vessels on the high seas off the coast of Libya suspected to be carrying arms or related material to and/or from Libya .
It is useful to recall that this EU initiative was part and parcel of the Berlin Conference, where four tracks (political, military, economic and humanitarian) were agreed upon and coordinated by an International Follow-Up Committee with participation from different Countries, as well as the United Nations. The whole set of actions decided upon by the Berlin Conference established a truly “holistic approach” to Libya’s problems. Within such a frame, IRINI was established as an important tool in setting the conditions for diplomacy to work towards a permanent solution to the Libyan crisis. This happened at a time when Libya was still in the midst of heavy military confrontation between the Haftar Forces and the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. With many external forces interfering directly or through the provision of military equipment and mercenaries, the situation in Libya looked grim at the start of 2020.
Moreover, as soon as IRINI started, the world was plunged into a COVID-19 pandemic that negatively impacted every aspect of routine life and provided a further challenge to the operational capabilities of IRINI. It was not an easy start for the Operation, which was also the target of multiple criticism in the media relating to its resolve, capacity and ability to effectively dent the apparent flow of weapons into the Libyan conflict. IRINI is a part of a process where every component works along the other to achieve the improvement of conditions in Libya to revert the conflict that has ravaged its people for over ten years now. IRINI is an important tool in order to set the conditions for diplomacy to work towards a permanent solution to the Libyan crisis. The tasks assigned to IRINI by the European Council are the same as those previously of Operation Sophia, only with different priorities. The main task is to ensure the respect of the Arms Embargo as per UNSC Resolutions 1970 (2011) and 2292 (2016). Secondary tasks are gathering information on oil smuggling, contributing to the disruption of the human trafficking business model and providing capacity building and training to the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy.
IRINI was incepted with a limited number of assets and a lack of some key components to its mandate such as the availability of the Libyan Government to proceed with the training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy or an agreement with NATO that would have magnified IRINI’s capacities in multiple fields.
Operation IRINI started by focusing on the best use of its available assets and with a sense of resilience in the face of challenges and criticism. One year on from then, IRINI is being granted a Mandate renewal by the European Council for two years (instead of the initial one year) and it is being commended by all EU Member States for the positive results it has achieved in its first year of action. IRINI is clear evidence of a convergence process where EU Member States have increasingly joined in a more unified voice and stance behind the blue starred flag of the Union. The fact that the 24 EU Member States contribute to the Operation with staffing and assets provides further evidence of the unity and resolve of the EU behind IRINI. EUNVAFOR MED IRINI acts in full compliance with international law and relevant UN Security Council Resolutions. In particular, the Resolution 2292 of 2016, authorizing offshore inspections and port diversions of suspect embargo breakers, which has been extended until 5 June 2021 (Resolution 2526) and will soon undergo the process of renewal.
It is important to stress that the mandate given to IRINI does not entail a naval blockade of Libya! The Operation can act only within the strict margins allowed by those UN resolutions as well as the International Maritime Law. Furthermore, IRINI’s area of Operations does not include Libya’s landmass, its territorial waters or that of its neighbours. Nevertheless, IRINI has shown its ability to project a clear deterrence effect over the Central Mediterranean. This is achieved through kinetic activities that has led to the direct control of more than 100 merchant vessels, including the first ever European Union diversion operation, and through monitoring activity that have targeted over 2,400 ships and nearly 200 suspect aircrafts flying across IRINI’s Area of Operations. Therefore, there can be no doubt that those who mean to violate the UN Arms Embargo on Libya are surely aware of the risks they are running of being monitored, inspected or have their activities reported to the UN agencies for whatever actions they regard as appropriate. According to the IRINI analysis, actors who seek to violate the embargo attempt to do so by sea, air and land. IRINI also observed an increasing trend in military air traffic to and from Libyan airports. This increase in military air traffic activities to and from Libya is a possible indicator of the Operation’s success in deterring maritime trafficking.
In this first year, IRINI continues to address any suspected violator of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions in an impartial manner. IRINI is like “the guardian” that prosecutes, in its Area of Operations and in accordance with its mandate any suspect element regardless of its flag or affiliation. While delivering on its main tasks, Operation IRINI has enhanced cooperation and a constant exchange of information with a number of stakeholders and in particular with the International Shipping Community. IRINI is now perceived as a security provider in the Central Mediterranean sea, a role that is important and one that is taken seriously by the Operation! The maritime shipping community and the Libyan Coast Guard & Naval authorities have both indicated how important it is to ensure security in the Central Mediterranean Sea, including from an economical point of view. In fact, the increase in the costs of ships insurance has led to the increase in the prices of commodities in Libya. There is no denying that unsecured Sea Lines of Communications have a negative economic impact. These negative economic impacts disproportionately affect countries experiencing instability and are a barrier to for development and prosperity of not just those countries but globally.
It is clear that effective and functioning State institutions in Libya are the ultimate solution to avoid the enduring proliferation of illicit activity, including human and arms trafficking, oil smuggling and terrorism. The creations of such conditions is always a factor considered by IRINI and how it carries out its mandate. The still fragile security situation in Libya also highlights the need for continued maritime security presence in the Central Mediterranean, an area where other actors are increasing their footprint to fulfil their own national interests. There is therefore a clear need, first and foremost, to enable Libyan security ownership through stabilisation and capacity building. It goes without saying that the new Government of National Unity, which was sworn in on 15 March 2021 provides a window of opportunity that deserves to be supported and seized upon. This is why the de facto ceasefire which started in the summer of 2020 and the ensuing progress especially of the political track, through the UNSMIL-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, are very encouraging. The new Government of National Unity, selected by that process, has obtained a near-unanimous vote of confidence from the Libyan House of Representative on 10 March 2021 in Sirte. The new Prime Minister, Abdulhamid Dbaibah, has accordingly started in earnest working to fulfil its mandate to prepare the Country for general elections by the end of the year, while addressing the key issues affecting its population. After ten years of civil war, this is a daunting task but ending the current state of conflict is only possible if this task is owned by the people of Libya.
This progress represents a vindication of the full-out EU engagement in a holistic approach to the problems that seemed unsolvable just one year ago. The political vision provided by the High Representative, Mr BORREL, at the launching of Operation IRINI, reflects the holistic approach agreed at the Berlin Conference. Within that process, IRINI has shown its capacity to play its part as a key enabler and it will continue with its ultimate aim of contributing, pro-actively to restoring the peace and stability that the people of Libya so richly deserve.