Following a positive Libya peace summit in Berlin, the EU needs to back up commitments with actions, although the path ahead remains fraught with difficulty, writes Tom Garofalo.
Tom Garofalo is the International Rescue Committee’s Libya Director
Libya finds itself in a race against time. Following the dramatic escalation in conflict in April, the chaotic civil war is on the brink of metastasizing into a multinational conflict with dire humanitarian consequences.
The positive conclusion of the Berlin Summit this week was a sign of real international commitment to save lives and protect people caught in the crossfire. The momentum created by the conference is a powerful example of the role the EU can play on the global stage when its members pull as one.
While the path ahead remains fraught with difficulty, Europe now has a unique opportunity to turn the tide by translating Berlin commitments into action – step in, kick-off stabilisation efforts, and prevent Libya from becoming the next deadly arena for the Age of Impunity.
Foreign actors have correctly identified Libya as a vulnerable host preyed on by weak rivals and a lack of international leadership. The conflict is now propelled by deepening external involvement, including ongoing violations of the 2011 arms embargo.
Even more worrying is the recent surge in manpower, weaponry and liquidity from both Russia and Turkey in support of opposing parties to the conflict: the Libyan National Army and the UN-supported Government of National Accord.
With these actors increasingly pulling the strings, and a void of global leadership, Europe has a vital role to play as a credible mediator in the midst of an emergency burgeoning in its own backyard.
This action is urgently needed to prevent an otherwise low-intensity, pocketed crisis from evolving into a regional tinderbox. We have seen the impunity playbook in action in Yemen and Syria: where local conflicts have been allowed to escalate into internationalised proxy wars, ushering in unprecedented humanitarian suffering. UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame has repeatedly lamented this absence of leadership, to little effect.
Last year alone, the number of civilians killed or injured by explosive weapons rose by 131%. Over 140,000 have been displaced in Tripoli alone since April. The UN has tracked over 1000 airstrikes indiscriminately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure – including over 900 drone strikes emanating from foreign parties.
The International Rescue Committee can testify to the growing human cost of Libya’s unravelling from the front lines. With over 100 staff in Tripoli and Misrata, the IRC continues to assist people caught up in crisis. However, in the past weeks, violence has forced us to suspend some of our life-saving health activities operations in health facilities.
Against this backdrop, approximately 1 million refugees, migrants and Libyans have been caught in the crosshairs since 2011. Only last year, almost 10,000 migrants and refugees seeking safety in Europe were intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard and returned to detention camps where humanitarian and human rights breaches happen daily.
This situation traps highly vulnerable people directly in harm’s way; July’s strike on Tajoura detention center, killing 53, is a case in point – and a tragic reminder that the EU has a responsibility to those who have no safe and legal means to access protection.
Under the best of circumstances, Libyan authorities struggle to provide adequate services to citizens. With the intensification of conflict fueled by outsiders, the positive outcome of the Berlin Conference offers a rare window of opportunity for the EU to take back a leadership role in Libya. Here are three key elements Europe needs to push for to prevent a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe on its doorstep – and shore up prospects for peace.
Firstly, any response to the Libyan crisis must put the lives of people who are bearing the cost of war at the centre. While the recent estimates say that 900,000 people are in need of assistance, the humanitarian appeal for Libya is currently less than halfway funded.
As the world’s largest humanitarian donor, the EU and its member states can help by stepping up funding efforts in the country and pouring all their efforts into ensuring national systems are strengthened.
While legal pathways to protection to Europe are still missing, it is also critical that more EU member states urgently join the resettlement scheme of the Emergency Transit Mechanism in Niger and Rwanda, ensuring that the evacuations from Libya are increased in response to the spiking needs.
These actions would truly reflect the pledge to respect International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law found in the conclusions of the Berlin Summit.
Foreign interference grows in the vacuum of diplomatic action and respect for international law. However challenging, the EU must make every effort to use its diplomatic leverage to place the ceasefire back into the UN framework and ensure the enforcement of the arms embargo, which otherwise pours fuel onto the conflict. Restoring the naval assets of Operation Sophia to monitor the embargo’s implementation is also indispensable.
Thirdly, the UN-led process is Libya’s best near-term chance of laying a foundation for political stability and peace. Germany’s efforts to bring parties to the table in Berlin – and breathe new life into the UN process- is a positive and crucial first step in this regard.
A coordinated strategy that bolsters the UN’s diplomatic efforts will give the EU the best chance to promote civilian protection and prevent a void that can exploited by foreign interference.
As the world’s leading humanitarian actor and respected diplomatic power, the EU must do all it can to help pull the country back from the brink – or watch as yet another protracted catastrophe unfolds at its borders.