EU seeks UN approval for seizing boats used for human trafficking

Immigrant boat

Clandestine boats in Lampedusa harbor. July 17, 2013. [Shutterstock]

Europe is seeking United Nations Security Council approval to seize vessels used to traffic migrants across the Mediterranean from Libya, though Russia has signaled it would not allow destruction of the vessels.

On 23 April, EU leaders decided to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”, according to the summit communiqué (see background). It is however unclear how that may be achieved, and several leaders said they would need a UN mandate in the absence of a viable Libyan government.

>> Read: EU leaders to consider military crackdown on Libya traffickers

UN diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a resolution has been drafted by European members of the Security Council – Britain, France, Lithuania and Spain – under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter which allows the use of force.

The draft text would authorize the EU to intervene on the high seas, in Libyan territorial waters and onshore in Libya to seize vessels “to prevent trafficking, smuggling and illegal migration across the Mediterranean,” said a senior UN diplomat.

Diplomats said Russia, which has veto power on the Security Council, initially appeared supportive of the measures, but drew the line at approving destruction of boats. The Russian UN mission was not immediately available for comment.

In Brussels, the Russian ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov told journalists on Tuesday that his country cannot support going as far as destroying ships without a court order and without consent of the country whose flag flies on the vessel concerned.

“That would be in contravention with existing norms of international law”, Chizhov said.

“Apprehending human traffickers is one thing, but destroying [vessels] would be too far”, he added.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is due to brief the UN Security Council behind closed doors on Monday on the proposed operations. Diplomats said a draft resolution could be circulated to the 15 council members next week.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said there is no military solution to migrants drowning in the Mediterranean.

About 1,800 migrants have perished during the crossing already this year, the UN refugee agency said. Some 51,000 have entered Europe by sea, with 30,500 coming via Italy, fleeing war and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Libya has descended into factional fighting, leaving the country almost lawless nearly four years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Two competing governments backed by militia brigades are scrambling for control of the oil-producing country and the chaos has created havens for Islamist militants.

The group controlling Libya’s coastal capital Tripoli said it would “confront” any unilateral EU moves to attack sites used by people-traffickers. Mogherini said that action being considered to stem the flow of migrants should not be perceived as an attack against the Libyan people.

Meeting on short notice for an extraordinary summit on 23 April, EU leaders decided to triple annual funding to €120 million to the Operation Triton, an EU frontier operation off of the coast of Italy, putting it at the same level of funding as the defunct Italian Mare Nostrum mission.

Among 17 proposals in a summit communiqué, leaders agreed to "undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers". It is unclear how that may be achieved, and several leaders said they would need a UN mandate in the absence of a viable Libyan government.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country, along with Sweden, takes in a large proportion of asylum-seekers, called for a change in the EU's system of managing asylum claims to better distribute the pressures across the bloc.

>>Read: Juncker suffers double blow on immigration at summit

But few governments are willing to take on a greater share, and agreements at the summit were limited. Member states will consider a voluntary scheme to ease the burden of arrivals on "frontline" states in the south - notably Italy, Greece and Malta. And they plan a pilot project to bring in refugees from abroad and resettle them around the continent, seeking a broad distribution.

An initial draft of the statement had suggested 5,000 people be brought in under this pilot. But there was no figure in the final agreement, reflecting deep hesitation across the Union.

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