Libyans would only accept an EU military operation to target people smugglers in their territory if their government was controlling and coordinating the initiative, Libya’s internationally-recognised Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni said in an interview with Migrant Report.
“We expect that if there is such an intervention to stop smugglers or illegal immigrants from crossing to Europe, it should be under the supervision, guidance and coordination of the new national government… we would only (would it be accepted) if it is under the control of the new government…” he said in an exclusive interview in Malta, where the Prime Minister is currently on an official visit.
He argued that the Libyan government would expect this action to be part of “a comprehensive plan that does not simply look at securing the country’s shores but also its southern borders in the desert”, where an estimated 500 to 1,000 migrants cross into Libya every day.
“Anything short of that,” he said, will “create a problem in Libya whereby people will just be stuck here.”
Immigration is not really on top of Al-Thinni’s priorities right now after the General National Congress (GNC) – the parliament seated in Tripoli – expressed reservations about the latest draft of a peace accord and asked for more time to consider it at the eleventh hour on Wednesday, when it was expected to be signed in Morocco on Thursday.
“We are used to these kinds of techniques from the GNC. They are trying to get more concessions from the parliament side (the House of Representatives (HOR) in Tobruk) in order to make more political gains,” he says.
His comments on migration come after EU Foreign Affairs Ministers in May put in place EUNAVFOR Med, a military operation off Libyan waters designed to “break the business model of smugglers and traffickers of people in the Mediterranean”.
The brainchild of Italian PM Matteo Renzi, the EU’s anti-smuggling operation was originally meant to include incursions into Libyan territorial waters on land to intercept and arrest people smugglers and seize and destroy the boats they use to ferry people from Libya to Europe.
However, the plan was watered down drastically after it became clear that the EU would need a UN resolution and Libya’s explicit consent to carry out a military intervention in the country’s territory. As it happens, both of the political formations claiming power in Libya right now – the rebel administration in Tripoli and its internationally-recognised government in Tobruk – opposed the plan.
But Europe has been hoping to obtain consent from the Libyan side to have EUNAVFOR Med run as originally intended following negotiations with an eventual national unity government. Even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appeared to be towing this line in a recent interview with France 24.
But Al-Thinni has clearly laid out the parameters of what he sees as an essential pre-requisite to Libyan consent: oversight.
‘Tripoli Will Only Sign Peace Deal at Very Last Minute’
The prospect of a national unity government is looking distant right now.
Speaking about the peace process, Mr Al-Thinni said he was not surprised by the GNC’s stand, arguing that Tripoli was merely trying to buy time.
The mandate of the House of Representatives expires in December, which means that after this date, it too would no longer be able to claim legitimacy, theoretically putting Tripoli and Tobruk in the same league.
“After that the country will be in a political vacuum and there will be no standing, legitimate parliament… This is what has been said continuously (by Tripoli) and this is what they are trying to do,” he said. However, he revealed that a Constitutional Committee, which last year was tasked with drafting a new Constitution, might soon finish its work and might present a “solution” to avoid this sort of political vacuum.
“Well, there are a few suggestions that can be made, like Presidential elections, for instance, or changes in the parliament, to avoid this sort of vacuum. They are working hard to avoid this sort of political situation…” he said.
It was clear during the interview that the optimism he expressed earlier in the week about a deal being struck on Thursday had disappeared.
“We are confident that eventually we will reach a solution. But every party is trying to gain points in the process and we are sure that the GNC will keep trying hard to get the leading political role and not simply any role. They will give their consent only at the very last minute, when things reach the very end,” he said.
It has been almost a year since the rebel government took control of the capital Tripoli in a major offensive that saw the country’s main airport, and most of the national airline’s fleet, completely destroyed. Since then, the GNC has secured its position there, while the internationally-recognised parliament was forced to relocate to the eastern town of Tobruk.
The GNC argues that it is the true representative of the revolution, accusing the other side of electoral manipulation and betraying what Libyans fought for in 2011 when they removed the country’s 42-year dictatorship headed by Mummer Gaddafi.
Tobruk, on the other hand, accuses Tripoli of having carried out a coup because it was unhappy that the Muslim Brotherhood – the main force behind the political formation currently in the capital – was reduced to near-irrelevance in the country’s first-ever elections in 2014.
But even if the two sides manage to cast aside their differences and come to some sort of power-sharing arrangement pending fresh elections, a new government will still have to confront the multitude of armed militias that effectively control vast territories in the country.
There are some leaders of these militias who likely reject any new national unity government, irrespective of whether Tripoli eventually decides to sign up to the deal. The solution, according to Al-Thinni, is an international peacekeeping operation that deals with the armed groups.
“If a national unity government is formed and it returns toTripoli, it is incumbent on the UN and the international community to support this government and help it establish itself… They should help in the removal of the militias from the capital. There is no realistic approach on how this can be done right now but later on a plan will have to be devised to make this happen,” he says.
He said the make-up of such a force, whether it be made up of EU or UN troops, or forces from the Arab League or the African Union, will have to be decided later. The bottom line, according to Al-Thinni is that “the countries involved must not have an interest in taking part in Libyan affairs”.
He would not be drawn into naming problematic states but his jibe is a clear reference to the proxy war being run by a swathe of countries supporting both sides of the dispute – chiefly, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt in support of Tobruk and Qatar and Turkey with Tripoli.
But Al-Thinni’s call for a peacekeeping force on the ground in Libya seems to jar with his statements concerning EUNAVFOR Med. “There is a very clear difference between these two issues,” he insists.
“A legitimate peace force agreed to by the government is one thing… This force should be specifically stated in number and limitation and how it is going to work and what it is going to do inside the country. This is opposite to what you are saying about allow the EU to enter national waters and do whatever they want without any objection by the Libyans,” he said.
The interview with Mr Al-Thinni was carried out jointly by Times of Malta and Migrant Report.