Operation Irini:

The EU’s New Bid to Bring Peace to Libya

by Melissa Rossi

An agreement among European Union (EU) member states was finally reached (26 March 2020) to launch a new Naval Operation in the Central Mediterranean aimed at intercepting illicit weapons entering Libyan territory. The new mission, named Operation Irini (the Greek word for peace) will substitute Operation Sophia, whose mandate finishes at the end of March. According to a statement issued by the EU’s High Representative of Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, the EU has reiterated its ‘full commitment to support the Berlin Process and the UN-led mediation efforts’ further showing its readiness ‘to deploy all the instruments necessary to ensure full implementation of the Berlin Conference Conclusions, including through the new Common Security and Defence Policy operation EUNAVFOR MED-IRINI.’

Though Irini is set to substitute Operation Sophia, its primary goal will be different. Irini’s mandate focuses on halting the international traffic of illicit arms, used to fuel the year-long civil conflict in Libya. Operation Sophia, on the other hand, aimed at disrupting human trafficking and smuggling off the coast of Libya saving, in the process, more than forty four thousand lives. This Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) paradigm shift points to the consolidation of a securitisation approach in the Mediterranean.

Both Austria and Hungary, headed by right-wing leaders, have been adamant in assuring that the new mission will be strictly focused on enforcing the UN arms embargo in Libya. Indeed, they were initially opposed to the new Operation claiming that it could potentially also act as a “pull-factor” for asylum seekers trying to reach the EU, despite previous mission numbers showing otherwise. Since CSDP missions require all EU members to be on board, a lower common denominator had to be met through guarantees that Operation Irini’s main objective would be that of disrupting illegal arms trafficking. Luckily, in order to end the impasse, Greece agreed to open its ports to the migrants who happen be rescued by Operation Irini, based on the understanding that they would be then relocated voluntarily to other EU members.

The intensification of the conflict in Libya has raised concerns in the EU about regional stability as concerns over migration flows, oil production and interference of foreign powers continue to loom. Fighting has been relentless as the UN-backed government of Tripoli, headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and supported by Turkey, Italy and Qatar, continues to suffer attacks by the Eastern forces of General Khalifa Haftar, supported by Russia, France, Egypt and the UAE. Sadly, amidst this upsurge in proxy fuelled violence, the first case of Covid-19 has also been diagnosed in Libya. Following this diagnosis a dire warning was issued by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) about the devastating effects that such a pandemic could have on an already war-torn health system.

EU High Representative Josep Borrell statement also called for an immediate cessation in hostilities in order to face this new health threat insisting that ‘the challenging circumstances created by the Coronavirus pandemic make the need to halt the fighting in Tripoli and across the country even more urgent’ strongly condemning ‘any attack against civilian population.’

Operation Irini is set to set sail in April, yet only time and further monitoring will help us tell if its presence in the Eastern coast of Libya will have a long lasting effect in slowing down the conflict. One thing is for sure, the EU’s move could help to consolidate its presence in the Central Mediterranean once again.

30 March 2020

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