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Operation Irini´s Ongoing Role in Enforcing the UN Arms Embargo in Libya

By Melissa Rossi,
Researcher at the Brazilian Naval War College and EGIC Steering Committee Member

*To access the full interview with Admiral Stefano Turchetto, EUNAVFOR MED IRINI Operation Commander.

AFTER more than 3 years navigating the complex waters of the Central Mediterranean, EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, Irini being the Greek word for peace, continues to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 2292/2016, which established an arms embargo in Libya.

Operation Irini´s success is reflected in this year´s mandate renewal, until 2025, by a unanimous vote of the 27 European Union (EU) Member States. Ever since its approval, the EU naval mission has conducted several maritime interdiction operations (MIO) and hailings in the Central Mediterranean and has had a successful impact in deterring attempts to smuggle weapons into the North African nation. Lying right across the Mediterranean Sea from countries such as Italy and Malta, Libya´s stability has important strategic ramifications for the broader Mediterranean region, especially in regards to migration and the exports of oil and gas.

Indeed, during an interview conducted with Irini´s Operation Commander, Rear Admiral Stefano Turchetto, at the Operation Headquarters in Rome, it becomes clear that the mission has navigated tirelessly to bolster the deterrence of illicit weapons smuggling as the EU is “strengthening its engagement in securing the maritime domain and stepping up activities at sea, notably the CSDP Operations like IRINI, reinforcing the information exchange capabilities and the EU C41 structure, promoting the Integrated Approaches with all the stakeholders in the Area of Operations and enhancing the Intelligence Support”.

The situation in Libya remains uncertain though there is a ceasefire in place. Nevertheless, political skirmishes and lack of consensus in the Libyan government have impeded Operation Irini from fulfilling some of its secondary roles, such as those pertaining to the “Capacity Building and Training of the Libyan Institutions responsible for Law Enforcement and Search and Rescued in the waters of Libyan responsibility”. It is important to highlight that an international naval mission, such as Irini, cannot act in Libya´s territorial waters, as these are considered sovereign territory, which extend for 12 nautical miles into the Central Mediterranean from the shore´s baseline. This is the case for most maritime security missions, unless the coastal state specifically requests that a mission enter its territorial waters.

As Admiral Turchetto further explained, other secondary objectives of Operation Irini comprise “gathering information on oil smuggling (GIOS) from Libya and on the Human Smuggling Business Model (HSBM). In these cases, no inspections at sea are allowed. IRINI collects all the information available and is in contact with several stakeholders including INTERPOL, EUROPOL, UNHCR, EUBAM, UNSMIL and others.”

Another important consideration has to do with cooperation between Operation IRINI and NATO. Though NATO´s naval mission in the Mediterranean, known as Operation Sea Guardian, has, at the present moment, different objectives from Operation IRINI, Rear Admiral Turchetto is keen to emphasize that “there is always an open channel available to cooperate if necessary, including flight activities deconfliction”.

More broadly, one cannot understate the importance that EU naval missions represent when it comes to decisively improving interoperability among other EU Member States´ Armed Forces, an impressive accomplishment when considering how “young” the EU´s Common Defense and Security Policy (CSDP) really is and how the very first EU mission to set sail into the high seas took place not so long ago, in 2008, under EUNAVFOR Somalia (Operation Atalanta) in the Gulf of Aden and Western Indian Ocean. The experience of both Operation Irini in the Mediterranean and Operation Atalanta off the Horn of Africa are setting important precedents and laying the foundations for future EU naval missions.

In conclusion, Operation IRINI is the only mission currently present in the high seas of the Central Mediterranean that has the clear objective of enforcing the UN arms embargo in Libya and, despite the herculean task at hand, has presented positive results in this respect, especially by acting as a deterrent force in the region and, thus, contributing to a larger framework that aims at the stabilization of the Central Mediterranean and to Libya in the process.

(26/06/2023)

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