Libya’s Arms Embargo Creates Tension After German Forces Detained Turkish Sailors


Turkey recently accused German soldiers on the Hamburg frigate of violating international law. This accusation followed an incident on November 22, 2020, when the soldiers on the Hamburg frigate ran an examination of a Turkish vessel’s cargo, the Roseline A. The Hamburg’s German forces suspected the vessel of violating the arms embargo on Libya and illegally carrying weapons to the North African country. However, after inspection, only food, paint, and humanitarian aid were discovered. These forces carried out decisions guided by Operation Irini, a military operation launched on March 31, 2020, by the E.U. The operation intends to enforce peace and stability in Libya through the arms embargo.


The fallout from this event has brought conflicting responses from both sides. The Deputy Minister of the Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry, Sedat Onel, has called forward specific figures, including an E.U. envoy and Germany Embassy’s Charge d’Affaires, for running the speculation without Ankara’s permission and detaining the sailors onboard the Roseline A. However, in an interview on Tuesday, the German Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, claims the soldiers acted accordingly to maritime practices of tacit consent and were allowed to board the ship after four hours of not hearing a response to their request to board.


Operation Irini’s boarding activity marks this event as the fifth one occurring since its launch in March. This initiative began to integrate foreign intervention into the tension and conflict between Libya’s fighting factions. These two sides in Libya include the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, recognized by both the U.N. and Turkey, and General Khalifa Haftar and his eastern forces. They overthrew former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Shortly before Gaddafi’s death, the U.N. Security Council intervened after the debate to allow military action against Haftar’s forces, and the majority voted to follow through. Since then, the U.N. has attempted to resist further military intervention. However, the consequences of the embargo have not proven to stray away from forcible actions.


The cause of this current conflict reflects rising tension in the last several months following the establishment of Operation Irini. The permission these German forces acted on comes from the U.N. Security Council resolutions, the embargo, and its guidelines first being instated in 2016’s Resolution 2292. This resolution outlined the ability of naval forces to intercept any vessel suspected of carrying arms to Libya. The general outline of being able to do so based on sole suspicion allowed for unintended consequences in these sailors’ treatment. As Turkey’s Foreign Ministry explained, “All personnel, including the captain, were searched forcibly, all personnel were gathered and detained in one place, and containers were searched by force, with an armed soldier standing at the captain’s head.” Not only are these practices vague, but the process of handling the situation does not involve clear and peaceful methods. The handling of the case led to it being conducted much more poorly than it could have been.


On a larger scale, the tensions between Turkey and naval forces on the high seas off Libya’s coast can be seen due to the aftermath following the 2011 Libyan Civil War’s. As seen from the U.N.’s response during this year, these interventions are highly dependent on military intervention. Today’s embargo relies on cutting off weapon supply more than anything else, the “unsecured arms and ammunition in Libya and their proliferation … undermines stability in Libya and the region”, as Resolution 2292 states. The issues of this embargo are that it only addresses one side of the conflict. Hami Aksoy, a spokesperson of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sent out a statement talking about Operation Irini, “It is an operation that does not control the arms support to the putschist Haftar and is used arbitrarily to punish the legitimate Libyan government.” As mentioned, Khalifa Haftar and his troops still find access to armaments. Persisting conflict between these troops and civilians carry on, with more than 100 civilian deaths occurring just between April and June in Libya, according to the U.N. As a result, to truly halt these fatalities, it is not the NATO-backed, military intervention we need on both factions, but rather a way to encourage nonviolent approaches both sides are already attempting to pursue.


To effectively continue the arms embargo imposed on Libya, practices based on the U.N. resolutions must be rearranged. Inspections can be carried out only if the city-state and its vessel in question give consent to do so. On top of this, there are clear gaps in the way these inspections are currently performed. As Hami Askoy further elaborated in his statement, he made clear how the Roseline A’s transported cargo and planned course was already relayed to the Hamburg. Despite this, soldiers continued to board the vessel. Policies should be created revolving around effectively utilizing communication made by both sides, not based off of the “ambiguous suspicion” of a vessel carrying arms, as Askoy stated. Communication was entirely disregarded as a potential solution here, even while it was the safest one that could have resolved the scenario, taking into consideration the Roseline A sailor’s attempts to communicate. Following these concerns, although the embargo intends on allowing non-violent, military intervention, the opposite was achieved in this scenario. Shortly after the vessel incident, Turkey released footage obtained from the ship’s control room. It showed sailors standing with their hands on their heads and an armed soldier standing over the captain. Notably, due to the inspection being carried out on “ambiguous suspicion”, these sailors should not have been forcibly detained as they were. Accusations of illegal activity do not translate into formal charges, a hole in the guidelines of Resolution 2292 that are due for a change. Additionally, when the U.N. releases new resolutions concerning Turkey and the Libyan government, the construction of these operations should involve all associating parties. The launch of Operation Irini was done without the consultation of the GNA, NATO, and Turkey. Since these resolutions’ guidelines very strongly affiliate with these groups, future consultation of those parties should be a prerequisite before launching operations.

On October 23, 2020, a permanent ceasefire agreement was signed between the two sides of Libya fighting for almost the last decade. This agreement was groundbreaking, promising revolutionary change for the split country after a long time of not being united. However, both national and international parties are afraid that this agreement is not built to last very long. Many underlying factors are causing the rift between Libyans, and these tensions will continue to persist unless directly acknowledged. Shortly after the agreement was created, the U.N. Security Council discussed their own role in upholding the contract. At this conference, the main priorities were made clear: to continue the arms embargo, and as the Special Representative said, “Looking forward, disciplined, regular police forces should protect the city.” For years, the U.N. has made their responses revolve around having soldiers play a larger part. However, this should not be the focus. Libya’s impoverished country needs funding assistance towards handling the oil crisis that has been occurring for many decades. Suppose any further foreign intervention is to be made. In that case, it should also point towards ensuring the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, initiated by the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, being heavily supported. This could help to endorse and strengthen Libya’s movement towards unified and peaceful future elections. There is opportunity to work against the political split tormenting the country for so long, and it is important to take advantage of the ceasefire agreement and silenced calamity right now, while there is still a chance to.


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