Britain, Libya and the Mediterranean : The Creation of a Humanitarian Emergency

By Dan Glazebrook

Last week’s drownings in the Mediterranean were the foreseeable, and indeed deliberate, result of the anti-human policies of strategic violence by a dying neo-colonial empire. They were the consequence, firstly, of a series of wars of aggression that have made life intolerable across vast swathes of Africa and West Asia, and secondly of the fateful EU decision last November to end Italy’s search-and-rescue programme, Mare Nostrum. This much has been admitted by politicians and commentators from across the entire British political establishment, from Nigel Farage and the Daily Telegraph to David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Whilst these admissions have often been tempered with caveats, denials, distortions and half-truths, the hideous reality behind them is increasingly impossible to deny.

NATO’s war of aggression against Libya in 2011 turned the country over to racist death squads, with hundreds of sub-Saharan migrant workers and black Libyans beaten and burnt to death by the ‘revolutionaries’ and tens of thousands illegally detained and tortured by the militias. Tawergha, the only black African town on the Mediterranean, and formerly home to around 30,000 people, is now a ghost town after NATO’s shock troops – militias with names like the ‘Brigades for the purging of black skins’ – ‘ethnically cleansed’ the region. Last week’s butchering of 30 Ethiopian workers by ISIS is but the latest chapter in the anti-African pogroms that have characterised the Libyan insurgency from the very start. This is the reality of NATO’s ‘Libyan revolution’ (led by AbdulHakim BelHaj, now leader of ISIS in Libya) and it is precisely this which black Africans in Libya are now fleeing. As Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi put it, “a person has to risk his life because he needs to escape from a situation where they are chopping off the heads of those near him”.

And this head-chopping has not been restricted to Libya’s borders. NATO’s war has boosted head-choppers across the entire region, from Tunisia and Algeria to Mali, Nigeria and Cameroon. Before 2011, Boko Haram barely existed. Today, thanks to NATO opening up Libya’s arsenals to them and their friends, they are killing hundreds every week, often burning them alive in churches and mosques. As one Nigerian told a reporter last week, “We prefer to die trying (to migrate) than stay back there and die….Stay at home and get shot dead or maybe burnt to death; I just prefer to die while trying or survive.”

Yet the Libyan war itself is only the latest in a long series of acts of aggression launched by the British state and its allies, all of which continue to have disastrous consequences across the entire Middle East and North Africa region. A look at the list of where the migrants come from makes this devastatingly clear. The majority of the world’s refugees come from one of three countries: Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. What all have in common is that they have all been subject to vicious terror campaigns by Britain, the USA and their allies: whether directly, as in Afghanistan; through allied states, as with the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 (which toppled the first stable government the country had had in decades); or through the provision of cash, weapons and diplomatic cover to sectarian death squads, as in the case of Syria. Yemen is the latest additional source of refugees, with the Saudi bombing campaign bringing new arrivals to almost 10,000 per week.

This, then, is what the vast majority of the world’s refugees are fleeing – conflicts and massacres created and stoked by the West and its allies.

Yet before last November, most of the refugees who took to the Mediterranean were not left to drown. Rather, they were rescued by the Italian navy’s Mediterranean-wide search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, launched in October 2013 after a number of very similar disasters to those last week. Mare Nostrum is estimated to have saved around 150,000 lives during the year it was in operation. Yet it was never supported by other European countries: the Italians had hoped that the rest of the EU would contribute to the operation, but it was not to be. Worse, the EU was subject to a concerted campaign by Britain demanding that Mare Nostrum be closed down, and in October 2014, acceding to these demands, ordered an end to the operation. It was replaced with a border patrol operation, Operation Triton, run by the EU with a third of the budget of Mare Nostrum, and designed to patrol a mere 12 miles of the Italian coast and no further. All search and rescue operations ceased. This was a major victory for British diplomacy, which had lobbied hard for this outcome.

The argument used by Home Office minister Lady Alenay was that saving drowning migrants would only encourage them to flee; whereas leaving them to drown would act as a deterrent. It is important to realise, therefore, that the horror witnessed last week was not the unfortunate byproduct of British policy, but rather its very purpose: that is, the creation of a terrifying spectacle of death that would serve as a warning to anyone else attempting to escape NATO’s warzones. “When these tragedies happen”, said David Cameron last week, “Britain is always there.” Indeed it is – with a smoking gun.

So this crisis was desired, and now it has been created. Almost 2000 have been drowned already this year, compared to 56 for the same period last year, thanks to the replacement of Mare Nostrum with the intentionally ineffective Triton. Indeed, only one third of those few who have been saved this year were saved by the EU’s patrol operation, the rest being picked up by passing fishermen and commercial vessels.

And yet the EU has so far managed to stave off calls to restore search and rescue missions. Despite all the trumpeting about ‘tripling the budget’ for Operation Triton, it is important to note exactly what was and was not agreed at the EU emergency summit on Thursday 23rd April.

Firstly, the funding announcement needs to be put in context. Tripling the budget of Operation Triton – an operation funded by the (28-member) EU will only put it up to the previous level of funding of Mare Nostrum, which was funded by one single Southern EU state, Italy – and this at a time when estimated refugee numbers are now 160% higher than they were last year. In other words, the promised funding per refugee remains barely one third the level of last year. It is also important to note that even this meagre funding is only a promise, and on past evidence, the likelihood of it actually being delivered is slim. As the head of Frontex, the border agency in charge of Operation Triton noted, many of the resources already promised last November were never delivered. Cameron has boasted that Britain will be doubling its share of the bill for Triton to £1 million – yet this equates to barely 1% of the costs of the £86 million operation.

Secondly, this money will not be spent on search and rescue. No new search and rescue operation is planned; the additional money is going into Operation Triton, which is to remain a purely border control operation, as the head of the agency responsible was at pains to point out last week: “Triton cannot be a search-and-rescue operation” said head of Frontex Fabrice Leggeri . “I mean, in our operational plan, we cannot have provisions for proactive search-and-rescue action. This is not in Frontex’s mandate, and this is, in my understanding, not in the mandate of the European Union,” . The Guardian reiterated the point, noting that the mandate of Frontex “is to monitor the external borders of the EU’s Schengen free-travel zone, not to save people in distress. There was no proposal to change the mandate”.

Finally, the Summit did not call for actually accepting any of the refugees. The draft proposal had suggested that 5000 might be taken in – which, as RT pointed out, equated to just 1/30th of the total numbers arriving – but the final communique omitted even this miserly commitment. For comparison, it is worth noting that tiny Lebanon alone, with a GDP about 1/300th of the EU, has taken in over 1.5million Syrian refugees, with a similar number in Turkey and nearly a million more in Jordan – the direct result of an armed insurgency aided and abetted by the West.

Instead of a humanitarian response, the EU has in fact jumped to a military response – led, once again, by David Cameron. From the moment the refugee crisis hit the headlines last week, the British government has led a media campaign to demonise those who help them escape. Rather than examining the conditions which people are fleeing, or the willful negligence of the EU, Cameron argued that “we should put the blame squarely on the appalling human traffickers who are the ones managing and promoting and selling this trade in human life”. This line has been echoed throughout Europe, with Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti claiming that “We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather…The plans for military intervention are there…. We think it’s the moment in which Europe decides, forcefully, to have an international police operation, which will undo this band of criminals”. A meeting of EU foreign ministers on Tuesday 21st April immediately drew up plans to “hit people-smuggling networks in Libya and destroy the vessels used to send the migrants on their perilous voyages”, with leaders announcing that “We commit to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”. Said the Guardian, referring to “diplomatic sources”, “Apache helicopter gunships attacking traffickers’ vessels from a range of up to 2km would be the optimal way to operate”, whilst London Mayor Boris Johnson called for the SAS to be sent in to Libya. The Daily Telegraph made it clear that it was Britain which had been leading the call for this militarized response: “Following calls from David Cameron, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s top diplomatic, has been tasked with drawing up plans to “identify, capture and destroy” potential people trafficking vessels”. These plans, according to the Guardian, will indeed require special forces on the ground: “Senior officials say the model is the EU operations launched off the Horn of Africa in the Indian Ocean in 2009 to combat Somali piracy. That entailed special forces operations along the Somali coast and on land”. European military/ police forces will also presumably be required in Africa in large numbers to implement the other aspects of the Summit Agreement, which include “demands that the frontline states of Italy, Malta, and Greece fingerprint every person who arrives across the Mediterranean, that quicker repatriation be organised for “irregulars” who fail to qualify for asylum, and that the EU establish offices in the countries neighbouring Libya to gather intelligence on and try to stem the flow of migrants.”

Needless to say, humanitarian agencies have been unimpressed with the EU’s cynical determination to use humanitarian concern to expand its military operations whilst rejecting calls to save lives. The heads of the UN High Commission for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration issued a joint statement which noted that: “A tragedy of epic proportions is unfolding in the Mediterranean. The EU response needs to go beyond the present minimalist approach which focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on its shores. Enforcement alone will not solve the issue of irregular migration, but could increase the risks and abuse faced by migrants and refugees.” Aurelie Ponthieu, meanwhile, a humanitarian adviser for Medical charity Medicins sans Frontieres said that “We are amazed to see that the huge means and resources allocated to declaring war on smugglers are not equally invested in saving lives. Focusing on keeping people out by cutting their only existing routes is only going to push people fleeing for their lives to find other routes, potentially even more dangerous.”

Lets be clear about what this EU Summit declaration actually means. Desperate people fleeing ISIS butchery are not going to be given asylum, or even saved from drowning – rather, they are to have their only means of escape blown up.

Fabrice Leggeri, the Frontex head in charge of Operation Triton, is nevertheless pessimistic about these military measures ever coming to fruition: “If we have difficulty to find civilian assets such as one or two patrolling boats, and one aircraft” he said, referring to the equipment promised to Triton by EU states that has still not been delivered, “you can imagine what kind of questions will be raised if it comes to military assets.” Leggeri’s pessimism on this front, however, is, I suspect, sadly misplaced. For whilst it is true that search and rescue operations are underfunded, this is because they are deemed irrelevant to the securing of strategic goals. The deployment of military assets, however – that is, tools of strategic and economic domination – tend to be viewed as very worthwhile investments.

And as Africa’s determination to free itself of centuries of colonial and neo-colonial domination continues – illustrated vividly by the election of Mugabe to the AU’s Chair this February – the desperation of Europe, and Britain in particular, to reinsinuate itself on the continent knows no bounds.

So what exactly is Britain aiming to do with its special forces and Apaches should they gain access to the African coast? The answer, I suspect, is to shore up the death squads it unleashed on Libya in 2011, whose defeat is now a very real prospect.

If, as I have argued elsewhere, the death squad project is a fundamental plank of current Anglo-US imperial strategy, then the ‘turning of the tide’ against the death squads in Libya would be an acutely worrying development for the West’s strategic planners.

The tide began to turn in Libya in the parliamentary elections last year, when the parties supported by the Misrata militias – the most vicious and racist of the death squads brought to power by NATO – were decisively rejected in the parliamentary elections. The newly elected parliament then began to reverse a series of persecutory laws that had been passed (literally at gunpoint) over the previous years. The defeated parties, however, seized Tripoli by force, resulting in a de facto partition of the country between the militias’ government in Tripoli and the government appointed by the elected parliament now based in Tobruk. The country looked set for a long drawn out civil war, or at best a long term stalemate and partition. However, the intervention of Egypt on the side of the Tobruk parliament from February this year has massively changed the equation, worrying the Tripoli government and its supporters that they could be decisively beaten.

The prospect of a total military defeat is a worrying one for Britain and the US’ strategic planners. Such a defeat could lay the basis for Libya’s eventual return to stability, which would in turn cut off a key source of training and weapons to death squads across the whole region, including Boko Haram and AQIM. This would in turn allow the region to develop more independently, develop its economies outside of Western influence, and free itself from a reliance on the West’s security and military services for protection.

The West and its allies certainly have form in protecting their death squads from defeat. The Libya war itself was of course triggered by the imminent defeat of the insurgents, who had been routed from the entire country except Benghazi, and were on the verge of being defeated there too until given a new lease of life by NATO. In Syria, as large numbers of FSA soldiers began to defect to the government or simply go awol in the face of a government pushback in 2012, the Saudis flooded them with money to pay soldiers, effectively turning the FSA into a mercenary army. Then last year, when the momentum lay with the Syrian government following the insurgents’ surrender of Homs, the US began weapons drops to the various anti-government forces under the guise of the ‘war against ISIS’ – despite the fact that they were aiding ISIS’s anti-government allies and even dropping weapons to ISIS themselves. In Ukraine, the West’s coup-installed government were seemingly on the verge of abandoning their war against the East of the country following a series of disastrous military failures last April until emergency visits by Joe Biden and John Brennan resulted in the renewal of the war effort, this time relying on neo-nazi brigades as auxiliary forces, now being trained by US, Canadian and British forces. And most recently, in Yemen, when the Houthis began their rout of Al Qaeda, the Saudis began an aerial assault on their positions, allowing AQAP to regroup.

And so to Libya where, once again, the West must find a way to prop up their death squads before they are smashed completely. This attempt has followed something of a ‘twin-track’ approach: firstly, attempts have been made through the UN to conduct peace talks that would patch together a deal that would bring the death squads back into the official government. These, however, have fallen flat, largely due to the intransigence of the militias themselves.

So instead, Britain urgently needs to ensure adequate support is provided to the death squads via the insertion of special forces who could provide training as well as acting as a conduit for weapons and fighters.

One obvious pretext would be to intervene as part of the phoney ‘war against ISIS’ – but the Tobruk parliament has completely ruled this out. The other major pretext of recent years, then, is the need to respond to a ‘humanitarian emergency’. Time and again, this has been proven a most effective way to railroad public opinion and the UN into supporting military action. So a humanitarian emergency is exactly what has been created.

It is particularly revealing that, within the UK Cabinet, it has been Home Secretary Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond who have been the most determined that the EU should not restart search and rescue operations. These two positions are Cabinet representatives of the British intelligence services and the Foreign Office, the institutions which control long term British strategy.

The call to military action must be resisted. With Hammond and May successful, and search and rescue operations blocked, their policy of drowning migrants is set to continue, with each new crisis being used as a pretext for the further insertion of military forces in Libya and beyond. Instead we must work to ensure that search and rescue is restarted, but most importantly that the West’s death squad policy is exposed and smashed, and its victims fully compensated – starting with the accommodation of refugees, but ultimately extending to full reparations.