RE: ITALY'S FACILITATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN LIBYA AND THE COLONIAL PAST BY AARON ROBERTSON, PUBLISHED MAY 1, 2018
On March 30, the Libyan coast guard and the ship Aquarius, operated by two international NGOs, received an alert from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center of Rome (MRCC). A rubber dinghy with nearly 120 people aboard had been spotted by a military plane in international waters near Libya.
Although Aquarius arrived at the scene first, MRCC instructed crew members from Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée to remain on standby and wait for the Libyans to oversee rescue operations. Water began filling a boat that carried pregnant women, young children, and their families. Only after negotiating with MRCC and the commander of the Libyan coast guard were the NGOs allowed to provide life jackets and assess the medical status of those on-board. Thirty-nine people were successfully evacuated onto Aquarius. The rest were taken back to Libya.
Italy’s reputation as a leader in maritime rescue coordination has not simply declined – it has done an about-face. Two weeks before the Aquarius incident, a Spanish NGO called Proactiva Open Arms saved 218 migrants almost 75 miles north of Libya and brought them to Sicily. As a result, Italy took the unprecedented action of impounding the rescue ship and investigating the charity for supporting illegal immigration. Recent standoffs between NGOs and the Libyan coast guard are a far-cry from just two summers ago, when the Italian Navy was proudly saving hundreds of migrants a day in the western Mediterranean.
A 2017 memorandum of understanding signed by Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Fayez al-Serraj, head of the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord, established a partnership on border security between the two countries. The memo was formally supported by the European Council in the Malta Declaration and coincided with the creation of Italy’s Africa Fund, a $216 million investment in infrastructure projects and border security operations throughout Africa.
This February, one year after the Italo-Libyan partnership was established, the EU border agency Frontex announced the start of Operation Themis. Previously, under Operation Triton, those rescued in the Mediterranean were required to be transported to Italy. Themis puts an end to that policy and stipulates that rescuees be taken to the nearest port in the EU. Italy often works closely with the Libyan coast guard in monitoring migrant flows, although the latter doesn’t operate under a central authority and has been linked to local militias and traffickers. As of last January, thousands of migrants were detained in Libyan “hotspots” where the UN and Amnesty International have reported instances of sexual violence, torture, forced labor, slavery, and other abuses.
The game of silence, avoidance, and deferment that the EU and Italy are playing make their position clear: human rights abuses are unfortunate side effects, the price one must pay for better migrant control and additional security at home and abroad. Italy’s official line on its collaboration with Libya willfully ignores the lack of institutional protection for asylum-seekers. By exporting border management practices to a country that is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which outlines the responsibility of states to protect refugees, Italy is acting in bad faith. More than that, its negligence recalls the colonial-era notion of italiani brava gente (“good Italians”), a claim that insists on the benevolence of Italians despite bad decisions made in Rome.
The Italian occupation of the Libyan territories lasted from the conquest of Ottoman Tripolitania (modern-day coastal Libya) in 1911 until the retreat of Italian troops from Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1943. Under Italy’s first Minister of Colonies Pietro Bertolini, early administrative policy in Italian Libya relied on collaboration with locals. State-supported tribal and village chiefs in coastal cities would receive stipends to help control the populations of the interior. The religious and political influence of powerful independent actors, particularly the future Libyan king Idris al-Sanusi, was used to limit the power of anti-Italian resistance groups, promote Italian enterprises, and build infrastructure for incoming settlers from southern Italy.
The Italian Empire wasn’t compelled by the same concerns as the modern nation-state. However, the logic of appeasement, resource provision, and retreat has been Italy’s seemingly innocuous way of exercising influence in Libya for more than a century. In 1918, Italy hoped this strategy would enable Italians to colonize Libya. One hundred years later, the country is hoping these tactics will keep certain people away from the peninsula.
From the beginning of his reign in 1969 until a few years before his death in 2011, Libyan politician Muammar Gaddafi’s rhetoric about Italy often evoked memories of the occupation. Though Gaddafi repeatedly condemned Italian colonial war crimes and often made unrealistic reparation demands, economic and security considerations kept Italy and Libya in a close, if frequently strained, relationship.
Italy’s first formal acknowledgement of the suffering it caused during the colonial period came in the Joint Communication of 1998, which also established the Italian-Libyan Joint Company for the promotion of investments in Libya. The two countries signed an anti-terrorism pact in 1999 and, in 2002, a memo of intent promised bilateral information exchange on illegal migrant flows and related criminal organizations. Italy had been entertaining the idea of migrant and refugee holding centers as early as 2004, and by 2006 the country had funded the construction of four detention centers in Libya.
After a decade of mostly unfulfilled promises, then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi met with Gaddafi in Benghazi in 2008 to sign the Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation. More than any prior agreement, the Treaty of Friendship marked the end of lingering hostilities between Italy and Libya. The former agreed to pay $5 billion over 25 years through investments in Libyan infrastructure projects. The treaty called for many of the components described in the 2017 memo, including the provisions of security equipment to Libya, joint border patrol operations, and the repatriation of undocumented migrants to their countries of origin. Ironically, the same set of agreements that were intended to acknowledge and redress Italy’s 20th-century colonial crimes in Libya are the foundation for the country’s current security apparatus.
The Treaty on Friendship was annulled by the Libyan revolution and a 2012 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Italy had violated the principle of non-refoulement when it forced African migrants and asylum-seekers to return to Libya. Whether Italy will again be held accountable for internationally wrongful acts remains to be seen. Although human rights violations in Libya are a fact, the matter of legal responsibility is trickier to determine. Much of the debate among legal scholars centers on questions of intent and whether the EU and member states like Italy can be said to have knowingly assisted in the perpetration of migrant abuse. Uncomfortable questions need to be answered, including how responsible actors are determined in the first place.
Italian politicians and citizens cannot afford to maintain an uncritical distance from the country’s harmful decisions, as so many people did for decades after WWII. For the sake of an untold number of lives, Italy must assume additional oversight to ensure that asylum-seekers are given legitimate opportunities to seek refuge and that migrants detained on the Libyan coast are treated with dignity. Out of sight should no longer mean out of mind.