In March 2011, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor of the international criminal court opened its investigation into the situation in Libya, following a referral by the UN Security Council. The investigation concerns crimes against humanity in Libya starting 15 February 2011, including the crimes against humanity of murder and persecution, allegedly committed by Libyan agents. As the ICC Prosecutor explained to the UN Security Council in her statement of 8 May 2017, the investigation also concerns “serious and widespread crimes against migrants attempting to transit through Libya.” Fatou Bensouda labels Libya as a “marketplace for the trafficking of human beings.” As she says, “thousands of vulnerable migrants, including women and children, are being held in detention centres across Libya in often inhumane condition.” The findings are corroborated by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNMSIL) and the Panel of Experts established pursuant to Resolution 1973 (2011). Both report on the atrocities to which migrants are subjected, not only by armed militias, smugglers and traffickers, but also by the new Libyan Coast Guard and the Department for Combatting Illegal Migration of the UN-backed Al Sarraj’s Government of National Accord – established with EU and Italian support.
These acts are not usually regarded as the bread and butter of international criminal law. Yet, for influential observers, they have seemed to reinstitute a modern form of slavery and to conjure images of mass arbitrary killings reminiscent of atrocity. For example, in a statement from November 22, 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron invoked slavery, explaining that trafficking in Libya has become a crime against humanity. For its part, the International Organisation for Migration, via its Missing Migrant project, has documented 46,000 cases of dead or missing worldwide since 2000.
During the whole time, however, various observers have pointed to the complicity of European countries with the relevant acts. Since 2011, Forensic Oceanography has been doing important investigative work in which the ethically fraught European involvement in preventing migration from Libya has been unfolded. Amnesty International has exposed a “dark web of collusion”, whereby EU states and Italy in particular have used Libyan militia to ensure migrants do not make it across the Mediterranean. Last December, John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, denounced European governments for:
“not just be[ing] fully aware of these abuses; by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these abuses.”
In perhaps the most recent evidence of such complicity, Italian authorities have seized the Spanish NGO rescue boat Open Arms and initiated a criminal investigation against members of its crew. The Open Arms, in response to a call from MRCC Rome of March 15, 2018, had rescued 218 people on the high seas and subsequently refused to deliver them to the (so-called) Libyan Coast Guard. After a row lasting several hours and including death threats, the vessel headed north for a medical evacuation in Malta, before requesting permission to disembark in Sicily. Despite Italy’s authorization, the captain and mission coordinator have been charged on counts of “criminal association” and “facilitation of irregular migration”. Italy claims they were obliged to hand over the survivors to Libya under its NGO Code of Conduct, disregarding that that would have amounted to refoulement. Italy thus flouted the requirement of delivery to a “place of safety” under the maritime conventions. It has become overwhelmingly clear that Libyan rescue operations in the Mediterranean are tantamount, as Charles Heller put it, to a plan of “rescue at gunpoint.”