Boat People:  The Security Council Considers Options for Safe Passage, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 May

On Monday May 11, the Security Council under the leadership of its current president Lithuania convened a briefing in chambers that managed to set a tone different from what some of us had feared prior to taking our seats.

Several Council members – including the UK and other members of both the SC and the European Union — had apparently been discussing a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, that would allow – in a manner still unspecified as of this writing – the boarding and/or destruction of vessels accused of smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean.

This resolution-in-waiting apparently has many measures still to be worked out, including the degree to which the ‘recognized’ government of Libya needs to be consulted, what protocols need to be established to guarantee that those boarding boats under whatever circumstances have their safety and security protected, etc.   It was also clear from conversations beyond the Council chamber that the European Union has been contemplating some type of ‘boarding policy’ with or without Council approval.

Certainly those working on security at UN headquarters understand both the challenge and responsibility of the large number of men, women and children who brave a long sea journey in substandard craft in an attempt to escape the grave humanitarian and security crises affecting Libya and at least some of its neighbors.  Italy has rightly won praise from the international community for its efforts to rescue damaged craft that have threatened even more mass casualties, but Italy is not the only destination for these overloaded boats. Moreover, concern has been expressed that ‘terror groups’ might well be profiting from what is deemed to be a lucrative trade focused on people who have some access to funds and feel that they have little choice if they are to protect their families from what seems to be endless violence in the post-Gaddafi era.  As more than one UN official has noted recently, no one would choose to subject their families to such a voyage if there were other, viable options to escape the misery and violence.

Behind this crisis is a robust, system-wide effort, led by the High Commissioners of Human Rights and Refugees, to highlight the plight of migrants and their humanitarian and human rights interests.   We have been to more UN events focused on migrants in the past two years than in the decade previously.  It is now widely recognized that migrants and internally displaced – on the move due to armed violence, water shortages, climate-related changes or other factors – represent a grave peace and security concern.  But more than that, such displaced persons – largely women and children – have humanitarian and human rights expectations that the international community is morally and legally bound to honor.  People don’t forfeit human rights protection simply because conditions force them on to boats to seek refuge elsewhere – this is true whether those boats are operated by smugglers in Libya or Carnival Cruise Lines.

Indeed, the Council briefing seemed to be an ample confirmation that the work of OHCHR and other key UN players to ‘institutionalize’ a growing concern for migrants has taken root.   The EU’s Frederica Mogherini, while soliciting support from the African Union and UN Security Council to “disrupt human trafficking networks,” took a careful and balanced tone in her remarks, noting the need to “do more to address root causes that push people to take dangerous risks.” She also called for a “unity government” in Libya, an aspiration which the Council has recently addressed on several occasions with full awareness of its high degree of difficulty.

Other briefers were a bit clearer than Ms. Mogherini in their articulation of the international community’s responsibility to protect the Libyan boat people.  For instance, SRSG Peter Sutherland –without citing the proposed resolution directly – called for “root solutions to root problems” that do not further isolate asylum seekers in poverty and violence.   He described trafficking allegations as largely a matter for law enforcement and urged the EU to work towards more “resettlement destinations,” “more visa options” for asylum seekers and, as noted, more law enforcement capacity in situations calling for such a response.

Mostly supporting this line of argument, the African Union’s Ambassador Tete António cited the many push factors – including armed violence, drug trafficking and chronic unemployment — that cause people to seek out the tiny spaces on these boats in the first place.  He also noted that much of the migration in North Africa is within region rather than outside of it, perhaps in part due to the high costs (as well as risks) of a sea voyage.  He urged the Council to embrace a larger picture of migrant needs and rights beyond the immediate and limited concern of boat trafficking in persons.

While none of the briefers took up the alleged value of a potential militarized operation in Libyan territorial waters nor the challenges and potential mis-steps of such operations in open waters, one came away from this briefing with a clear sense that numerous reservations existed both regarding militarized response and with regard to a single minded policy focus that cannot possibly, as Sutherland rightly noted, solve the migrant problem alone.

Perhaps this was the plan by current president Lithuania all along – create a briefing event that was much more about the rights and needs of previously neglected seafaring migrants than it was about stifling the economic benefits of their escape crafts’ recruiters and pilots. In either instance, the briefing seemed kinder and more humane than the controversial resolution that formed its backdrop.  Let us hope that the lives of often-desperate boat people are not put further at risk by ill-considered policy priorities designed principally to block income streams of alleged traffickers.

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