On the 2nd of July 2019, the Tajoura detention camp for migrants outside of Tripoli was hit by a French missile, in a strike conducted by forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar. Although France has denied breaching the UN arms embargo, it has several reasons to provide military support to Haftar. This move could help Paris to gain leadership momentum in Europe while maintaining its strong economic interests in Africa.
In 2011, a NATO coalition guided by France intervened in Libya to end the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, causing post-war chaos in the country. The move was initially opposed by Italy, which had previously implemented treaties with its former colony to reduce the flow of migrants in the Mediterranean. The aftermath of the NATO operation – strongly desired by France – was political instability and the second Libyan civil war, which caused the formation of two governments, an internationally recognised government with headquarters in Tripoli, and an Eastern-based House of Representative guided by Khalifa Haftar.
Although France, along with the United Nations, recognizes the Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, behind the scenes France is supporting Haftar’s forces. The reason is the strategical geographical location of the Eastern government, also referred to as “Tobruk government”. By strengthening Haftar’s position, France aims at protecting border regions with the sub-Saharan African states (predominantly Niger and Chad), where it has large economic interests. France has maintained strong ties with its former African colonies, maintaining a sphere of influence, decisional power and the presence of a “franc zone”, with a currency – guaranteed by France – that was tied to the value of the French franc first, and later to the Euro.
Following the UN-mediated peace process for Libya, the UN established an arms embargo. Although France is officially supportive of this embargo, it has been proven that Haftar is in possession of French weapons. France has always denied this, until it became too evident to be buried in the sand.
On the 2nd of July 2019, the Tajoura Detention Camp for migrants outside Tripoli was hit by a missile that killed at least 30 migrants, who mostly originated from central Africa with hopes of reaching Europe through the Mediterranean. The UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has opened an investigation to determine whether the attack constitutes a war crime. The missile used in the strike was produced in France.
Interrogated by international media, the French defence ministry denied breaking the UN embargo and explained the presence of French weapons in Libya by claiming that French forces in the region lost the missile, which was possibly found and used by forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar.
A weak narrative.
There are two possible explanations for what has happened, which are by no means mutually exclusive. Either way, migrants – the weakest of all – pay the price of local and international geopolitical games in the region.
The first, Eastern narrative – “The human shield”: Haftar claimed migrants were hit by mistake, asserting that Tripoli is using migrants as a human shield to deter military actions from Tobruk. According to this narrative, Tripoli would be additionally keeping arms in facilities that are in close vicinity to detention centers, in order to deter Haftar from targeting these strategic depots. In this case, Haftar claims the center was previously a military base and an arms depot of the Libyan government.
The “premeditated plan”: Italy funnels money into Libya, with the aim to prevent migration by training the Libyan coast guard or by financing the formation of detention camps to stop – and potentially deter – migrants from attempting to reach its southern coasts. Further, Italy contributes to 27% of the EUTF, the European Fund for African States, of which a great part goes to Tripoli. France contributes only 2%.
Although Italy has a long-standing policy against immigration, the recent far-right coalition government guided by Giuseppe Conte and the vice-premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has strengthened its anti-immigration campaign, for instance by denying docking to NGO boats carrying migrants rescued in the Mediterranean. These moves have been met with strong condemnation by other European countries, and in particular by France. Macron has repeatedly expressed disapproval of Salvini’s anti-European, anti-immigration policies.
France wants a leadership position in Europe, challenging that of Germany. Macron has repeatedly made this public, proposing that France should lead a modern renaissance of a united Europe, with a solid economy, political compactness and a strong, unified army. Until a few weeks ago (the coalition government fell on the 20th of August), Rome constituted a major obstacle to the realisation of this project.
If torture and violence against migrants perpetrated in the Libyan detention camps were not enough for the international community to starkly condemn Italy for supporting their existence, an air strike that kills the migrants would most likely be met with stronger condemnation, perhaps causing a shift in Rome’s policies under the pressure of its historical allies, and not only France. A compact front of the major European and world powers would have possibly been enough for Italy to revise its strategies.
So what if the strike was simply premeditated? What if the French gave the tools, the logistics and the permission to Haftar’s forces to conduct the strike?
The bombing would reveal the horrors of the detention camps supported by Rome. The conscience of decisional figures in Paris would perhaps be eased by the justification that the sacrifice of the few is for the good of the many. Such an operation would further show the vulnerability of migrants because of the aforementioned large support of Italy to European funds for Libya and other African countries. This would help France to bring European partners to the discussion table to revise the EUTF, cutting off the Italian support to Tripoli.
Finally, this would aid Paris to help in maintaining a stronger position in Africa, better controlling the military operations against bands operating across border regions between Chad, Niger and Libya.
The recent fall of the Italian government may come as a surprise to many. In France, they may celebrate it as a victory, a further step towards the establishment of their plan of European and African political and economic hegemony.