What the recent Libya listings tell us about the use of UN sanctions against transnational crime.

In June 2018, the UN Security Council Committee decided to add six individuals in Libya to its sanctions list, imposing on them a travel ban and asset freezes. Although this was not an exceptional move as such, the reason for their listing made it an unprecedented one. It was the first time that anyone had been placed on a sanctions list for playing a leading role in human trafficking and smuggling. Since the path of criminal prosecution was unlikely to lead to tangible results any time soon, the Netherlands – as a non-permanent member of the Security Council – took the initiative to list the four Libyan and two Eritrean nationals.  On November 5th, a new Council resolution expanded the criteria for imposing sanctions under the Libya regime to acts involving sexual and gender-based violence.

Providing the grounds for Security Council action

Naturally, the Security Council will only take up an issue that has a link to matters of peace and security, but this link may not always be obvious for transnational crime that occurs in a conflict area. In the case of Libya, however, the entanglement of human trafficking and smuggling in the political economy of conflict was apparent despite the two distinct legal phenomena being difficult to differentiate in this context. It may well be that the overlap between the trafficking and smuggling of migrants made the UN’s response more likely, and the narrative summaries of the June Libya listings refer to both.

Another factor influencing whether or not an issue of transnational crime comes up on the Security Council agenda is the severity of the damage caused by the crime. Sometimes, the impact may largely concern the amount of illicit funds generated for an armed group or the group’s access to specific goods (especially arms). In Libya it was not only the involvement of militias in the smuggling industry, but also the exploitation and abuses of migrants and refugees, for example in detention camps, that contributed to the increase in attention.

And yet the Security Council had started to look more closely at the impact of human trafficking in conflict back in December 2015. It was the kidnapping of women and children, and the trafficking of members of the minority Yazidi community by Islamic State in 2014 that served as a catalyst for the first thematic debate on human trafficking in conflict areas. Therefore, when these Libyan sanction cases came to the fore, the issue had already been on the agenda for a few years, with thematic resolutions having been passed in 2016 and 2017.  Still, it may have been the CNN coverage on alleged slave markets inside Libya and the resulting public outrage that put pressure on the UN to act. To some extent, the reaction to the media reports widened international attention and helped to redirect the focus from the effect of migration flows on European countries to the plight of the migrants themselves.

Why UN sanctions?

It is debatable whether the above-mentioned aspects are exhaustive, but they certainly did not yet constitute sufficient grounds for sanctions to be imposed. Three factors set the conditions for that to happen in June. First, a UN sanctions regime concerning Libya had already been established in 2011. The fact that there are only 14 UN sanctions regimes right now – some of which are rather dormant – means that this form of response has clear limitations. Although establishing new regimes is an option, it is a lengthy and uncertain one.

Second, a look at the listing criteria of the Libya sanctions regime reveals that human rights and the protection of civilians are more prominent concerns than they are for many other regimes that attempt to address armed conflict. Despite the fact that the initial resolution referred to serious human-rights abuses against citizens in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, the regime has been adapted over time and broadened the focus of its designation criteria. The list of criteria now also includes potential measures against those described as ‘providing support for armed groups or criminal networks through the illicit exploitation of crude oil or any other natural resources in Libya’.

Third, there was a growing sense among some UN member states that a response to the prevailing impunity in Libya was needed in order to reveal the key figures behind the exploitation and abuses. Or at least it was thought that the UN should send a kind of warning signal to them and others involved, as the path of criminal prosecution outside of Libya was proving to be a very limited one. Yet, information from investigations and legal proceedings in some European countries apparently helped in making the case for the specific listings in June. Clearly, reference to trafficking as a prime reason for the listing of individuals for the first time ever in the UN context cannot be understood without the evidence gathered by both the criminal prosecution and the UN Panel of Experts for Libya. Consent on the part of the internationally recognized government of Libya may have also helped to convince the more hesitant member states on the sanctions committee.

Are sanctions relevant in tackling transnational crime?

A complex set of considerations by member states on the UN Security Council may have finally led to the adoption of the sanctions in June. If one takes only the factors mentioned previously into consideration, it would seem as though this case may remain an exception. However, UN sanctions are relevant to tackling transnational crime beyond the listing of key figures. There has been increasing reference to transnational (organized) crime in UN sanctions regimes, such as appears in the designation criteria of the Mali regime established in 2017. Reference to trafficking and criminal business has also been used to strengthen the cause of individual cases without being the prime reason, as was shown by the listing of a Libyan individual in September 2018 for, among other things, attempting to illegally export oil. That listing also points to the importance of looking at the illicit exploitation of and trade in natural resources that UN sanction regimes have frequently addressed. Bans on certain resources, like that on charcoal in Somalia, can at least have the effect of reducing armed groups’ revenue streams.

Despite their advantages, UN sanctions should not be seen as replacing other actions. The June listing will not resolve the plight of migrants in Libya nor will it deprive militias of all illicit sources of income. Sanctions will simply not work as the prime instrument for tackling transnational crime, and, when they are applied, it should be done with an eye on their possible side effects and with due consideration for other parts of the chain of illicit flows. But, if adequately designed, implemented and coordinated, they can make a useful contribution in responding to transnational crime in insecure environments.