Paving the way towards peace in the East Mediterranean


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Hala Bugaighis
Hala Bugaighis

Co-Founder of Jusoor and 2017 MENA Young Leader

Considered the cradle of many global civilisations, the Mediterranean region has undoubtedly contributed to human development. It has played a significant role in communications between peoples and established exchanges at the cultural level. The Mediterranean was once the nexus of the world and an international economic centre, where maritime navigation contributed to the development of trade routes and the emergence of city-states. The Mediterranean is also a source of natural resources, rich in fossil fuels and mineral wealth.

Just as the Mediterranean basin was a centre of global trade and a beacon of civilisation, it was the scene of many conflicts and wars between major powers seeking to extend their influence and control its regional passages and waters.

Today, the Mediterranean is witnessing many overlapping challenges, as a result of competition between international powers over energy sources. Already a storehouse for offshore and onshore oil wells and fields, given the presence of large quantities of oil, a recent report by Deloitte estimates natural gas reserves at 122tn cubic feet.

The conflict between Syria and Libya […] is one of the hotspots in the region

Conflicts in the Mediterranean have accelerated following the entry of new players into the region, such as China, which considers the region as one of the most critical steps in the Chinese international expansion strategy initiative known as the Belt and Road initiative. The Mediterranean has also seen the Russians’ return; Syria was the gateway to Russian penetration into the eastern Mediterranean through support for the Assad regime, which has strengthened its military presence in the region.

In its east, the historical conflict between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus – at the levels of politics, economy and influence – continues to maintain tensions in the region, especially over competition for oil and gas reserves. And the conflict between Syria and Libya, fuelled by global tensions, is one of the hotspots in the region where regional and international dimensions meet.

Where does Libya stand? Libya has a unique geographical location and significant natural wealth. However, this blessing also comes alongside many disputes with its neighbouring countries. In 1981, Libya entered into a legal dispute with Tunisia over the continental shelf, despite all mediation efforts. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) decided that the disputed territory was Libyan territory. Similarly, another dispute erupted between Libya and Malta in 1980. As a result of the aggressive Libyan stance, Malta retracted the idea of ​​exploration and sought the recourse of international law to determine the delimitation of the continental shelf, which the ICJ announced in Libya’s favour the following year.

Challenging the legitimacy of the Turkish-Libyan treaty will only contribute to increasing instability in Libya and the region

Since 2011, Libya has entered a political vacuum that has resulted in chaos at all levels. In 2014, two main armed conflicts started; the first started in Benghazi in May, known as Operation Dignity, and the second, Operation Libya Dawn, began in June as protests against election results. It was then that Libya was officially divided into east and west. After a long struggle, the United Nations managed to broker a peace deal between the rival parties and the Government of National Accord came into power.

However, the promised peace was not achieved and the following years witnessed political unrest, armed conflicts and economic crisis. As a result, a war led by the Libyan National Army broke out in Tripoli in 2019. The country foresaw major waves of displaced peoples and a dire economic situation when the Government of National Accord signed the maritime agreement with Turkey in exchange for military and security support.

International actors, mainly Greece and Egypt, refused to recognise the new arrangement and, in return, entered into an agreement of a similar nature. These events were not only diplomatic disputes, but they had a direct part in fanning the flames of the Libyan conflict. Thus, solving disputes between rival countries in the East Mediterranean will certainly contribute to settling internal conflicts between local actors.

Challenging the legitimacy of the Turkish-Libyan treaty will not end the dispute over the economic zone; it will only contribute to increasing instability in Libya and the region. Realistically, there are two alternatives to the current status quo: long-term negotiated peace or escalation into an all-out war.

All states are obliged to abide by international law and UN conventions

With the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, Europe cannot afford another armed conflict on the continent. Therefore, the European Union should work to avoid conflict escalation, and this can be achieved through two avenues.

Restoring peace in the region requires more concerted international efforts, not one-sided provocative actions. Therefore, all parties, including Libya, should work closely to resume diplomatic, multilateral talks to reach an agreement on the territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean.

All states are obliged to abide by international law and UN conventions, especially the principles of non-interference and respect for other countries’ sovereignty and territorial waters. Therefore, if the concerned countries fail to reach an agreement to regulate the maritime border between themselves, conflicts over the region’s economic zones should be resolved by the ICJ.

The region has a significant opportunity to restore its position as a centre of trade and innovation. The EU can play a role in restoring peace throughout the region by leading mediation efforts with all the disputing parties, including Libya. After all, the international community has an ethical commitment to act with great sensitivity when determining the fate of fragile states that are sinking into internal conflicts.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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