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The Disturbing Rise of Maritime Robbery off Libya

The Disturbing Rise of Maritime Robbery off Libya
  • PublishedDecember 27, 2021
robbery cases, off the coast of Libya.
Libya map

From 2016, the rise of maritime robbery cases observed off the coast of Libya, more precisely in the province of Derna is disturbing the freedom of navigation in Mediterranean sea.

A brief history about Freedom of navigation

Yore, freedom of navigation was a dream, then a concept, born in the 17th century. Once the Eighty Years’ War has ended, Spain claimed a new concept of “freedom of the high seas” over the strong Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. From this negotiation was born a slogan which was registered in a bilateral trade treaty: “free ship, free goods”. This principle attracted a lot, and it was even admitted that the use of force was legitimate to apply this new concept (English Treaty of Westminster in 1674).

Nowadays, it is not a concept anymore. It is a law. International laws can sometimes be complex, but this one seems to be a consensus that cannot be criticized. On freedom of navigation depends the stability of international trade. It is now inscribed in the article 87 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) : “The high seas are open to all States, whether coastal or land-locked”, and the convention quotes “freedom of navigation” as the first of several rights for all states on the high seas.

The rising threat of maritime crime in Libya

However, there are plenty of examples where militias, clans or tribes of coastal nations seek to disturb this rule of law. In the Mediterranean, for 10 years, everyone has been following the Libyan conflict with interest since the fall of Gaddafi, but few would have imagined that the civil war and the economic crisis would generate a new zone of insecurity at sea, threatening ships.

And yet, since 2016, a danger zone has been promulgated off the city of Derna (Cyrenaic region) by Libya in an area declared as NAVAREA 225/16. More precisely, this NAVAREA seems to have been promulgated unilaterally by the “LNA Sousse Marine Combat Company”, a militia affiliated with the Eastern camp of the “Tobruk” government. This no sail zone has been officially edited to warn mariners of the dangerous nature of this maritime zone. It courteously asks merchant ships to repeat, repeatedly, every day at noon information, in particular the route, the destination, the cargo transported and the name of the owner. In 5 years, dozens of cases of robbery, diversion, and ransom demands have been reported in the area, mostly within 20Nq of the coast.

Pirates are moving further and further from the Derna coast

But since January 2021, it seems that the modus operandi of the militia has evolved. The brigands are pushing the hunt up to 25 to 30 nautical miles from the coast, thus dangerously brushing the very busy navigation rail that runs from the Strait of Messina to the Suez Canal. A European warship has recently observed a flagrant deli of attempted diversion of a merchant vessel. Called on VHF by the militia, and threatened to be bombed or come under fire from warring fighter aircraft planes, the ship first complied and turned south, ready to run into the lion’s den. Nevertheless, the ship understood the deception on time, and cancelled her maneuver.

In the past 3 months, 6 ships have been robbed in by the militia, losing precious time and money. Recently, it was a German merchant ship that bore the brunt of this robbery. She had to pay a ransom of roughly 50 000 $ to be allowed to resume her journey, much to the relied of a traumatized crew.

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