Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on Maintenance of international peace and security: Security challenges in the Mediterranean

Ambassador Michele J. Sison
U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
November 17, 2017


Thank you, Mr. President, Minister Alfano, for chairing this important discussion. And thank you also to the Secretary-General Guterres for his briefing this afternoon. Several have already spoken about many of the specific challenges countries around the Mediterranean face.

Terrorism, illicit smuggling, migration, and development are all urgent issues that deserve our full attention. But let’s step back for a moment. When we look at the Mediterranean, we can see that many of these challenges stem from conflicts in two places: Syria and Libya. Both of these were conflicts that began when ordinary people demanded respect for their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Attempts by the Assad and Qadhafi regimes to suppress these demands by force created so much of the instability that we now grapple with today. The lesson is simple. In fact, the question of security in the Mediterranean is really a question of human dignity. When we support respect for human dignity and the rule of law, we can achieve lasting stability. But ignoring these demands for human rights can sow the seeds of future conflict.

In Syria, Assad’s brutality gave ISIS and Al-Qa’ida a window of opportunity. As the Assad regime rounded up, tortured, and executed thousands of people, ISIS and Al-Qa’ida’s violent ideology gained new traction. As the Assad regime literally starved its people and bombed hospitals and schools, the migration exodus began. As long as the Assad regime remains in power, the potential for instability and extremism will remain.

And in Libya, decades of misrule by Qadhafi left the country with extremely weak institutions. When the revolution came, those institutions crumbled. Libya became a place where ISIS was able to set up an outpost. And Libya became a place where illegal activity – like the smuggling of people and arms – could thrive as well. As with Syria, the Libyan people continue to pay a steep price. It is now time for all Libyans to support and engage constructively in the UN-facilitated political process to achieve national reconciliation, end the conflict, and build unified national governance and security institutions.

Today, we are facing the consequences of these decades of tyranny. Oppression at home in Syria and Libya created international threats to peace and security. So the answer to security challenges in the Mediterranean must not be a misguided attempt to re-create failed political structures of the past. Instead, we have to do better. All of us on this Council have to work, in word and in deed, to support something different.

We need political solutions to conflicts in Libya and Syria that empower people and that create strong representative institutions over the long run. That goal has to be what guides us in responding to the immediate challenges of the present. Of course, there is no shortage of immediate threats to confront. None is more pressing than defeating ISIS and Al-Qa’ida. The United States continues to lead with important successes against ISIS in Syria. But we have to stay vigilant. Fighters on the run in Syria threaten to slip across borders as they try to return home or go to third countries. All Member States will need to increase their defenses against foreign terrorist fighters, in line with the terms of this Council’s Resolution 2178.

And in Libya, we partnered with the Libyan Government of National Accord and its aligned forces as they expelled ISIS from Sirte, once ISIS’s principal stronghold outside Iraq and Syria. Yesterday, we heard from UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé on his mediation efforts. The international community must help Special Representative Salamé and the Libyan parties advance the country’s political process, which is the only viable way to stabilize Libya and unify national security forces against the real threat: ISIS. Armed civil conflict among Libyans will only destabilize the country and play into ISIS’s hands.

Of course, civilians face dire risks every day from the fighting in Syria and Libya too. Just this week, airstrikes in Syria reportedly killed more than 50 civilians in a market in northern Syria. It was the latest in the regime’s long track record of flagrantly disregarding the lives and the welfare of the Syrian people. The Assad regime’s barbaric acts continue playing right into the hands of terrorist groups and undermine the stability across the region.

In Libya, too, we see new risks for civilians. Just a few weeks ago, more than a dozen people were killed and many more injured in an airstrike in Derna. The city’s people desperately need immediate and unhindered humanitarian access. Last month, 36 bodies were found in a mass grave not far from Benghazi. The United States strongly condemns these incidents. As Special Representative Salamé said yesterday, there are also concerns that a number of the fighters who died in the Warshafana area of western Libya last week were killed in a manner which violates international law. Those responsible now need to be held accountable to prevent these kinds of atrocities from happening in the future. And all sides must avoid further escalation.

Finally, the United States agrees with many others on this Council about the need to combat trafficking in persons and illicit smuggling. Transnational criminal organizations are responsible for so much of this illegal activity, and they are preying on the defenseless. We continue to hear sickening reports from victims inside Libya, including migrants who are raped, sold into prostitution, or subjected to forced labor. It is no surprise that these same criminal gangs have no concern for the lives of migrants at sea, where more than 2,900 people have died this year alone in the Mediterranean.

We recognize the important work of the EU’s Operation Sophia, commanded by Italy, in combating smuggling and rescuing thousands of lives at sea. But the criminals are branching out, including through the illegal smuggling of Libyan oil and petroleum products. That’s why it was important for the Council to designate for sanctions two ships involved in the illegal petroleum trade earlier this year. We need to use all the tools we have to disrupt these criminal networks.

But all of us need to remember where so many of these challenges began. They began with regimes that did not respect the dignity and the rights of their people. So stability in the Mediterranean is not just about addressing all of the short-term challenges around us. It’s about learning from the recent past. It’s about investing in real institutions that protect people’s rights. It’s about speaking up as the Security Council when we see governments moving in the wrong direction. It’s remembering that when people are oppressed, the consequences go far beyond the borders of any one country. And that is what we must act on.

Thank you, Mr. President.