(Brussels) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy should use his longstanding relationship with the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, to help protect protesters from unlawful attacks by Libyan security forces and militias, Human Rights Watch said today.
"The Italian government has been unconscionably slow to condemn the bloodshed in Libya," said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Whatever Italy's concerns about a potential influx of people from Libya, there's no excuse for speaking softly about protecting Libyan demonstrators and preventing further violence."
Berlusconi had reportedly waited until February 22, 2011, before calling Gaddafi, with whom he has a close relationship, to urge a halt to the violence that had started five days before. On February 19, Berlusconi had said he had not spoken to Gaddafi because he didn't want to "disturb" him. On February 21 he broke his silence on the situation in Libya, calling the violence "unacceptable."
The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said on several occasions that the European Union (EU) should not "interfere" or attempt to "export" democracy to Libya. His rhetoric improved on February 23, when he said, "There is nothing that can justify mass slaughter on the streets." About 1,000 Libyans have been killed, Frattini said.
"We hope that Italian Foreign Minister Frattini's stronger comments on Libya reflect Italy's intention to take concrete actions," Sunderland said. "Italy should be pressing for strong action by the EU and the UN."
Human Rights Watch urged Italy to support an immediate EU embargo on exporting arms and security equipment to Libya. It should also support targeted sanctions, including an asset freeze and travel ban, against senior Libyan officials and military commanders found responsible for grave human rights violations.
Italy and the EU should also support the call by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, for an international investigation into what she characterized as "widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population [that] may amount to crimes against humanity." The place and time to open such a UN investigation is at the UN Human Rights Council's special session in Geneva on February 25 to address the human rights crisis in Libya, Human Rights Watch said.
The Italian government is predicting that over 300,000 people, including migrants and asylum seekers from other countries, may soon travel from Libya to Italy and other parts of Europe.
Interior ministers from France, Spain, Greece, Malta, and Cyprus met on February 23 in Rome and called for a collective EU response in the event of a mass influx from North Africa. A meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels on February 24 is expected to address the same issue. Over 5,500 Tunisians have reached the Italian island of Lampedusa in the past month.
Italy has demanded that the EU share the burden of any influx of migrants and asylum seekers from Libya and other countries.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued an appeal to the EU, and specifically to Italy, on February 22 to refrain from intercepting and summarily sending back boat migrants seeking to reach European shores from Libya - a practice known as "pushbacks".
In 2009, Italy implemented a "pushback" policy with Libya - part of wider cooperation on migration control that included joint naval patrols - intercepting and sending back more than 600 people to Libya between May and August 2009 without any screening to identify those in need of international protection. Such "pushbacks" to Libya are illegal and would put lives at risk, Human Rights Watch said.
There have been unconfirmed reports of mob violence against migrants and asylum seekers in Libya over recent days, giving rise to the possibility that they might board boats to seek safety in Europe.
UNHCR has recognized 8,000 refugees in Libya, with at least 3,000 asylum seekers awaiting a decision from the UN refugee agency. Libya is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have an asylum procedure.
"The Italian government should prepare to screen boats arriving from Libya to guarantee protection for those who need it," Sunderland said. "Italy should spearhead a constructive EU response to this situation, rather than stoke fear."
Italy, the colonial occupier of Libya from 1911 to 1943, has extensive business relations with the country. Italy is Libya's biggest trading partner in the EU. The Italian oil giant ENI is the largest producer of oil and gas in Libya. Libya owns 7.6 percent of UniCredit SpA, Italy's largest bank.
In 2008, Italy pledged US$5 billion over 20 years in return for lucrative deals for Italian businesses, including ENI. Libya also promised to block illegal immigrants from traveling through Libya to Italy.
On February 22, ENI announced that it had suspended supplies through its Greenstream pipeline, which runs from Libya to Sicily, after interruptions on the Libyan side. The pipeline supplies 10 percent of Italy's natural gas.