In support of groups involved in the war in Libya, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) deployed part of its Mirage 2000-9 fighter fleet from the French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation. The fleet is suspected of bombing civilians and committing war crimes. These are warplanes that are not only from France, but are still being serviced and modernized by French companies – raising questions about compliance with international rules.
Toothless arms embargo
The French online platform “mediapart” together with “Arte”, “ARD Stern Magazin” and the non-profit media company “Lighthouse Reports” from the Netherlands investigated which services French companies provide to foreign armies involved in conflicts, denounced by the international community and are the subject of UN Security Council resolutions.
The first part of the research concerns the involvement of Mirage 2000-9 warplanes in the war in Libya, for which the UN imposed an arms embargo on the basis of security council resolution 1970 in 2011. This arms embargo is being violated time and again, with only a few violations sanctioned so far.
The UAE’s Mirage fighter jets, which have been used in the war in Libya for several years, are stationed in Egypt. The Emirates have never concealed their support for the self-proclaimed “Marshall” Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army. Paris, too, has been helping him for several years, but in secret. The double play of France, which the government in Tripoli continues to recognize, is an open secret, writes “mediapart”. “We don’t work alone in Libya,” UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash told the Wall Street Journal in September 2020. “We work with the Egyptians, the French and other countries.”
Death by French military technology
What this cooperation looks like, for example, was demonstrated by an airstrike that the Egyptian Air Force flew on the Libyan villages of Derna and Houn in 2017 to support Khalifa Haftar’s forces. At that time, Rafale fighter jets were used, which had been sold by France to the Egyptian Air Force.
A airstrike on a migrant centre in Tajoura, which the Libyan government says killed 53 migrants in July 2019, is also said to have involved warplanes originally from France. In November 2019, the UN Committee of Experts on Libya said it was “very likely” that one of the Emirati Mirage fighter jets was behind the deadly airstrike, according to an investigation.
According to the UN panel of experts, this attack constitutes a violation of rules 14 and 15 of international humanitarian law.
The Mirage aircraft are also suspected of operating from Libyan soil. In its investigation into the Tajoura attack, the UN panel of experts wrote that it had “evidence” from a “reliable confidential source” that an “unknown number” of Mirage 2000-9 were using the Libyan bases of Al Khadim and Jufra as “operational bases” at the time of the attack.
French companies wait for warplanes as government washes hands in innocence
Although the Mirage fighter aircraft used in Tajoura were sold from France to the Emirates under contracts signed in the 1990s, the aircraft are still serviced by the French companies Dassault, Thales, MBDA, Novae and AAA.
This partnership is more topical than ever: just days before the UN report on the Tajoura airstrike was published, and at a time when some information about it had already been leaked to various media outlets, the United Arab Emirates and Dassault, Thales and MBDA Contracts signed the modernization of the Mirage 2000-9 emir at two years. French media estimate the contract value at around 784 million euros, making the Emirates the second largest arms export customer in France.
These maintenance and modernisation contracts had to be approved by the French Government. It was therefore informed, but does not consider the authorisations granted to be contrary to compliance with its international obligations. The French prime minister’s office told mediapart that the embargo only applies to arms supplies, training and aid to or from Libya. Similar activities for the benefit of other states (e.g. Egypt or the UAE) are not affected by the embargo. ‘Therefore, the contracts concluded between French companies and the united Arab Emirates armed forces do not fall within the scope of Resolution 1970.’
The French authorities also stated that the licences they had granted to the companies to carry out maintenance work on the Emirati warplanes would include a clear country-by-country contract. “Support operations for the Emirati M2000, in which French producers are involved, will be carried out exclusively in the United Arab Emirates.”
“The chain of responsibility leads to the French state”
But is this argument sufficient to relieve the French companies involved and the French Government of any responsibility or complicity in the bombing of civilians?
“You could say that repairing the landing gear of an aircraft that could also be used in Libya is not the same as selling a plane to Libya itself. But in reality, it is very difficult to draw a line between them,” Frédéric Mégret, a professor of international law at McGill University in Montreal, told mediapart. But from the moment the United Arab Emirates supported certain groups in Libya with the use of these weapons systems, the companies involved were obliged to exercise due diligence accordingly.
Frédéric Mégret believes that there is “a real chain of responsibility” that “leads from certain Libyan regions where the Mirage was stationed to the French state”. The aircraft manufacturer Dassault does not necessarily know everything and it is difficult to track the use of all weapons systems. ‘But we have to be careful, we have to be informed and not stick our heads in the sand. We have to follow the recurring cues," says Mégret.
Presence of The Mirage is documented
There is no longer only evidence that the Emirati Air Force, and hence the French-based aircraft, are taking part in the war in Libya. In 2019 and 2020, satellite images showed the Presence of the Mirage fighter at the Egyptian base of Sidi Barrani, which is only 80 kilometres from the Libyan border. In the pictures, the light grey camouflage painting of the Emirati Air Force can be clearly seen.
According to a BBC documentary, the UAE is making massive use of the convenient Egyptian base; an airlift was set up between Sidi Barrani and the Emirates. This presumption is confirmed by a confidential UN report submitted to the UN Security Council in August 2020 and cited by the Wall Street Journal. According to the document, the Emirates operated a total of 150 cargo flights between January and April 2020, and “many flights landed at the Egyptian air base Sidi Barrani.” “From there, vehicles and aircraft transported military equipment to Libya.”
Weapons manufacturers remain silent
In recent months, the European Union has imposed tough sanctions on companies and individuals suspected of not complying with the Libyan embargo. In France, it was only on 19 October that the Directorate-General of the Treasury recalled that the sanctions prohibit the provision of funds and economic resources.
“It seems inconceivable to me that France should, on the one hand, have a foreign policy and, on the other hand, a trade and military policy that contradicts each other,” Frédéric Mégret told mediapart. But: “We are close to a red line that may have already been crossed.” French companies engaged in the foreign arms trade are dependent on warnings and up-to-date information from the French government. There is also the possibility of sanctions if the government finds persistent violations that cannot be excused by a lack of knowledge.
And the arms companies that supply the United Arab Emirates with weapons systems? “Mediapart”, “Arte” and “Lighthouse Reports” have contacted them, but have not received a single response. According to mediapart, the silence of gun manufacturers “gives an idea of the opacity with which they maintain their relationships with this wealthy customer.”