An Unprecedented Failure? UN Sanctions Against Human Traffickers in Libya

Little respite: migrants abandoned by traffickers in the desert wait inside a military base after being located by Libyan and Sudanese forces. Image: Reuters / Alamy

This is the first article in a two-part series on the effectiveness of targeted sanctions in Libya and what this might portend for sanctions use in a rapidly changing world.

In October, Libya’s Government of National Unity issued a ‘letter of recognition and appreciation’ to Abd al-Rahman Milad – one of six individuals sanctioned by the UN in 2018 as leaders of human trafficking and people smuggling networks in what was previously hailed as a bold new precedent. This stark disparity between past expectation and current reality calls for reflection on the record of sanctions effectiveness in this area.

The modern UN sanctions regime in Libya casts a wide net. Originally set in motion in 2011 after the Qadhafi regime used force against popular uprisings, the UN Security Council approved a slate of sanctions measures. These were aimed at preventing atrocities and halting weapons flows, but the mandate has since expanded considerably to include topics such as the black-market sale of crude oil and fuel, inspections of vessels on the high seas and disruption to electoral processes. And while violations of human rights are sanctionable offenses, human trafficking and people smuggling as practices are not directly sanctionable under the UN mandate in Libya.

And yet, nowhere but Libya have human traffickers and migrant smugglers been designated by the UN – a measure mirrored unilaterally by other states. In a move widely acknowledged as a global first, in June 2018 the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on six leaders of human trafficking and people smuggling networks in the country. Described by the UN as ‘unprecedented sanctions’ and welcomed by anti-slavery bodies as a potential new precedent, this was the only time individual human traffickers and people smugglers had been placed on a UN sanctions list.

Four years on, consequences appear to have been limited. Of the four Libyan and two Eritrean nationals identified by the UN as top-level actors in transnational people smuggling and human trafficking operations, the two forced underground were non-Libyan, and the whereabouts of one Libyan are unknown based on publicly available information. The three other designated individuals, all Libyan nationals and associates, continue to live freely and openly. Their domestic leverage over Europe’s main concern in Libya – migration – has rendered the real impact of sanctions on their lives limited. Meanwhile, the absence of international attention on sanctioning those responsible for blatant weapons flows and domestic fuel smuggling reinforces the belief that UN sanctions are without teeth. Human rights abuses linked to human trafficking and people smuggling in Libya still occur widely, despite their elevation as an imminent concern.

Accountability for Human Rights Abuses

The impetus for sanctions use against human trafficking and people smuggling in 2018 lay in the simultaneous surge of migration through Libya as a transcontinental conduit to Europe and global outrage over CNN footage of migrants on auction at a modern-day slave market in Tripoli. UN Security Council investigations had long documented human trafficking and other grave human rights abuses in government-run facilities in the country, however. The Netherlands, then chair of the Libya sanctions committee, conducted its own investigations into six human traffickers and people smugglers who would later be approved unanimously for sanction. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the move, noting that ‘there must be accountability for exploitation and human rights abuses’.

What makes this outcome so unique? Firstly, human traffickers and people smugglers had never before been targeted by the UN for sanction anywhere, much less with such concerted focus. Notably, amid a complex illicit marketplace, the choice of individuals for designation reflected what many observers perceive as a deep preoccupation with migration via Libya to Europe. Secondly, the six were sanctioned for human rights and other violations, not specifically human trafficking and people smuggling. Here, the broad UN sanctions regime in Libya allows for any person or entity committing human rights violations or ‘threatening the peace, stability, and security of Libya’ to be a potential target of investigation. This flexibility also rendered such activities’ funding of conflict actors an avenue for sanction, even though resolution language specific to human trafficking was never directly applied as justification. And while Libyan law allows for the detention of migrants, potentially making this challenging for legal reasons, international support for truth-seeking on this matter is limited.

Entrenched corruption and lack of domestic will in Libya to support the sanctions measures contribute to the absence of any lasting effect locally

Despite the international focus on addressing atrocities committed through human trafficking and people smuggling, real consequences for the designated Libyan nationals have been few. All have been subject to travel bans and asset freezes, eliminating the perks of owning property, holding bank accounts and vacationing in nearby Europe. But these measures err in assuming that the Libyan and other governments will all align with and enforce the designations. Crucially, entrenched corruption and lack of domestic will in Libya to support the sanctions measures contribute to the absence of any lasting effect locally.

For example, in 2019 the UN-recognised government advanced the rank of sanctioned coastguard commander Abd al-Rahman Milad for his contribution to deterring attacks on Tripoli by rival forces. Ahmed Dabbashi and Mohammed Kachlaf – fellow designees and close associates – were also recorded as having participated in the conflict. In what appeared initially to be a positive step, in October 2020, Milad was detained by the Libyan interior ministry. The French Embassy in Libya hailed the arrest as ‘good news for combatting human trafficking’. Less than four months later, Milad was released over a reported ‘lack of evidence’, despite the high threshold recognised at the UN. The release was condemned internationally, with Amnesty International describing it as testimony to the ‘climate of blanket impunity’ around human trafficking and people smuggling in Libya.

The ease with which such ‘highly visible’ designees have evaded sanctions obviously casts doubt on their efficacy. As noted by the UN investigative panel, Milad’s promotion ‘despite an active arrest warrant … raises concerns about the resurgence and expansion of human and fuel smuggling networks on Libya’s western coast’. Most recently, in October, Milad was honoured by the Government of National Unity with a ‘letter of recognition and appreciation’. With Milad still subject to UN sanctions and described internationally as one of the world’s most wanted human traffickers, the failure of these sanctions to constrain their targets would also appear unprecedented.

Domestic Capacity to Enforce

Four years on from the imposition of sanctions, the situation thus remains far from offering the accountability demanded by the UN Secretary-General. As noted in the 2021 Panel of Experts report, ‘Libya remains a transit and destination country for migrants … [with] widespread occurrences of trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, torture, forced labour, sexual and gender-based violence and killing. Most networks previously identified by the Panel continue to operate’. At the heart of this failure is a deeply dysfunctional economic and political system, in which key criminal operators are also the government’s recognised law enforcers. This is a crucial issue beyond the Libya case, with previous RUSI research identifying effective organised crime-focused sanctions use as requiring strong law-enforcement cooperation, including carefully timed ground-level criminal investigative action.

In Libya, such cooperation has been conspicuously absent – the result of persistent instability and lack of domestic will. The rickety formation of the Government of National Unity in 2021 and multiple failed preceding governing coalitions have produced a fragmented institutional environment ill-suited to effective sanctions use. Economic complications – including a rampant parallel black-market and the division of the Libyan central bank into eastern and western branches – have undermined sanctions use further. Limited criminal intelligence and investigative capacity, threats to authority figures by powerful armed groups, weak legal mechanisms and corruption all play into this dynamic. Indeed, it is precisely the political embeddedness of criminal actors within internal security and law-enforcement logics that is foundational to understanding sanctions’ lack of impact in this case.

The Importance of International Consistency

Beyond these sanctions’ negligible impact on well-connected individuals, few effects across the wider illicit marketplace are visible. Here, it is likely that the absence of a ‘critical mass’ of listings across sanctionable offences has limited the disruptive or deterrent effect. More importantly, incoherent messaging and a lack of international interest in targeting violators of all established sanctions measures sends mixed signals about whether they should be taken seriously. The EU’s ongoing cooperation with questionable actors within the Libyan government to stem migration, and the blatant flouting of the arms embargo by powerful regional governments, are key examples.

It is clear that the kind of unity within the UN that leads to the unanimous approval of sanctions measures in conflict situations is a thing of the past in today’s multipolar world

As noted in Expert Panel reporting, ‘the arms embargo continues to be ineffective’ as certain countries continue to ‘violate it with impunity’ – the result of varied interests and shifting international politics. With such inconsistency of application, it is difficult to see how organised criminal actors in Libya would take sanctions measures seriously. Ironically, the scant political will to enforce stands in contrast to one of the very reasons these unprecedented sanctions were imposed in the first place – the high level of will in Europe to prevent northward migration through Libya.

This is not to say that UN sanctions against human traffickers – or other organised criminals – cannot be effective if used appropriately, consistently and coherently. In many ways, the reliance of organised criminal actors on both the legitimate and illegitimate sides of the economy makes them highly susceptible to the pressure potentially brought by targeted multilateral sanctions. However, their success is likely to be highly context-specific and dependent on a range of factors – notably, in this case, political will to implement.

All of this speaks to the importance of careful consideration in terms of targeting. Here, the political nature of organised crime-focused sanctions – and the (often murky) distinction between state and non-state actors – must be accounted for. Should a similar use of multilateral sanctions be contemplated elsewhere, lessons from the Libya experience must be considered by investigators and sanctions bodies alike. Specifically, Libya demonstrates that where conflict, chronic instability, corruption, the deep political embeddedness of domestic criminal actors and international inconsistency converge, sanctions will have little meaning.

Yet moving beyond this, it is clear that the kind of unity within the UN that leads to the unanimous approval of sanctions measures in conflict situations is a thing of the past in today’s multipolar world. Perhaps a more relevant question in this context is how UN sanctions – against human traffickers or across the board – will be meaningful in a fast-changing global environment where the powers issuing and enforcing them are at loggerheads in the pursuit of their own interests. It is to this question that the second article in this series will turn.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.

Related article

Libya as Prologue: The Uncertain Future of UN Sanctions in a Divided World
clock9 Minute Read
View onlinechevron-right


Cathy Haenlein

Director of Organised Crime and Policing Studies

Organised Crime and Policing

View profile

Amanda Kadlec

View profile


Explore our related content