How Should the United Nations Intervene in Libya’s African Migrant Crisis?

By Shanene Frederick
Associate Editor, Volume 23

image.pngIn recent months, increasing media attention has been devoted to the plight of African migrants leaving their home countries in the hopes of reaching Europe.[1] These migrants often give money saved up for the journey to smugglers in Libya, who put them in boats that sail across the Mediterranean, without regard for the migrants’ lives or well-being.[2] Often times, these migrants die during the trips and their bodies wash ashore.[3] As Libya has begun to tighten up security along its coast, reports of smugglers selling African migrants off into slavery have surfaced.[4] What action should be taken in order to help these people of color from death and/or exploitation?

One intuitive solution would be the involvement of the United Nations (UN), which is arguably the world’s most influential, powerful, and well-known international organization. The United Nations’ primary goals include maintaining international peace and security and achieving international cooperation in solving international problems.[5] The UN has a wide range of tools in its arsenal that may be used to meet those goals. For example, the UN Security Council has the power vested by the UN Charter to trigger a wide range of obligations binding on the countries of the world.[6] Take the various economic sanctions imposed on North Korea[7] for its testing of nuclear weapons for example, or the sanctions imposed on individuals suspected of supporting terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.[8] The UN has even engaged in quasi-colonialism, acting as the administrator of territories like East Timor[9] and Kosovo.[10]

The United Nations’ vast power and goals of securing international peace and security seem to suggest that UN interference into the African migrant crisis is not only warranted, but actually necessary to reach a resolution. However, perhaps we should critically examine the organization’s efficacy in past crisis intervention efforts in order to determine exactly what role the UN should play in helping African migrants in Libya. UN intervention into global crises has often led to issues in addition to the problems the organization resolved to fix. For example, the UN was held responsible for human rights violations during its governance period in Kosovo because the camps it stationed the refugees in were contaminated with lead, resulting in illness and death.[11] The UN’s peacekeeping troops from Nepal brought cholera into Haiti in the aftermath of the country’s 2010 earthquake, causing nearly 10,000 deaths.[12] There are reports of UN peacekeeping troops in countries stationed in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo who have sexually assaulted and impregnated local women, with the UN providing little assistance for the women and their children.[13]

So what is the role of the United Nations in helping the African migrants in Libya? So far, the UN has used publicity to denounce the European Union’s role in cooperating with Libya to stop the flow of African migrants.[14] But given the UN’s vast power, it could certainly do more. For example, the UN General Assembly could send a message to the international community by adopting a resolution that condemns the migrant crisis and slave trade, as well as strongly urges the Libyan government to use divert more resources to addressing the issue. The UN could also put more pressure onto its member states to raise adequate funding in order to send its own workers to Libya to protect migrants from smugglers. In addition, the UN could begin negotiations regarding migration between the migrants’ home countries, Libya, and European countries, such as Italy, in order to circumvent the use of such dangerous migration paths.

With the UN’s mixed record in global crisis intervention, a critical analysis of its possible intervention into the African migrant crisis is justified. If the UN is thoughtful about its approach, it is in a great position to positively direct the fate of African migrants.



[1] Why is Italy seeing a record number of migrants?, BBC News (Nov. 29, 2016),

[2] Nima Elbagir, Raja Razek, Alex Platt & Bryony Jones, People for sale: Where lives are auctioned for $400, CNN, (last visited Nov. 19, 2017).

[3] Migrant crisis: About 100 feared drowned after boat sinks off Libya, BBC News (Jan. 15, 2017),

[4] Elbagir, supra note 2.

[5] U.N. Charter, art. 1, para. 1, 4.

[6] U.N. Charter, art. 39.

[7] S.C.Res. 2371, U.N.Doc.S/RES/2371 (Aug. 5, 2017).

[8] S.C.Res. 1373, U.N.Doc.S/RES/1373 (Sep. 28, 2001).

[9] UNTAET Regulation No. 1999/1 (Nov. 27, 1999).

[10] UNMIK Regulation No. 1999/1 (July 25, 1999).

[11] N.M. and Others v. UNMIK (2016), Human Rights Advisory Panel, Case No. 26/08.

[12] Kristina Daugirdas & Julian Davis Mortenson, Contemporary Practice of the United States Relating to International Law, 108 Am. J. Int’l L. 784, 820 (2014).

[13] Krista Larson & Paisley Dodds, UN Peacekeepers: Congo leads world in sex abuse allegations, AP News (Sep. 22, 2017),

[14] UN denounces EU cooperation with Libya to stem migrant flow as ‘inhuman’, EURACTIV (Nov. 15, 2017),