In Libyan Oil Shipment, Sanctions Prove Dumb

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"Speculation abounds in industry that finds ways around sanctions."

Reuters, Emma Farge

The deal was struck in early April. Two weeks after the U.N. Security Council vote that saved rebel-held Benghazi from near-certain defeat, Libya's ragtag rebels agreed to the first shipment of oil from the chunk of territory they held.

Bypassing the naval blockade and braving NATO bombs, the Liberian-flagged Equator sailed into the eastern port of Marsa el Hariga in the first week of April. Oil traders believed it would unload in China.

It never made it. Since refueling in Singapore on April 28, the Equator has sat anchored off the archipelago. AIS live ship tracking data, based on satellite signals sent from the vessel, shows its massive iron hull immersed in 15 meters draft of water (indicating it was still carrying cargo on May 10.

The Equator's final destination is now unclear) and the subject of much speculation among traders and shipbrokers in an industry with a long history of finding ways around sanctions. What does seem likely is that the tanker's expensive cargo has been caught in a legal and political limbo created by international sanctions on Libya. Western governments seem happy for the rebels to sell their oil, and a few western companies may even be ready to buy it and ship it out. But the sanctions, which never anticipated the emergence of two Libyas, make that a dangerous gamble.

Put simply, when Libya split in two, it created a contradiction between the West's political aims and its legal tools used to achieve them.

"These are policy instruments designed by committee, said Thomas Biersteker, professor of international security and conflict studies at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, who is an expert on UN sanctions. "The outcome is that they are sometimes irrational in design because each one is the product of a political compromise."

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