The Malta Independent 25 May 2024, Saturday
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Neutrality should not stop Malta from condemning Russia’s actions – Foreign Affairs Minister

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 15 January 2023, 09:00 Last update: about 2 years ago

Malta’s neutrality should not stop the country from condemning Russia’s actions, Foreign Affairs Minister Ian Borg told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

Russia, he said, decided to invade Ukraine without any provocation when the world was emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic and the war has resulted in a humanitarian crisis.

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Minister Borg was speaking in an interview during which he was asked about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, migration and also about Malta's recent election to the UN Security Council.

Malta took up the Security Council seat earlier this month. 

The UN Security Council is one of the most important entities for keeping stability and peace, Borg said. 

“People might say 'but the world is full of wars and conflict’ and that is also true.”

The minister described sitting on the UN Security Council as a ‘privilege’, but also stressed that the countries on the Council have a major responsibility to ensure that international laws and treaties are observed.

“There are five permanent members and 10 that change. We were elected last June so that, from this month, we would sit on the Council for two years." Every month, one of the 15 countries takes over the Presidency, he said. "We will preside over it during the month of February and then again next year during the month of April.”

There are a number of challenges, he said, identifying the war in Ukraine as the main issue. "Nobody thought they would again see war in the heart of Europe."

There are also a number of committees that emerge from the Council, as well as resolutions, decisions that are taken on conflicts and other wars, he said. There is also the aspect of the environment and climate change. Malta will lead and preside over those meetings in February, he added.

A number of issues Malta will push forward during its time on the Security Council have been mentioned over the past weeks, which include the threat of climate change and the importance of literacy as a way of overcoming conflicts, among other things. 

He was asked what a country the size of Malta can really do and how it intends to achieve those aims. "Malta can do a lot. Firstly, Malta is not new to international fora. After achieving Independence, Malta took a very active role in the UN. Malta's government was the first to bring up the theme of climate change in the 60s. Eventually, the first Maltese Permanent Representative, Ambassador Arvid Pardo, came up with the concept that the sea and seabed are common heritage of mankind. From there, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was created," Borg said.

Former President Guido de Marco led the UN General Assembly for a year, Borg added.

Between 1983-1984, Malta sat on the Security Council for the first time, he said, making this Malta's second time in this position. The idea of Malta contesting the election to sit on the Security Council this year dates back to 2011 and 2012, he said, mentioning that the government, Opposition and diplomats were all pushing in the same direction.

Malta follows a number of principles, Borg explained. "We believe that wars are not a solution." But the minister also said: "If you are being attacked, you need to defend yourself, and that is why we appreciate that those who don't have restrictions and have the finances provide support to Ukraine, for it to defend itself."

  

“Ukraine is not attacking Russian territory; it is defending its territory. However, we believe that war will not lead to these two countries reaching a solution," he said.

“But without a doubt we condemn... and neutrality should not stop us from condemning Russia, as Russia decided to invade without any provocation or need for this war when the world was emerging from a pandemic,” Borg said. This resulted in a humanitarian crisis, "a crisis where people are losing their homes, their jobs, their quality of life, where refugees are escaping".

He called this principle “active neutrality”. “We are neutral, but neutrality doesn't mean that we close our eyes and ears and say 'do whatever you want'. Obviously it doesn't mean that our words will change the war or the world, but constructively we must continue giving our contribution so that a solution can be found around the table," the minister said.

Told that some might argue that Malta's neutrality should hold the country back from making such comments and that Malta has supported votes against Russia in the UN General Assembly on the war, he was asked whether he thinks it’s time to revisit the country's neutrality clause. "The fact is that neutrality is a part of our Constitution and there is general consensus that we should remain as such. But at the same time it gives us the flexibility to condemn what is wrong and contribute as we are doing in the case of Ukraine. This shows me that there isn't the need, as we have enough flexibility."

He said that not only is Malta welcoming refugees and condemning the war, but he had also invited Ukrainian President Zelenskyy to address Parliament in order to better inform MPs about what Ukraine is going through.

"We are also part of EU decisions and like us there are other neutral countries such as Ireland and Austria. Through those decisions we are contributing our part to the funds, but the money we provide doesn't go to the purchasing of weapons, but towards medicine or for accommodation," he said. 

With regards to sanctions, the minister explains that this is not a black or white issue. "There are some who argue that sanctions would hurt you more than the Russians.” He said that Malta, in the EU Council, always insists that decisions on sanctions should be taken through a studied approach, “by undertaking appropriate assessments (and seeing) what is working, what isn't and whether the Russian leadership is feeling the effects of these decisions. Are these sanctions making Russia think twice and withdraw from the invasion? If we don't reach that point, then we need to see what other measures are needed until the war stops and Ukraine takes back its sovereign territory.”

Asked whether he believes the sanctions to be effective, he said they are having an effect. "It is clear that since the war hasn't ended, the attacker still has the resources to continue, notwithstanding all the sanctions."

But, he said they must see to it that they are effective.

"We are also requesting a level playing field in the maritime sector." He said that it is not acceptable to have the possibility of using other flags, removing ships from the Maltese registry to place them under other national flags of countries that are meant to share Malta’s principles and are meant to stand with Malta in issuing sanctions. He thanked countries that are helping Malta on this issue.

Asked whether he believes more sanctions in different fields are needed, he said that the EU is now on the ninth package of sanctions. "I will continue to convey the EU's message, that we need to do all that is needed until the war stops.”

He said that Malta is feeling the impacts of the war, highlighting the funds the Finance Minister is allocating in order for energy bills not to rise. “If other countries are not providing as much support to their people, and their people are in a financial crisis, they will not board a plane and travel to Malta, they will not do business in Malta. This is a single chain and it is crucial for this war to end." 

The interview with the minister was conducted on Wednesday morning, just before an article by Reuters broke reporting that Greece and Malta lag behind their European Union peers in freezing Russian assets sanctioned over Moscow's war against Ukraine, citing an EU official and an internal document. 

Responding to questions via email about this issue, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said: “Contrary to the impression given by the Reuters report, Malta has been, since February 2022, working assiduously to identify assets belonging to listed individuals and entities under the EU Russia sanctions regime. As a result a number of assets were found within the Maltese jurisdiction, namely €222,470 as well as millions that are currently located abroad. Both the public and the private sectors have been very thorough in their search for assets of listed individuals or entities and this exercise remains an ongoing one. Malta has also been proactively assisting other member states in identifying problematic assets. It is also worth noting that a number of assets belonging to listed individuals or entities (example registered in Malta but physically elsewhere) have been seized and frozen by other EU member states, through mutual cooperation.”

"Furthermore, there have been a number of court judgments pronounced by European Courts which related to assets registered in Malta and belonging to Maltese companies whose Ultimate Beneficial Owner is listed which were sold, and the proceeds of such assets have been also frozen in bank accounts outside of Malta but within the European Union." The ministry said that a lot of work has been invested by Malta in support of the common European efforts.

The ministry also said that recent data shows a significant decrease in trade between Malta and Russia, "which attests to Malta’s commitment to implement EU decisions”.

 

Malta’s ties to Libya

In the interview, Minister Borg was asked about Malta's close ties with Libya and the two countries’ cooperation on the issue of migration. It was highlighted to him that a number of international NGOs and others (like the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner) had said that Libya isn't a safe country for migrants. 

"I don't think our position is far from whoever says that there are non-safe aspects about Libya. But let's speak about facts. The capital closest to us, geographically, is Tripoli, more so than Rome. We were born here, in Malta. We are close to Libya and one tries to have the best relationship with their neighbours."

He said the government does well to continue strengthening its relationship with whoever could contribute for Libya to be stable. “There is no political stability in Libya. In fact there is a transitional government. But is it wise to create another transitional government? (…) We need to push this current government that was trusted by the international community to go for an election that was meant to have been held over a year ago. That is what we are insisting, but in the meantime we cannot not cooperate."

Asked whether Malta should be cooperating with Libya on migration if he himself has questioned the safety of the region, he said: "But what can you do? If the AFM, if the Home Affairs Ministry don't work with their counterparts in Libya, with whom should they work? We are not suggesting that another government comes in and leads Libya. We want the Libyans to agree on a Constitution, agree on the political project they want to move forward on, and after doing so, head for an election."

He said that the problem in Libya is that it is an enormous country and has a wealth of resources and so there are countries and businesses that have an interest in what happens in Libya. "The Libyans respect us not only because we are their neighbours, but because they know we are not the type to tell them what to do (...) We do not interfere in their democratic process, who they give contracts for oil or construction to.”

He said that Malta is working with the UN Secretary General and also with the UN Special Representative of Libya Abdoulaye Bathily to encourage the Libyans to hold an election.

Asked about Malta's current relations with Italy on the issue of migration, the minister said that as soon as Antonio Tajani was appointed Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, “I had asked to be one of the first ministers to meet with him in Rome. I had worked with Tajani when I was responsible for Malta's EU Presidency as he was the EU Parliament President at the time," he said, mentioning that they would have opportunities to meet during social occasions while he would be in Strasbourg and also sign laws together.
"He had his own thoughts about Malta. Today he appreciates the changes we made. I have a very good relationship with him," Borg said, mentioning that the two foreign affairs ministries as well as the two home affairs ministries work well together.

"The challenges the Italians face are the same as ours."

He said that Malta and Italy are on the same page on three points. First that Malta and Italy cannot be left to deal with this issue alone. Secondly that more investment in Libya, in order to make the country more secure, is needed, and thirdly that other countries need to help carry the burden of migration.

“Since the Meloni government, since there was Tajani, since there was the new Home Affairs Minister, we are working very well so that we could even bring our EU friends to cooperate."

Asked about EU solidarity, the minister said not everyone is the same. "Germany and France lead by example. Others commit to taking migrants, but due to relocation not being obligatory, there is not always the commitment."

He said that he told a German minister who was in Malta that while Germany is ready to help, others say they are but don't, so Europe isn't showing enough solidarity when it comes to irregular migration, he said. “A perfect example of solidarity," he said, was on the issue of Covid and on Ukraine.

 

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