UN experts find evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya

On 4 October the UN Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Libya presented its first report to the Human Rights Council, alleging that war crimes and crimes against humanity have likely been committed in Libya since 2016. The report details that all parties to the conflict, including third state parties, foreign fighters, and mercenaries, have committed violations of International Humanitarian Law. The violations include murder, torture, extrajudicial killings, and rape.

Libya has been marred by recurrent conflict and atrocities since the 2011 overthrow of then-President Muammar Qaddafi. Despite a UN Security Council-mandated arms embargo, multiple states, including permanent members of the Council, provided arms to several parties to the conflict, which prolonged the fighting. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire of armed confrontations throughout the country since 2016, and in particular when fighting escalated during 2020 in Tripoli. The intensification of hostilities displaced over 270,000 people and left 900,000 in need of humanitarian assistance. Hundreds of bodies have been exhumed from mass graves around the city of Tarhuna, southeast of Tripoli. Attacks on healthcare and other civilian centers have also been prevalent. After years of setbacks, a unified government was established in March and presidential elections are scheduled for December.

The FFM’s findings were presented amidst an unprecedented crackdown by Libyan authorities and ongoing abuses against migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees, who are languishing in Libya’s infamous detention centers. On 1 October more than 5,000 migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees, including children and women, were arrested during a series of raids. The UN received reports of unarmed migrants being harassed in their homes, beaten, and shot. On 9 October guards at Al Mabani detention center opened fire on migrants attempting to escape inhumane and crowded conditions, killing six people. Al Mabani is currently hosting 4,000 detainees – four times its occupancy limit.

According to the FFM’s investigation, non-state actors – with the encouragement of government officials – committed widespread violations against migrants that may amount to crimes against humanity. The FFM detailed myriad abuses suffered by migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees, including rape and sexual violence, murder, torture, and enslavement. Such abuses have taken place in detention, with traffickers, or while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Sarah Hunter, Communications and Digital Media Officer at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that “in order to build on recent political progress, Libya’s leaders must end ongoing abuses against migrants, reconcile past atrocities and provide credible justice for victims and survivors. Libya’s justice system needs sustained international support for these efforts to succeed.”

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) is an independent organization that focuses on conducting research, analysis and advocacy in relation to mass atrocity.


Lunga Dweba – South Africa

It may be argued that the international community is operating in bad faith and taking a hypocritical posture. On March 12, 2011, the League of Arab States Council called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan military aviation, as well as the establishment of safe zones in areas subject to shelling, as a precautionary measure to protect Libyans and foreign nationals residing in the country. This is what the rest of the world was made to believe.  

On March 17, 2011, in Resolution 1973 adopted by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), UN Member States were authorised to take “…all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” (UNSC).  As is well known, the UNSC’s decision resulted in Colonel Gadhafi’s assassination and the country’s eventual collapse.  

This editorial argues that the international community’s failure to protect unarmed civilians is hypocritical.  NATO’s entry into Libyan soil in 2011 was clearly for a specific goal. It is debatable whether the goal was ultimately achieved.  What is unknown at this time is why the Libyan crisis does not prompt rapid action, if the purpose has always been to protect civilians under threat of attack, as well as to avert war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya.

The GIA is a research-based security firm, whose primary purpose is to contribute to safer communities and world order.                                                                                                     

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