Populations at Risk
Civilians in Libya face possible war crimes as a result of ongoing fighting between rival armed groups and competing governmental authorities.
On 4 April 2019 Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar ordered his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) to launch an offensive against the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Libya's capital, Tripoli. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, heavy artillery fire in residential areas has blocked emergency services and aid from reaching vulnerable civilians and has prevented people from fleeing to safety. Since the beginning of the LNA offensive at least 21 civilians have been killed and over 35,000 displaced. The UN Children's Fund has warned that an estimated 500,000 children in Tripoli are at a "direct risk" as the fighting moves into heavily populated residential areas.
The current political crisis is a result of the 2011 overthrow of the Libyan government by various rebel forces. In response to a popular uprising during February 2011, the then Libyan government, headed by dictator Muammar Qaddafi, initiated a violent crackdown. An estimated 500-700 civilians were killed over several weeks as government forces used tanks and troops against civilians. Government forces also besieged several cities, including Benghazi and Misrata, prompting the UN Security Council (UNSC) to pass resolutions 1970 and 1973, invoking the international community's responsibility to protect Libyan civilians. A North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led alliance was authorized to conduct air strikes against military targets that posed a direct threat to civilians. After several months of intense fighting, Tripoli fell to armed rebels and Qaddafi was subsequently assassinated.
Despite the 2015 signing of the Libyan Political Agreement, which lead to the creation of the GNA, major parties to the conflict, including Haftar and the LNA, continue to contest its legitimacy. Various armed militias also continue to commit extrajudicial executions, torture, unlawful killings, abductions and have indiscriminately attacked civilian areas. The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have emphasized that such acts constitute war crimes and those responsible are criminally liable, including at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Armed militias in Libya also facilitate human trafficking and the slavery of migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. As of April 2019 the International Organization for Migration estimated that more than 663,000 migrants and asylum seekers were in improvised detention camps in Libya, where many are subject to a range of abuses, including sexual violence.
Since 2011 various transitional governing bodies have failed to restore peace and stability to the country. While the conflict has been presented as a battle between secular, moderate forces and their extremist Islamist rivals, in reality it is dominated by shifting personal, tribal and regional enmities and alliances.
The UN-facilitated peace process faces many obstacles and delays. The most recent LNA offensive on Tripoli has resulted in the cancellation of a national conference to determine a timeline for democratic elections.
Armed groups on all sides have violated International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law. There is also evidence that competing regional and international powers have provided arms and air support to parties to the conflict, despite a UN-mandated arms embargo.
The GNA needs urgent international assistance in order to end violations of IHL, establish the rule of law and uphold its Responsibility to Protect.
Following the end of Libya's 2011 civil war, international engagement to assist in rebuilding government institutions waned.
During June 2011 the ICC issued arrest warrants for Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi and Abdullah al-Senussi for the alleged commission of crimes against humanity, but a subsequent disagreement over jurisdiction between Libya and the ICC ensued. On 28 July 2015 Libyan courts operated by the transitional government sentenced both men to death. UNSMIL and various human rights groups criticized the trials as deeply flawed. On 15 August 2017 the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Major Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Werfalli of the LNA for alleged war crimes committed in Libya during 2016 and 2017.
On 7 June 2018 the UNSC imposed targeted sanctions on six individuals accused of people smuggling in Libya, the first time that the Council has imposed targeted sanctions on individuals for human trafficking.
The UNSC should impose sanctions against all individuals and political forces who actively seek to subvert the peace process, including Haftar and the LNA. All armed groups need to uphold their obligations under IHL and immediately cease military operations conducted in heavily-populated areas. Regional powers need to act in accordance with the arms embargo reaffirmed under UNSC Resolution 2441 of June 2018.
All those responsible for mass atrocities during the 2011 civil war, as well as those responsible for war crimes committed during the current conflict, should be held accountable for their actions.
Last Updated: 24 April 2019
The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor and atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see our Publications page. Libya was featured in the R2P Monitor from January to July 2012 and from November 2014 to March 2016.