Populations at Risk Previously Studied Situations


Civilians in Libya face possible war crimes as a result of sporadic fighting between various armed groups.
BACKGROUND: In response to a popular uprising during February 2011, the Libyan government, headed by Muammar Qaddafi, initiated a violent crackdown. An estimated 500-700 civilians were killed by the government over a period of several weeks. In response rebel forces emerged and opposition to Qaddafi's rule increasingly took the form of a civil war. The Libyan government used tanks and troops against civilians in the besieged cities of Benghazi, Misrata and elsewhere. The systematic and widespread nature of these attacks constituted crimes against humanity.

In February and March 2011 the UN Security Council passed resolutions 1970 and 1973 invoking the international community's responsibility to protect Libyan civilians. A NATO-led alliance was authorized to conduct air strikes against military targets that posed a severe threat to civilians. After several months of intense fighting, Tripoli fell to the rebels at the end of August 2012.

Pervasive instability continued throughout the country as successive transitional governments struggled to control the multitude of militias that formed in the security vacuum. During May 2014 retired General Khalifa Haftar, who was later named commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) by the House of Representatives (based in Tobruk) initiated "Operation Dignity" against Islamist militias, including those associated with the General National Congress or GNC (formerly based in Tripoli). Fighting increased in the aftermath of June 2014 elections that replaced the GNC with the House of Representatives, with GNC-allied militias refusing to accept the new government. During July 2014 GNC-allied militias launched Operation "Libya Dawn" to counter Operation Dignity and secure political and military control of 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.

During the conflict various armed groups committed extrajudicial executions, torture, unlawful killings, abductions and indiscriminately attacked civilian areas. The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized that such acts are war crimes and those responsible are criminally liable, including at the International Criminal Court. Additionally refugees fleeing the country have reported experiencing sexual violence, killings, torture and religious persecution by armed groups.

Since September 2014 UNSMIL has facilitated dialogue between major parties to the conflict. Delegates signed a UN-facilitated Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) on 17 December 2015, allowing for the appointment of a nine-member Presidency Council headed by Fayez al-Sarraj.

On 15 February 2016, following the proposal of a 32-minister Government of National Accord (GNA) that was rejected by the House of Representatives, the Presidency Council proposed a smaller cabinet. Despite the absence of formal approval from the House of Representatives, UNSMIL and the Presidency Council proceeded with the GNA following from the LPA.

ANALYSIS: The current political crisis is a result of the 2011 dismantling of the Libyan government after a violent government crackdown on dissent in favor of a democratic rule ended with rebel forces toppling the government. Since 2011 transitional governing bodies have failed to restore peace and stability to the country, with various actors utilizing the power vacuum as a means to gain power.

The UN-facilitated peace process faces many obstacles, including forces on both sides of the conflict that continue to oppose the LPA and ongoing disputes regarding the future role of General Haftar. The lasting divide between the GNA and General Haftar's LNA could potentially further destabilize the country.

Armed groups on all sides have violated international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law. The lack of governmental control over the country has allowed arms and foreign fighters to flow across borders, further destabilizing Libya and the surrounding region. There is also evidence that competing regional powers have provided arms and air support to either both sides, despite a UN-mandated arms embargo.

Even though diminished, ISIL's presence in Libya continues to pose a direct threat to vulnerable civilians, especially those from minority cultures, nationalities and faiths.

The Government of National Accord needs urgent international assistance in order to end violations of IHL, foster reconciliation and establish the rule of law and uphold its Responsibility to Protect.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: On 26 February 2011 the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 1970, calling upon the former Libyan government to cease attacks on civilians and uphold its responsibility to protect. Resolution 1973 of 17 March 2011 called upon UN member states to take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians and led to an international military intervention. 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, former head of military intelligence, 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 GNC sentenced both men to death. UNSMIL and various human rights groups have criticized the trials as flawed.

On 9 November 2016, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, announced an expansion of the Libyan investigation including considering charges for alleged crimes committed by ISIL.

UNSMIL was established in September 2011 and on 13 June 2016 the UNSC extended UNSMIL's mandate until 15 September 2017, tasking the mission with assisting Libyan authorities with the implementation of the LPA and human rights monitoring.

On 23 December 2015 the UNSC passed Resolution 2259, welcoming the signing of the LPA and calling upon member states to assist with the establishment of the GNA. The UNSC also emphasized the need to ensure that those responsible for violations of IHL and human rights abuses are held accountable.

On 1 April 2016 the UNSC released a Press Statement welcoming the arrival of the Presidency Council in Tripoli and called on actors to "refrain from any action that could undermine this important phase of Libya's democratic transition."

NECESSARY ACTION: The UNSC should impose sanctions against all individuals and political forces who actively seek to subvert the peace process. The House of Representatives and Haftar's forces need to ensure a swift and peaceful transfer of power to the GNA. All armed groups need to immediately cease military operations conducted in civilian population centers. Regional powers need to act in accordance with the arms embargo reaffirmed under UNSC Resolution 2213 of March 2015.

All those responsible for mass atrocities during the 2011 civil war, as well as those responsible for violations of IHL committed during the most recent conflict, should be held accountable for their actions.

Breaking the culture of impunity and strengthening the rule of law, as well as demobilizing and disarming armed groups remain essential. UNSMIL and the international community should continue to support the GNA and secure an end to armed hostilities.

Last Updated: 3 February 2017

The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor on our Publications page. Libya was featured in the R2P Monitor from January to July 2012 and from November 2014 to March 2016.