Populations at Risk Serious Concern


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 Tripoli. Fighting has taken place in heavily populated areas of Tripoli, resulting in over 120,000 people displaced and more than 100 civilians killed, including 53 people in an LNA airstrike on a detention center for migrants and asylum seekers on 3 July. The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has also reported more than 58 attacks on healthcare facilities so far this year.

Fighting has also intensified in the southern city of Murzuq since 4 August when the LNA bombed a townhall meeting, killing 43 civilians. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, heavy artillery fire in residential areas of Tripoli and Murzuq has blocked emergency services and aid from reaching vulnerable civilians and fear of reprisals has prevented people from fleeing to safety.

The current political crisis has its origins in the 2011 overthrow of the Libyan government by various rebel forces. Despite the 2015 signing of the Libyan Political Agreement, which lead to the creation of the GNA, Haftar and the LNA continue to contest its legitimacy and aim to militarily seize control of the country. Various armed militias also continue to commit extrajudicial killings, torture and abductions and have indiscriminately attacked civilian areas.

Armed militias in Libya also facilitate human trafficking and the enslavement of African migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. As of September 2019 the International Organization for Migration estimated that more than 655,000 migrants and asylum seekers were in detention centers 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. During April the LNA offensive caused 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. UNSMIL has said that some airstrikes may amount to war crimes. There is also evidence that competing regional and international powers, including at least two permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), have provided arms and support to parties to the conflict, despite a UN-mandated arms embargo.

The GNA needs urgent and sustained international assistance in order to end violations of IHL, establish the rule of law and uphold its responsibility to protect.

On 26 February 2011 the 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. Libyan rebel forces overthrew the government and murdered the former dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi, in October 2011. Following the end of Libya's 2011 civil war, international engagement to assist in rebuilding government institutions waned.

On 15 August 2017 the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Major Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Werfalli of the LNA for alleged war crimes committed during 2016 and 2017.

On 7 June 2018 the UNSC imposed targeted sanctions on six individuals accused of people smuggling in Libya. On 10 June 2019 the UNSC adopted Resolution 2473 renewing the arms embargo for one year.

The UNSC should impose targeted sanctions against all individuals and 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 in heavily populated areas. All UN member states need to act in accordance with the arms embargo.

All those responsible for mass atrocities in Libya, both past and present, should be held accountable for their crimes.

Last Updated: 15 November 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, from November 2014 to March 2016, and since July 2019.