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 Khalifa Haftar and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (now the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, or LAAF) launched an offensive to seize control of the country from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. Subsequent fighting has displaced over 225,000 people and killed at least 350 civilians. Since 1 January the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has also documented at least 21 attacks on healthcare.
Following intense fighting, the GNA, with Turkish support, pushed the LAAF out of Tripoli on 4 June. On 11 June the GNA announced the discovery of mass graves in areas retaken from the LAAF and allied militias around the city of Tarhuna. As of 3 July the remains of 55 people have been exhumed from 11 mass graves.
As part of a three-track negotiated settlement, the Libyan 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) commenced talks in February. Despite ongoing talks and international calls for a humanitarian ceasefire to address the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting continues. Clashes since 5 June have displaced at least 30,000 people.
Armed militias continue to commit extrajudicial killings, torture and abductions, and have indiscriminately attacked civilian areas. The UN Panel of Experts on Libya has detailed blatant violations of the UN arms embargo, highlighting that Chad, Jordan, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have provided weapons, technical support or mercenaries to various parties to the conflict.
The current political crisis has its origins in the 2011 overthrow of the Libyan government by various rebel forces. Despite the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, which led to the creation of the GNA, Haftar continues to fight for its overthrow.
Militias also facilitate human trafficking and the enslavement of migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. The International Organization for Migration estimates that there are more than 654,000 migrants and asylum seekers in Libya, where many endure a range of abuses, including sexual violence.
Since 2011 various transitional governing bodies have failed to restore stability to Libya, and the UN-facilitated peace process has faced continual obstacles and delays. 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.
Armed groups on all sides have violated International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). UNSMIL has determined that some LAAF airstrikes may amount to war crimes. Armed groups have also blocked Tripoli’s water system, effectively weaponizing access to water. There is also evidence that competing foreign powers, including permanent members of the UNSC, have provided arms to some parties to the conflict despite a UN-mandated embargo.
The GNA needs sustained international assistance in order to end the armed conflict, establish the rule of law and uphold its responsibility to protect.
On 15 August 2017 the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Major Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Werfalli of the LAAF for alleged war crimes committed during 2016 and 2017.
On 7 June 2018 the UN Security Council (UNSC) imposed targeted sanctions on six individuals accused of people smuggling in Libya. On 5 June 2020 the UNSC renewed the arms embargo for one year. On 4 April 2020 the European Council launched a military operation to enforce the arms embargo.
On 19 January, at a conference in Berlin, several states involved in the conflict committed to refrain from further interference in Libya. On 12 February the UNSC adopted Resolution 2510 endorsing the conclusions of the Berlin Conference and welcoming the 5+5 JMC.
On 22 June the Human Rights Council established a Fact-Finding Mission to Libya (FFML) to investigate the situation of human rights throughout the country, collect and review evidence, and document alleged abuses of IHL and IHRL since 2016.
The UNSC should impose targeted sanctions against all individuals and forces who actively seek to subvert the Libyan peace process, including Haftar and the LAAF. All armed groups need to uphold their obligations under IHL and immediately cease military operations in heavily populated areas. All armed groups in Libya should cooperate fully with FFML investigations. All UN member states need to uphold the arms embargo.
All those responsible for mass atrocities in Libya, both past and present, should be held accountable for their crimes.
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