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 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 resulted in 177,000 people being displaced and at least 350 civilians killed. Airstrikes have damaged schools, medical facilities and other civilian infrastructure.
As part of a three-track negotiated settlement, the Libyan 5+5 Joint Military Commission commenced talks in February 2020 to reach a ceasefire. Despite this initiative, heavy clashes continued throughout March and April. On 29 April Haftar announced an LAAF ceasefire in response to calls for a humanitarian pause to tackle COVID-19. The GNA rejected the ceasefire on 30 April and fighting continues.
Various armed militias also continue to commit extrajudicial killings, torture and abductions, and have indiscriminately attacked civilian areas. The December 2019 report of the UN Panel of Experts on Libya 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.
Armed militias in Libya 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 estimated in December 2019 that more than 654,000 migrants and asylum seekers were in detention centers in Libya, where many are subject to a range of abuses, including sexual violence.
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 lead to the creation of the GNA, Haftar continues to contest the GNA’s legitimacy and on 27 April declared the agreement “a thing of the past.”
Since 2011 various transitional governing bodies have failed to restore stability to the country, 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. The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has said that some LAAF airstrikes may amount to war crimes. Armed groups have also repeatedly blocked Tripoli’s water system, effectively weaponizing access to water. There is also evidence that competing foreign powers, including 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 sustained international assistance in order to end 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 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. 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 Joint Military Commission.
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 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.
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