15 January 2021
Risk Level: Previously Studied
Remains of 200 people discovered in 12 mass graves in Tarhuna since June

Civilians in Libya faced war crimes and crimes against humanity as a result of ongoing fighting between rival armed groups and competing governmental authorities.


In response to a popular uprising during February 2011, the Libyan government, led by Muammar Qaddafi, initiated a violent crackdown. An estimated 500-700 civilians were killed over several weeks as the Libyan government deployed the military and used tanks against civilians and rebel forces in the besieged cities of Benghazi, Misrata and elsewhere. In response to these attacks the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted resolutions 1970 and 1973, invoking the Responsibility to Protect, authorizing the use of force to protect populations. Subsequently, a NATO-led alliance conducted air strikes against military targets that posed a severe threat to civilians. After several months of intense fighting, Tripoli fell to the rebels and the Qaddafi government collapsed.

Since the overthrow of Qaddafi’s government, transitional governing bodies have failed to restore stability to the country and multiple UN-facilitated peace processes have stalled. Throughout Libya’s conflicts, armed militias have committed extrajudicial killings, torture, abductions and have indiscriminately attacked civilian areas. Years of fighting has displaced over 425,000 people and left 1 million Libyans in need of humanitarian assistance.

In April 2019 Khalifa Haftar and his self-proclaimed Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), launched an offensive to seize control of the country from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. The fighting displaced 250,000 people and resulted in at least 430 civilian casualties. Following intense clashes, the GNA, with Turkish support, pushed the LAAF out of Tripoli on 4 June 2020. The GNA subsequently discovered mass graves in areas retaken from the LAAF and allied militias around Tarhuna and Tripoli. During the offensive armed groups on all sides violated International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law.

On 23 October, following four rounds of talks, delegations to the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) signed a permanent, countrywide ceasefire. All parties agreed that all foreign mercenaries would depart the country within three months. On 26 October the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum was relaunched by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

Militias continue to facilitate human trafficking and the enslavement of migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.


While the conflict in Libya 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 involvement of international forces has significantly prolonged the conflict and made it more intractable.

Armed groups on all sides have violated International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law. UNSMIL has determined that some LAAF airstrikes may amount to war crimes. There is also evidence that 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 establish the rule of law and uphold its responsibility to protect.


The International Criminal Court (ICC) has multiple outstanding arrest warrants for individuals accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya since 2011. 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. On 15 August 2017 the Court issued an arrest warrant for Major Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf al-Werfalli of the LAAF for alleged war crimes.

On 7 June 2018 the UNSC imposed targeted sanctions on six individuals accused of people smuggling in Libya.

On 22 June the UN Human Rights Council established a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) to Libya to investigate the human rights situation and document alleged abuses since 2016.


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


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Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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