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. At least 250,000 people have been displaced by the fighting and the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has reported at least 430 civilian casualties since July 2019. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has also documented 25 attacks on healthcare since the start of 2020.
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. The remains of 55 people have been exhumed from 11 mass graves.
Despite ongoing talks with the Libyan 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) and international calls for a humanitarian ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting continues. Armed militias continue to commit extrajudicial killings, torture and abductions, and have indiscriminately attacked civilian areas. On 21 August the GNA announced a ceasefire, which was welcomed by Haftar’s international supporters, but denounced by the LAAF. The GNA has since reported LAAF attacks around Sirte and al-Jufra.
The UN Panel of Experts on Libya has detailed blatant violations of the UN arms embargo, highlighting that Chad, Jordan, Sudan, Turkey and the UAE have provided weapons, technical support or mercenaries to various parties to the conflict. To counter Turkey’s assistance to the GNA, on 20 July the Egyptian Parliament voted in favor of deploying troops to aid the LAAF.
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 at least 600,000 migrants and asylum seekers in Libya, where many endure a range of abuses, including arbitrary detention, torture and sexual violence.
The current political crisis has its origins in the 2011 overthrow of the Libyan government by various rebel forces. Since 2011 the transitional governing bodies have failed to restore stability and the UN-facilitated peace process has faced continual obstacles. 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 intervention of Turkey and Egypt could significantly escalate the conflict.
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 UN Security Council (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.
On 7 June 2018 the 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 UN Human Rights Council established a Fact-Finding Mission to Libya to investigate the human rights situation and document alleged abuses since 2016.
The UNSC should impose targeted sanctions against all individuals and entities who actively seek to subvert the Libyan peace process. All armed groups need to uphold their obligations under IHL and cease military operations in heavily populated areas. 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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