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UN cites possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya

A woman waits to get treatment at a detention centre in West Tripoli, Libya. The report said migrants, refugees and asylum seekers were subjected to a “litany of abuses” in the country’s detention centres. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Mohame Ben Khalifa)

United Nations human rights experts investigating abuses in Libya revealed evidence on Monday of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in the conflict-wracked country.

The first report of a fact-finding mission commissioned by the Human Rights Council in 2020 details accounts of murder, enslavement, torture, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence perpetrated in Libya since 2016. It also reports systemic arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, airstrikes against civilians and the recruitment of children in hostilities.

“Our investigations have established that all parties to the conflicts, including third states, foreign fighters and mercenaries, have violated international humanitarian law, in particular the principles of proportionality and distinction, and some have also committed war crimes,” said Mohamed Auajjar, chair of the three-person mission.

Migrants subject to ‘litany of abuses’

The experts cited reports indicating that the Libyan coast guard, which has been trained and financially supported by the European Union, has tortured and abused migrants, refugees and asylum seekers “on a daily basis”. Italian authorities have been accused of violating international law in recent years by pushing boats back to Libya, where the fact-finding mission cited “prevalent” reports of torture, sexual violence and abuse in the country’s detention centres.

“Migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees are subjected to a litany of abuses at sea, in detention centres and at the hands of traffickers,” said commission member Chaloka Beyani. “Our investigations indicate that violations against migrants are committed on a widespread scale by State and non-state actors, with a high level of organization and with the encouragement of the state - all of which is suggestive of crimes against humanity.”

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The report detailed evidence that 87,000 migrants have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard since 2017, including 7,000 currently held in detention centres. The crackdown on migrants in Libya has escalated in recent days, with authorities detaining more than 5000 people including hundreds of women and children in violent raids, according to the UN.

“Arbitrary detention in secret prisons and unbearable conditions of detention are widely used by the state and militias against anyone perceived to be a threat to their interests or views,” said Tracy Robinson, another member of the commission. “Violence in Libyan prisons is committed on such a scale and with such a level of organisation that it may also potentially amount to crimes against humanity.”

Ongoing instability

The mission also documented allegations of atrocity crimes in Tarhouna, a town held by the Libyan National Army (LNA) southeast of Tripoli, between 2016 and 2020, where killings were carried out by an armed group and victims buried in mass graves. Investigators have identified a list of suspects – both Libyans and foreign actors – who could be responsible for the range of crimes, although this list remains confidential.

The mission was mandated to investigate possible rights violations and abuses committed by all parties to the conflict in Libya, which has been wracked by violence and conflict since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi over a decade ago.

Fighting between forces backed by rival governments in the east and west has escalated since 2016. The governments are backed by foreign fighters, mercenaries and regional powers, with Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates supporting the east and Turkey the west of the country. Both sides have accepted a ceasefire brokered in Geneva by the UN and the appointment of an interim government.

National elections are scheduled for December, although there are concerns that enduring deep political divisions in the country could undermine their legitimacy. The withdrawal of all foreign fighters from Libya was a term of the ceasefire agreement, but the report supported evidence that foreign fighters remain in the country.

The report, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council on Thursday, was based on hundreds of documents, satellite imagery, interviews and investigations in Libya, Tunisia and Italy. The UN experts asked for the Council to extend its mandate for another year and provide additional resources to allow them to continue their investigations, which support increasingly frequent reports of violations and abuses in the country in recent years.

“As Libyans strive to secure peace, ensuring accountability for gross human rights violations and international crimes committed in the country is more necessary than ever to deter further violations and promote long-term peace and reconciliation,” said Auajjar.

“We urge Libya to intensify its efforts to hold those responsible to account. It is also essential that the international community continues to provide support to the Libyan judicial authorities. ”