Severe Human Rights Violations in Libya

Libya's humanitarian crisis has resulted in nearly half-a-million internally displaced people
Magharebia/ CC BY 2.0/ Flickr

In Libya, three rival governments compete for legitimacy and control over resources in the power vacuum of a “stateless country”, amidst the deterioration of the economy and the judicial system. The United Nations-backed, internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which struggled in 2016 to assert itself in Tripoli, continues to compete for legitimacy with the other two authorities, also in Tripoli and in Eastern Libya.

The GNA failed to consolidate power amid continued sporadic clashes between armed groups, including in areas it controlled, while its legitimacy remained contested by Libya’s recognized parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR) based in Tobruk, according to this year’s Libya report by Amnesty International.

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Forces aligned with all governments and dozens of militias continue to clash. This situation has created a humanitarian crisis with close to half-a-million internally displaced people (IDPs). Estimated numbers, however, vary greatly, as the international organizations which publish them only have a very limited presence on the ground. Militias and armed forces affiliated with the two governments in Tripoli and eastern Libya have engaged in arbitrary detentions, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, abductions, and forced disappearances, as documented by the OHCHR. Criminal gangs and militias have abducted politicians, journalists, and civilians for political and monetary gain.

Collapsed Criminal Justice System

The domestic criminal justice system has been deteriorating within the ongoing insecurity and internal conflict. Courts in the east have remained mostly shut, as Human Rights Watch reports, while elsewhere they operate at a reduced level. The court system, including the Supreme Court, has remained dysfunctional, offering no prospects for accountability. Meanwhile in the region of Sirte, Islamic State was implementing their interpretation of Sharia law, including punishments for smoking and “immodest” dress.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), despite having jurisdiction over Libya provided by the UN Security Council, failed to open any new investigation into ongoing crimes, apparently due to “resource limitations”, according to the HRW report.

Humanitarian Crisis

The current conflict situation has taken an immense toll on the civilian population. Their access to food, healthcare, education, electricity, fuel and water supplies has been cut or severely curtailed, causing many to be displaced from their homes. The economic collapse left many struggling to support their families.

As documented by the World Health Organization , 17 out of 97 hospitals are closed and only 4 hospitals are functional between 75-80% of their capacity. More than 20% of primary healthcare facilities are closed and the rest are not well prepared for service delivery. Regarding the medical system, a great shortage of medicine and specialized staff has been documented by WHO. Health needs of IDPs, refugees and migrants has increased as well as their vulnerabilities in detention centres.

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Severe Abuse of Migrants

The IOM reported in November 2017 that it had identified 276,957 migrants in Libya, but estimated the true number to be between 700,000 and 1 million. Over the past 3 years, hundreds of thousands of migrants have made their way through Africa to Libya with the hope of reaching Europe, and more than 10,000 have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean.  

Libyan law criminalizes irregular entry (through smuggling), which, coupled with the absence of any infrastructure or legislation for the protection of migrants, has resulted in mass, arbitrary and indefinite detention being the main system of refugee management in Libya, as reported by Amnesty International.

Refugees and migrants have been subjected to serious human rights violations by armed groups, people smugglers, traffickers and guards in government-run detention centres. These actors have been reported to work together in a criminal web of collusion. They suffer torture, other ill-treatment and indefinite detention in appalling conditions, and at times without food, or water. However, providing an accurate scale of violations against migrants that have been taking place all over the country has proven to be difficult, partly because these take place in the criminal context of smuggling activities and in remote areas, and partly because of the general conflict situation of the country.

These conditions are being enforced with the aim of extorting money from them, or their relatives, as migrants interviewed by Amnesty International have described. If they are able to pay, or get the money from family members, they are released. Thus, they can be passed on to smugglers, who will demand further payment, but can eventually secure their passage in cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard, which has been known to work in collusion with smugglers.

The EU’s Complicity

On December 11, Amnesty International released a report criticizing European governments for supporting the Libyan Coast Guard in stopping migrants from crossing the Mediterranean in an effort to reduce the numbers of refugees arriving in Europe. This policy has proven to be successful, as the numbers of arrivals in Italy fell by 67 % since July this year. However, migrants who are being sent back are being held indefinitely in horrible conditions in detention centres. The detention guards, as well as coast guards, are well-known for grave human rights violations. It is unclear to what extent the Libyan Coast Guard collaborates with smugglers to allow boats a safe passage, but it has been documented that they have intercepted and returned thousands of migrants to the Libyan coast.

“Tens of thousands are kept indefinitely in overcrowded detention centres, where they are subjected to systematic abuse,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, in an interview with CNN.

“European governments have not just been fully aware of these abuses; by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these abuses.”

The report’s findings are based on interviews with 72 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Italy and Tunisia, as well as meetings with Libyan officials.

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Local Counter-Reactions

Mistreatment and torture of migrants is a socially and politically denounced phenomenon in Libya, a country with a large number of migrant workers. Recently, this was reflected in social media campaign, in which selfies of Libyans with migrants went viral in an effort to say no to racism and to show solidarity with migrants living and working in, or travelling through Libya. This youth initiative was created as a reaction to the CNN report on slave auctions in Libya.

Meanwhile, the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli has stated that it is investigating the reports of African migrants being sold as slaves, with an intent to bring the perpetrators to justice.

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Human Rights
Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a Middle East Studies and Philosophy graduate from Austria currently working in a Gender research project in Tunis. Fluent in German, English, and French, she has spent time living and studying in Australia, France, and North Africa. For the past 3 years, she has focused her work and studies on the Maghreb. Living on and off in Tunis, she has been working as a Freelance Researcher, and for NGO projects focused on themes such as: art and intersectional feminism, and discrimination of minorities in the MENA region. She is also interested in photography, art, and has been experimenting with music, and mixing of sounds.
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