By Sami Zaptia.
London, 19 June 2020:
Speaking at the 44th Session of the Human Rights Council yesterday, Acting SRSG and UNSMIL head Stephanie Williams said that since former SRSG Salame’s briefing in September of last year, serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law have continued to be committed with complete and total impunity in Libya. The impact of these violation on the population is now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘‘Following the commencement of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) offensive on Tripoli on 4 April 2019, we witnessed an alarming military build-up as a result of the uninterrupted dispatch by the foreign backers of increasingly sophisticated and lethal weapons, not to mention the recruitment of more mercenaries to both sides of the conflict, in flagrant violation of the UN arms embargo. As it withdrew from Tripoli’s southern suburbs last month, the LAAF left behind mines and improvised explosive devices, imperiling the safety and security of returning residents and resulting in the deaths of civilians, including children, as well as security personnel tasked with clearing these deadly devices.
Once more, civilians in Libya continue to suffer disproportionately. One million people are now in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, including 400,000 internally displaced Libyans, along with 654,000 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In the last year alone, 225,000 Libyans were forced to flee their homes, mostly in and around the capital, with the latest wave of displacement having occurred following the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) takeover of Tarhouna earlier this month.
From April 2019 until General Haftar’s forces were driven from south Tripoli, the two million residents of the capital experienced almost constant bombardment, frequent water and electricity cuts, a situation now compounded by restricted movement as a result of preventive COVID-19 measures.
Between 1 January and 31 March 2020, UNSMIL documented at least 131 civilian casualties (64 deaths and 67 injuries), caused mainly by ground fighting, with 81% of casualties attributed to the LAAF, representing an increase in civilian casualties of 45 per cent compared to the last quarter of 2019. Between 1 April and 11 June of this year, civilian casualties further increased dramatically, with UNSMIL documenting 250 civilian casualties, including 82 civilians killed and 168 civilians injured. In 2020, WHO documented at least 21 attacks on medical facilities, ambulances and medical personnel, in one of the most shocking ongoing manifestations of this conflict.
As hostilities continue, with battle lines shifting to the center of the country and social polarization escalating, I note with concern increasing retaliatory acts. The takeover in April of western coastal towns by GNA-affiliated groups was accompanied by reports of acts of retribution, including looting, robberies and torching of public and private properties.
Most recently with the recapture of Tarhouna by the GNA from the 9th Brigade “al-Kaniyat”, an affiliated-LAAF armed group, we have received with horror news of the discovery of multiple mass graves as well as the discovery of numerous bodies at Tarhouna hospital UNSMIL has now received an official request from the GNA to provide support in the form of technical assistance to the national authorities on the mass graves, including participation in the investigation into mass graves in Southern Tripoli and Tarhuna, the identification and demarcation of and collection of evidence from all mass graves in conformity with international standards. UNSMIL has also received reports of hundreds of enforced disappearances, torture, killings and displacement of entire families in Tarhouna over recent years. We have called for a prompt, impartial investigation by the authorities into all alleged cases of unlawful killings.
Some 8,800 people remain detained at 28 official prisons in Libya, among whom an estimated 500 are women and around 60% are kept in pre-trial detention. There are additionally some 10,000 people detained in detention centers under the authority of armed groups. UNSMIL continues to receive credible reports of arbitrary or unlawful detention, torture, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, denial of visits from families and lawyers, and deprivation of access to justice. I welcome reports, as yet unconfirmed releases of prisoners in the context of the COVID 19 pandemic, which I hope can be verified. I have called repeatedly on the authorities to release further prisoners, particularly women and children, persons with disabilities, persons with medical conditions, older persons, migrants and refugees.
Migrants and asylum seekers in Libya continue to be routinely subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, including sexual violence, abduction for ransom, extortion, forced labour and unlawful killings. On 27 May at least 30 migrants were killed and 11 injured in Mezda by an armed group affiliated to traffickers and the LAAF. Since January, more than 4,000 people have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya, frequently to abusive conditions in detention, whilst others have disappeared altogether. UNSMIL emphasizes that Libya is not a safe port of return for migrants and asylum seekers. We have also received reports of the failure to assist and pushbacks of migrant boats in the central Mediterranean, which continues to be one of the deadliest migration routes in the world.
Social media has been increasingly used to incite hatred and violence in Libya, and images of people committing war crimes, including the desecration of corpses, have frequently been posted online, further fraying an already fragile social fabric. Human rights defenders, journalists and other media professionals continue to be subjected to intimidation, threats and arbitrary detention. Next month, it will be one year since Member of Parliament Sihem Serghewa was violently abducted from her home in Benghazi. Ms. Serghewa is one of countless cases of enforced disappearances in Libya. Her disappearance underscores the impunity that is prevailing in the country and, in this case, the silencing of one of Libya’s prominent female voices and the intimidation of others seeking to participate in the country’s political life. We call upon the concerned authorities to thoroughly investigate Ms. Serghewa’s disappearance, to provide information on her whereabouts, and to hold accountable those responsible for the attack.
The key priority for the UN is to find a peaceful solution to the current conflict within the framework of the conclusions endorsed during the 19 January International Conference in Berlin and UNSCR 2510. Our mission remains to help Libyans rebuild a state strong enough to peacefully contain political differences. I welcome the resumption of the Joint Military Commission 5+5 ceasefire negotiations. We appreciate the interest and engagement of Berlin participants, Member States and regional organizations alike, in the International Follow-Up Committee on Libya. The raison d’être of the Committee is to ensure implementation of the Berlin commitments. Discussions have begun in the four thematic working groups established under the Committee, including a dedicated working group on International Humanitarian Law and human rights. We are looking to your continued support to turn these commitments into tangible actions.
With that need for concrete deliverables in mind, and along with OHCHR, I agree that a Human Rights Council mandate to establish an investigative mechanism would be both the simplest and strongest basis for promoting much needed accountability in Libya. Given the ongoing serious violations occurring every day in the country, the establishment of such a mechanism would be important. I very much welcome, therefore, the draft resolution presented to the Council in this regard, supported by the State of Libya’’.