Torture, Rape And Civilian Casualties: Libya’s Civil War


Since the 2011 civil war which deposed the autocratic dictator Muammar Gaddafi and saw the deaths of over 30,000 Libyans, competing armed militias have wreaked havoc and collectively propagated a humanitarian disaster. On 30 October 2017, an airstrike in the militant-controlled city of Derna killed 16 civilians, and despite the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) recent targeting of the area through airstrikes, they denied all involvement. The LNA are associated with the Tobruk-led interim government in Eastern Libya, a rival of the United Nations backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sarraj and based in Tripoli. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been unable to ascertain whether there were credible military targets in the vicinity of the two bombings last week. If there was not, this most certainly contradicts international humanitarian law, which would not be a first in this Libyan conflict. Sarah Whitson of the HRW noted that “Sadly, too many wartime deaths of civilians have simply been ignored”, a tragic reality of a war-torn nation.

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) recently extended their mission until September 2018, and recorded 38 conflict-based civilian deaths in October, 9 of which were children, the majority through airstrikes. Amidst the violence, worrying rumours of torture and gross human rights violations have surfaced, enacted by various factions within the conflict and leaving few unblemished. On the 26 October, just east of Benghazi, the bodies of 36 men were discovered – many were bound, with visible torture marks and gunshot wounds. Despite both the LNA and the Tripoli General Prosecution ordering investigations into the incident, doubts is cast on whether a just outcome is in store.

Amnesty International reports that in the absence of a properly functioning justice system, armed groups are freely abducting civilians merely due to their ethnicity, opinions or perceived affiliations. This is often the means of a ransom payment, however both parties vying for political supremacy are also partial to abduction, and seemingly extrajudicial killings. In June, following their release from a Tripoli prison under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice, 12 men allegedly affiliated with Gaddafi’s regime were shot dead. In July, in an area of Benghazi recaptured by the LNA, 14 bodies, shot dead and bound, were discovered. Neither event was effectively investigated by either the GNA or the House of Representatives (the official representative body of the Tobruk interim government). Thus, this leads one to believe such killings are entirely linked to either government.

Furthermore,  a Tunis-based investigative group have recently released testimonial and video evidence, collated over several years, highlighting the prevalence of rape across Libya, used by various militia groups as an instrument of war. Various reports have arisen from a prison in Tomina under GNA control, which holds approximately 450 inmates, that prisoners are forced to rape each other or are threatened with death, and many are sodomized in return for meals. The violence is so freely enacted toward those accused of any link to opposing political factions, and is consistently occurring without retribution.

Human rights defenders have also come under fire in Libya. Last year, human rights activist Abdul Basit Abu-Dahab was killed in Derna by a car bombing. Furthermore, various protests have been met with violence, with assailants in Benghazi last year killing 6 protesters in one instance. In terms of the freedom of the Libyan press, it currently ranks 154th out of 180 countries reviewed. Last Friday, an armed group linked to the GNA, shut down a comic convention in the capital Tripoli. The BBC reports that ”Some of those who were released had received a beating”, and told by the group, named the Special Deterrent Force,  that Libya is not a “free country.”

In April the World Health Organisation reported that approximately 60% of hospitals in conflict zones had become untenable and were shut down. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 1.3 million people (of a Libyan population of 6.3m) are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, with healthcare the most vital need, closely followed by access to food and water. The current estimate for internally displaced citizens stands between 350,000 to 400,000.  Both the International Criminal Court and internal Libyan systems of investigation are evidently failing to counter the violence that is causing this widespread humanitarian crisis, and alongside the UN’s non-peacekeeping role in the country, are prolonging the horrific conditions faced by its inhabitants.