Factsheet: Background to Libya’s Current Crisis

Commander Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army. Photo by Sergei Savostyanov\TASS via Getty Image

When an airstrike killed at least 40 people and injured over 80 others at a migrant detention centre near the capital city of Libya, Tripoli, on 3rd July, it was a reminder to the world of the conflict unfolding in the North African country.

The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord has blamed the opposition Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar. Violence around Tripoli has been mounting since Haftar’s forces launched an offensive to capture the city in April. Human rights groups say both sides may have committed war crimes by attacking heavily populated civilian areas.

Here are some key background facts:

Recent violence

  • The airstrike followed an escalation of hostilities in an increasingly complex war in which proxies are engaged. Haftar forces have downed a Turkish drone and captured six Turkish soldiers before releasing them;
  • Turkey supports the government of national accord, which is also supported by the United Nations as an interim regime that will, in theory, enable the transition to democracy;
  • The Haftar assault on Tripoli brings with it the prospect of a dramatic and costly escalation and requires an urgent political solution;
  • Haftar’s argument is that the Libyan government uses militias supported by both Turkey and Qatar. He is supported by the military government of Egypt, politically and militarily.

War

  • Libya has been in crisis since 2011, when the NATO assault overthrew the country’s government and set off a chain of events that have mired the North African state in conflict and crisis;
  • Following a popular uprising against long-standing dictator and erstwhile ally of western powers, Colonel Moammar Gaddafi, the US-led military intervention aimed, ostensibly, to prevent the Gaddafi regime from violently repressing its own people;
  • Since the western military intervention, a range of tribes have sought control in the power vacuum that emerged after Gaddafi’s death. Competing fiefdoms were established across Libya, which then formed armed militias to try to increase their power;
  • Commander Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA,) a faction that is loyal to the Tobruk government in the east of the country, attacked Tripoli earlier this year, on April 4th;
  • This was despite a UN-mediated peace process between the internationally-recognised government of Libya, known as the Government of National Accord, and Haftar’s group in the eastern side of the country;
  • Human rights groups including Amnesty International have expressed grave concerns regarding Haftar’s insurgency: “As the battle for Tripoli unfolds, the warring parties have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian safety and international humanitarian law by carrying out indiscriminate attacks on residential neighbourhoods,” – Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty;
  • The LNA has claimed that it was attempting a restoration of security and a move against terrorism. Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the Government of National Accord described the April attack as a coup;
  • According to the World Health Organization, hundreds were killed thousands injured in the April offensive, continuing the pattern of lawlessness, instability and violence that has characterised Libya since 2011.

 

Decade

  • The numbers fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East and Africa in the past decade is in the millions; Libya has been the gateway to Europe for many of those desperate to pursue hopes of better lives;
  • European countries have tightened both borders and immigration policies in response to the crisis and European Union institutions and members have provided millions of euros to the internationally-recognised government for its attempts to stop boats leaving the country and detain people who are fleeing;
  • Conditions in these detention centres have been described as “nightmarish” by Human Rights Watch: people “face inhuman and degrading conditions and the risk of torture, sexual violence, extortion, and forced labour”;
  • The refugee crisis was once front-page news in the West but has faded from people’s minds as the media has moved on. Nevertheless, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson Charlie Yaxley has revealed that, in just one week this month, 944 people left the Libyan coast by boat, and 65 have drowned;
  • Most survivors were returned to Libya, to live extremely precarious lives. Thousands of refugees in Libya are stuck at detention centres that are increasingly vulnerable to violence as factional rivalries encroach on the camps and centres that house the displaced and stateless.

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