War crimes in Libya: the urgent need for justice

Hannah Wallace
Hannah Wallace

Middle East Expert, Associate Researcher at Tactics Institute

The discovery this month of yet another mass grave in Tarhouna, Libya, sheds light on the scale of the atrocities committed during the country’s brutal civil war and underscores the urgent need for action by the international community. A decade on from the fall of Muammar Ghaddafi, evidence of human rights violations and potential war crimes carried out by the forces of General Khalifa Haftar continues to mount.

The roots of the Libyan crisis and the rise of Haftar

Following Ghaddafi’s violent ouster in mid-2011, Libya split into warring factions, with all sides soon accused of committing atrocities and possible war crimes under international law. Some of the most egregious violations have since been attributed to Haftar, who served as army chief under Ghaddafi before joining the NATO-backed uprising that led to his toppling.

In recent years, the country has been split between the UN-recognised government in the capital, Tripoli, and the Haftar-aligned regime based in Tobrouk, backed by the Libyan National Army (LNA). Multiple nations including Jordan, the UAE and Turkey helped fuel the conflict by supplying weapons, in contravention of UN embargoes, and dispatched mercenaries from Sudan, Russia and Syria to fight on both sides of the conflict.

In 2014, Haftar launched Operation Dignity, under the guise of cleansing Benghazi and the east of Islamists and militias. What started as a military campaign soon turned into an attempt to gain control of the entire country. Haftar aligned with the Tobrouk government and became the leader of the LNA. Emboldened by his territorial gains, Haftar launched an offensive on the capital in April 2019. It was during this 15-month siege that Hafter and his LNA carried out their most well-documented atrocities.

The human cost of war

Soon after the GNA regained control of Tarhouna in June 2020, GNA officials found scores of bodies — including women and children — in mass graves in and around the city. Some of those killed had been blindfolded with their wrists tied up, suggesting torture. Tarhouna had served as a springboard for Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, and many of the worst crimes there are thought to have been carried out by al-Kaniyat, a militia group loyal to Haftar.

GNA officials also discovered secret prisons containing iron boxes that, according to Al Jazeera, LNA troops would set on fire as a form of torture against fighters and civilians who opposed Haftar’s rule. Human Rights Watch reports that nearly 340 residents of the town have been reported missing since al-Kaniyat took control in 2015, a number that may barely scratch the surface. In late 2020, the International Criminal Court agreed to send a team to investigate the mass graves — a sign that the issue had finally gained some traction internationally. The ICC, however, has yet to bring any charges.

The US imposed sanctions on al-Kaniyat in November 2020, and the UK followed suit in July. US and German efforts to push for UN Security Council sanctions against al-Kaniyat were, unsurprisingly, blocked by Russia in a politically motivated move. Russia backs the HoR and the LNA and has sent Russian mercenaries to prop up both. Even so, while sanctions are generally a positive step, they rarely go far enough.

Haftar’s forces are thought to have committed atrocities beyond Tarhouna. In 2017, the LNA besieged the coastal town of Granfouda, which at the time was under the control of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, a jihadi umbrella group accused of carrying out unlawful killings of its own. During its siege, the LNA targeted families and killed some 300 people, including dozens of women and children. Credible videos published by BBC Arabic show LNA troops desecrating the bodies of their foes, adding to the growing list of alleged war crimes. In the videos, corpses are mutilated, paraded through the streets and hung by LNA forces.

The urgent need for an international response

One of the main barriers to justice in the country is the lack of an independent judiciary with the means to investigate and prosecute these crimes. The Libyan judiciary simply lacks the training required for cases of gross human rights violations. The international community must therefore take the lead, but its response thus far has been underwhelming.

The EU has continued to impose sanctions against entities that violate the UN arms embargo on Libya. Several European states have said they were considering sanctioning countries that have flouted the embargo, but none had done so as of mid-August. This is despite countries such as the United Arab Emirates continuing to provide Haftar with military equipment. In light of this, the US decision to greenlight new arms sales to the UAE is particularly worrying.

Justice for the victims of Haftar remains elusive, yet civil proceedings have begun in the US after several Libyan families filed suit against Haftar and his sons for torturing and killing their relatives. Depending on their outcome, these cases may help pressure the international community to launch investigations into the crimes of Haftar and the LNA.

International actors also have a key role to play in supporting the new Government of National Unity (GNU), installed in February 2021. The GNU has committed to lead the country until voters choose their next government in national elections scheduled for December. With international support, the GNU can encourage stability while weakening Haftar’s remaining power base in the east.

Abdulkader Assad, a columnist at the Libya Observer, is convinced that Haftar is still quietly working to oversee the Libyan military while his ally Aqila Saleh, the speaker of the House of Representatives, aims to control the legislative process. “These two are behind the split of Libya between east and west and they are working to deepen the fragmentation so that they can benefit more and more from the chaos,” he said. “Democracy and elections are a threat to their very existence.”

Assad added that the era of independent militias must end in order for the new, elected government to run the country effectively. This may well be true, but Libya’s peace process will never be complete without transitional justice. Haftar and his allies must be held accountable for their crimes. Only then will impunity end and real national reconciliation begin.

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