When the U.S. led NATO countries in an assault on Libya in 2011, it set off a chain of events that have mired the North African state in conflict and crisis ever since. Following a popular uprising against long-standing dictator and erstwhile ally of western powers, Moammar Gaddafi, the US-led military intervention aimed, ostensibly, to prevent the Gaddafi regime from violently repressing its own people. After the western military intervention, a range of tribes 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, announced an attack on Tripoli on April 4th this year. 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.
António Guterres, U.N. Secretary General, was in Libya when Haftar’s advance was announced, and stated that he was leaving the country “with a deep concern and a heavy heart.”
Amnesty International has also expressed grave concerns regarding recent developments: “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,” said 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 terroristm. Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the Government of National Accord described the attack as a coup.
According to the World Health Organization, since Haftar’s offensive began, more than 450 people have been killed, and over 2,000 injured. This latest development continues the pattern of lawlessness, instability and violence that has characterised Libya since 2011.
The numbers fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East and Africa in the past decade is in the millions and Libya has been the gateway to Europe for many of those desperate to pursue hopes of a better life. 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.
Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty USA, told The Intercept website: “All these refugees from all over Africa are stuck in this really dangerous situation where they have nowhere to go,”.
It was President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who launched the attack that ousted Gaddafi and opened Libya to its current predicament. However, since 2012, American military involvement in Libya has largely been limited to drone strikes aimed at Islamic State.
The US is the one state with the leverage to force the warring factions to the table to negotiate a way forward for Libya that see the state re-established as a functioning country, which would then create some security and stability in a part of the world in which both these qualities are desperately needed.
But contradictory statements have come out of Washington, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemning Haftar’s advance on April 7th. A week later President Donald Trump praised Haftar for his “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,” according to a White House statement. According to the statement, the two also “discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” And at a Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing this month a panel of independent experts was asked whether they could characterize the US State Department’s position on the Libyan conflict. They were unable to answer.
The powerful states that unleashed chaos in Libya are now either unsure how to proceed or lack the resources to make a difference. The extent of the factional rivalries makes a resolution to the Libyan crisis appear unattainable in the short term. However, the international community needs to take steps to stabilise the country, including alleviating the suffering of refugees wishing to reach Europe. An unstable Libya is a security threat to us all.