The NATO invasion of Libya in 2011 represents one of the most disastrous and under-discussed policy blunders in the modern history of western imperialism. The invasion, which removed the former dictator Moammar al-Gaddafi, was characterized by a complete lack of planning and created a power vacuum into which jihadist militias and other armed groups have flocked. What followed was a spiral of violence and chaos that continues almost a decade later.
Libya’s internal crisis is showing no signs of relenting. The Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli and recognized by the UN, continues to compete for control of the country against a rival “interim government” based in the east. The various militias that control Libyan territory today are guilty of a near-inexhaustible list of human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, disappearances, seizure of property, and the forced displacement of people. Libya’s justice system has essentially ceased to function and is powerless to combat these evils, as is the rest of the nation’s infrastructure. In other words, modern Libya is the picture of a failed state.
The interim government is supported by the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) and by the Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA, led by General Khalifa Haftar, is the most significant armed militia currently operating in the country. At the dawn of 2020, along with other armed groups, the LNA continues to carry out attacks aimed at recapturing the capital city of Tripoli. In 2019 alone, hundreds of civilians were killed in these assaults, the largest of which was launched on April 4, extinguishing any hope for the tentative peace-talks that were ongoing at that time.
As of November 2019, according to Human Rights Watch, “the fighting, which is concentrated in the southern suburbs of Tripoli, had killed over 200 civilians, injured over 300, and displaced over 120,000.”
Today, the conflict in Libya consists of multiple, interwoven layers.
Today, the conflict in Libya consists of multiple, interwoven layers. Obscenities, like the open slave markets, represent a return to medieval barbarism many would have thought impossible. At the same time, drones have been used at least 900 times by parties to the conflict. According to Ghassan Salame, head of the UN mission in Libya, the country has become “possibly the largest drone theatre in the world.”
All sides in the conflict have carried out serious human-rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions and torture. Many of these abuses likely constitute crimes against humanity, and disproportionately impact foreign migrants and civilians.
In one of many recent examples, in August of 2019 the Red Crescent Society of Tarhouna transferred the bodies of 12 detainees, most of them civilians, to Tripoli. The victims had been detained by the LNA-affiliated Kani militia and the bodies showed signs of torture and execution.
Elsewhere, the Islamic State (ISIS) is still operating at a high level in Libya. While ISIS activities have been beaten back in recent years, the group’s fighters continue to carry out attacks in several regions, most often against LNA forces. The U.S. military also continues to conduct airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya. In September 2019, the U.S. carried out a strike, which killed 43 alleged militants.
Across Libya, thousands of women and children are detained in prison camps, due to the fact that they are the family members of alleged ISIS militants. Many of these detainees, not accused of any crime themselves, live in conditions of degradation and squalor, without adequate food, shelter, or medicine.
As the myriad warring parties continue to escalate their activities, civilians bear the harshest cost.
As the myriad warring parties continue to escalate their activities, civilians bear the harshest cost. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and many more are displaced, becoming refugees. Libya is in desperate need of a legislative path to peace.
It is possible that a resolution could have been brokered as a result of a referendum on the new draft constitution but plans for that vote were shelved in January 2019 amid security concerns and threats to those involved in the process.
One politician who had opposed the attacks on civilians and public infrastructure in Tripoli was Seham Sergewa. On July 17, 2019, Sergewa’s house was attacked, allegedly by an armed group with links to the LNA. Her husband was shot, and her house was looted and torched. Sergewa herself was kidnapped and disappeared. Amid such horror, effective political processes and solutions are impossible.
Perhaps the worst of all the effects of the conflict in Libya have fallen on displaced persons. An estimated 301,407 people have been internally displaced since 2011 by the disintegration of Libyan society, according to figures from the Libyan International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The largest groups of Libyan internally displaced persons (IDPs) are from Tripoli, Sebha, and Benghazi, the main targets for General Haftar’s supposed “counter-terrorism” attacks which began in 2014. Many towns, such as Tawergha, have seen the majority of the population flee and 48,000 Tawerghans remain displaced since 2011, when their town was ransacked by Misrata forces affiliated with the LNA.
Libya’s nightmare is not contained within its borders. The crisis has spilled into neighboring countries as hundreds of thousands of people have fled, contributing to the “migrant crisis.”
But Libya’s nightmare is not contained within its borders. The crisis has spilled into neighboring countries as hundreds of thousands of people have fled, contributing to the “migrant crisis.” At the same time, numbers of migrants from other war zones, many of them asylum seekers, have entered into Libya in the hope of eventually reaching Europe.
Refugees in Libya, who are often children, face the risk of torture, forced labor, physical violence, and sexual assault at the hands of militias and human traffickers. Yet many fair little better when exposed to Libyan security forces, often facing unimaginably horrific conditions inside state detention centers.
Some of these facilities are run by the Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), under the control of the GNA government. Other “informal” centers are run by gangs of human traffickers. According to the IOM, up until October 31, 2019, there were some 655,144 migrants in Libya—85,891 of whom are living in urban areas of Tripoli. Some 4,754 people are held in the official GNA detention centers, with thousands more detained in the unofficial facilities. These centers are often subject to attack.
One of the most horrific moments of 2019 came in July, when an LNA airstrike on the Tajoura Migrant Detention Center, to the east of Tripoli, killed at least 44 migrants, injuring 130 more.
Migrants who do manage to leave Libya’s shores often fare little better. The IOM reported that 9,648 migrants had reached Italy from January to October 2019 after leaving Libya. During the same period, there were 92 deaths in the central Mediterranean, with a further 203 people declared missing at sea. Libyan coast guards intercepted 8,283 people during that period, and returned them to Libya, including 374 children.
Those captured at sea are brought to detention centers, where many suffer human rights abuses at the hands of GNA government officials. According to Human Rights Watch, the inhuman and degrading conditions in the centers include sexual violence, extortion, beatings, forced labor, and inadequate supplies of medicine, food, and water. Conditions in unofficial detention centers, run by smugglers and human traffickers, are said to be even worse than in the centers run by the GNA Interior Ministry.
It is in this area that the hypocrisy of European governments, who are largely responsible for the anarchy in which Libya currently languishes, is most apparent.
It is in this area that the hypocrisy of European governments, who are largely responsible for the anarchy in which Libya currently languishes, is most apparent. The European Union (EU) continues to provide training, funding, and equipment to Libyan coast guard forces, enabling them to intercept boats in international waters and return migrants – many of them desperate refugees—to the hell of Libyan detention centers.
A recent Human Rights Watch report concludes that “the EU’s aiding and abetting of Libyan coast guard forces appears motivated, in part, to reduce arrivals in Europe and to avoid triggering EU non refoulement obligations by outsourcing interdiction to Libyan coast guard forces.”
In other words, the EU is funding the Libyan coastguard to capture and detain migrants because if those migrants were to enter EU territory, they may be afforded rights, like the right to asylum, that EU leaders do not wish to grant them.
Given that major EU countries, such as France and the United Kingdom, bear prime responsibility for the destruction of Libya the hypocrisy of the EU on this point is truly shameful.
Libya’s crisis, and the “migrant crisis” that has flowed from it, is the ugly counterpart of Europe’s moral crisis – the failure to bear its share of responsibility for the nightmare that continues to unfold in the Middle East and North Africa. The former will not be solved until the latter is addressed.