Libya is no stranger to conflict and human rights abuses. Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that culminated in the death of strongman Muammar Gaddafi and the fall of his regime aided by a US-backed international coalition, the country has been marred by war and chaos.
For almost a decade now, and in the absence of strong national institutions, the disintegration of the armed forces into various armed groups and militias was compounded by the arrival of ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters and Jihadists of all stripes vying for control of the country’s territory and resources.
The disintegration of the armed forces into various armed groups and militias was compounded by the arrival of ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters and Jihadists.
But the greatest threat has come from a well-known figure of the Libyan military, Khalifa Haftar, who has seen his standing change from Field Marshall in the Libyan army under Gaddafi – he took part in the coup that brought Gaddafi to power and deposed King Idris I in 1969 — to his downfall and exile after a failed military venture in Chad where he plotted to overthrow Gaddafi in 1989.
After two decades living in the United States where he acquired US citizenship, he returned to Libya during the 2011 civil war and took part in the military overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. In 2014 he appointed himself commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and pursued control of Benghazi and the eastern Libyan territories with a view to eliminate the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. To do so, Haftar secured the financial and military backing of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and later Russia.
Emboldened by his success on the ground, the renegade commander, backed by Soviet aircrafts and over 1,000 Russian and Syrian mercenaries, launched a war siege of Tripoli, in April 2019. Hundreds of civilians were killed in indiscriminate bombings of urban areas for months and thousands fled the region, which was turned into a war zone by the LNA fighters.
Last April, fully a year after his siege of Tripoli, and in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that paralyzed most of Europe, Haftar saw the tide turn against him in the fight for control of the oil and gas rich country. Turkey intervened militarily to prop up Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Turkish armed Bayraktar unmanned aircrafts dominated over Chinese-made Wing Loong drones operated by the UAE. With Turkey’s superior airpower, GNA forces first took control of Al-Watiya airbase in the desert southwest of the capital Tripoli.
The war is far from being over with Egypt threatening to intervene on Haftar’s side and Russia increasing its backing to defend the renegade ex-general’s strongholds.
By June, GNA forces had pushed back the LNA fighters and retaken Tripoli Airport and the city of Tarhuna —46 miles southeast of the capital — the launchpad and command center of Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli. However, the war is far from being over with Egypt threatening to intervene on Haftar’s side and Russia increasing its backing to defend the renegade ex-general’s strongholds of Sirte, Benghazi, and the oil rich southeastern region of Libya.
Since the liberation of Tarhuna, the internationally recognized GNA alerted the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) of the discovery of multiple mass graves in the area previously occupied by the LNA. Over 150 human bodies were exhumed from the mass graves so far. The UNHCR sent a fact-finding mission to Libya to investigate possible human rights abuses.
In addition to the UNHRC investigation, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a probe into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Libya. ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that her office “looks forward to cooperating with the Libyan authorities, the United Nations, and all relevant partners working to investigate this evidence of potential atrocity crimes in Tarhuna.”
Already in July 2017, the UN had expressed concern that LNA prisoners might be at risk of torture and summary execution. And in August 2017, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a commander in the Special Forces of Khalifa Haftar’s LNA. Videos at the time were circulated on social media showing Werfalli executing masked and handcuffed prisoners in the Benghazi area.
Already in July 2017, the UN expressed concern that LNA prisoners might be at risk of torture and summary execution.
In May 2019, Bensouda appeared before the UN Security Council to deliver her annual report on the situation in Libya, which the ICC had been monitoring. According to the Chief Prosecutor, over the last ten years, multiple warrants for the arrests of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi (the son of Muammar Gaddafi), Al-Tuhamy Mohamed Khaled, and Mahmoud Al-Werfalli had been issued accusing the three men of crimes of unlawful imprisonment of political enemies, torture, and mass murder and asking for Libya to extradite them for prosecution.
As the UNHCR and the ICC pursue their probe into the uncovered mass graves and summary executions in GNA liberated areas, it is difficult to imagine how the perpetrators and most importantly the leadership of the LNA, which is still on a destructive rampage, can be arrested any time soon. However, should the territorial gains made by the legitimate Libyan government continue and Haftar be defeated sometime in the future, justice may be rendered to the Libyan people.