Libya: Human Rights Briefing (January – May 2020)

This report was first published by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights

CIHRS and the Libya Platform[1]

Fear of the virus does not stop cycle of violence and impunity, leading to unspeakable civilian suffering
International investigatory mechanism needed now more than ever

Personal safety has become illusory for civilians in Libya, owing to a sharp escalation in the assault on Tripoli and the widespread human rights and humanitarian law violations associated with it. Aside from the daily threat of drone and airstrikes, and artillery shelling, local populations live in fear of extrajudicial execution and enforced disappearance. Libya reported two hundred and sixty-six confirmed cases and five deaths due to COVID-19 as of 8 June. Testing capacities remain limited, with an incapacitated public health system and limited humanitarian access.

The continued and increased involvement of foreign parties in the conflict, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, has stalled the international diplomatic process, by reportedly supporting this escalation and the consequent rise in civilian casualties. Not only that, foreign interference has helped anchor the presence of powerful armed groups, including extremist groups, who continue to arbitrarily detain, torture, and murder civilians, including within the context of acts of retribution and mass killing. The heightened involvement of foreign actors in the armed conflict in Libya, most recently Turkey, raises fears of Libya becoming even more the site for proxy conflicts between regional powers, with countries like Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt also implicated.

With warring parties and their foreign backers committed to escalating the fighting, the war is unlikely  to result in a definite victory for either side, and will instead lead to an endless, protracted and grinding conflict for Libya’s long suffering civilians. To end this destructive cycle, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and move the peace process forward, belligerents and their foreign backers must be held accountable for their actions.

The international community has the opportunity to change course and take meaningful steps to protect the remaining prospects for peace in Libya and alleviate civilian suffering. We urge States and international institutions to:

  • Establish an independent international investigative mechanism when the 43rd Session of the HRC resumes in June 2020
  • Use all diplomatic means to build concerted pressure on warring parties and their foreign backers for a genuine and lasting cessation of hostilities.
  • Hold accountable those responsible for attacks against medical infrastructure, a violation of international humanitarian law.
  • Clearly and publicly condemn any attempt to unilaterally take control of the country and subvert Libyan civilian institutions.
  • Monitor and publicize evidence of arms embargo violations from all sides of the conflict and share the findings with the UN Sanctions Committee.
  • Implement sanctions against individuals responsible for violations, whether through the UN, the EU or at national levels, and support legal action to advance accountability through universal jurisdiction.

How accountability can improve prospects for peace

In March 2015, the UN Security Council reaffirmed the scope of sanctions to be applied in Libya. The following year, the European Union (EU) applied sanctions against three officials from the House of Representative (HoR) and the General National Congress (GNC) who were viewed as obstructing the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement. These measures have arguably allowed municipalities and local actors in the West to work together to conclude ceasefire agreements[2] and the exchange of detainees. Shortly after the EU applied sanctions, one of the most influential armed factions within the General National Congress (GNC)’s Libyan Dawn Operation defected from the operation and declared their support of a ceasefire and UN-mediated peace talks.

In 2016, the UN fact-finding mission’s report, investigating violations and abuses of international human rights law committed in Libya since 2014, highlighted the culpability of Awliya al-Dam, a faction fighting with the LNA, in forced displacement in Benghazi, retribution against civilians, and extrajudicial killings. Immediately following the report, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar issued an order to disband this group.

Despite these two examples illustrating the deterrence potential of international sanctions and accountability measures, sanctions were not implemented, and the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has since failed to re-establish an international independent investigation mechanism.  Not only has this approach failed to provide a deterrent to the incessant violence in Libya, but it has also left Libyan citizens (who have struggled for national level accountability) without protection or international support.

The reality on the ground in the last five years has shown that the cycle of violence in Libya has been continuously fed by pervasive impunity and the lack of an effective vision to rebuild the country’s security institutions. Unless this is adequately addressed, talks of a peace process and fighting violent extremism – in a country where the rule of law is nonexistent – will remain void of meaning.

A non-exhaustive account of human rights and humanitarian law violations from January until May 2020 is given below.


In 2020, warring parties in Libya have dramatically escalated fighting, leading to a 45% increase in civilian casualties and a 113% increase in civilian deaths. Between 1 and 28 May, at least 50 civilians were reported killed and 70 injured. Repeated indiscriminate attacks and targeting of civilians in populated areas, in large part originating from the Libyan National Army (LNA) and affiliated forces, has become normalised. Vulnerable groups such as migrants, refugees, and over 200,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) around Tripoli alone, as well as Libyan women, are especially at risk.

Libya has also witnessed systematic attacks on already overstretched medical personnel and facilities. From January to April 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) monitored at least 15 attacks on health resources. Al-Khadra Hospital, treating COVID-19 patients, was attacked three consecutive times during the first week of April, as part of the LNA’s attempt to take control of Tripoli. Hate speech and dehumanizing language is also on the rise, and incidents of retributive violence from governmental forces have been reported in Tarhuna, Sabratha and Surman, threatening Libya’s social fabric.

Foreign intervention and embargo violations have continued unabated, even increasing in 2020. Up to 1,200 Russian agents and less than 2,000 Syrian mercenaries have been deployed by the Russian Wagner group in support of the LNA, while over 2,000 Syrian mercenaries, including children, have been recruited by Turkey. In addition, electricity and water supply cuts, and a blockade of oil ports, in areas under the control of the LNA, have further worsened living conditions, and have amounted to collective punishment against civilians in these areas.

  1. Deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure

Civilians continued to be the main victims of grave humanitarian law violations, notably due to the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of densely populated areas, attributed to the LNA. A high number of students and school children were killed or injured, and vital infrastructure such as hospitals and airports was repeatedly hit. A number of these violations are listed below:

  • On January 4, 2020, 30 students were killed in the bombing of the Military College of Tripoli.
  • On January 9, a child was killed by military operations in the Salah al-Din area.
  • On January 24, a citizen was killed as a result of the bombing of his workplace in the Abu Salim neighborhood. Four school children were killed by a shelling on 28 January 2020 of the Al-Hadhba Al-Badri neighborhood in Tripoli.
  • On January 23-26, the Mitiga International Airport was hit repeatedly, which resulted in the temporary suspension of air traffic. Several employees and individuals nearby were injured and a Moroccan national was killed.
  • On January 25, shells hitting Al-Safwa Hospital injured two staff members.
  • On February 5, the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Tripoli was bombed.
  • On February 12, a woman was killed in Abu Salim, as a result of a shell landing on her house.
  • On March 18, 2020, four girls were killed, and five others were injured in the same family as a result of the bombing of their house in Ain Zara. The same day, a woman was killed in the Abu Salim area as a result of a shell landing on her car.
  • Shelling on 24 March in Ain Zara struck the Al-Rouaymi prison, injuring inmates and staff.
  • Heavy shelling between 6 and 10 April 2020 hit Al-Khadra Hospital in Abu Salim, injuring at least one health worker and damaging the facility.
  • On April 12, a child in the Ain Zara area was killed and his two parents were injured as a result of the shelling of their house. The same day, as a result of the shelling in the Abu Salim neighborhood, one family member was killed and two were wounded.
  • On April 17, the Royal Health Clinic in Tripoli was shelled. On April 20, the shelling of a field hospital in Wadi Al Rabie (southern Tripoli) also injured five medical staff.
  • On April 28, a hospital in southern Tripoli (Airport Road) was attacked, which led to the destruction of an ambulance and damages to the building.
  • On May 1, two people were killed by indiscriminate shelling in the Zenata district.
  • On May 6, three people from the Abu Salim municipality were killed by indiscriminate shelling.
  • On May 8, 2020, three civilians were killed by indiscriminate shelling in Zawyet Al-Dahmani .
  • On May 9, 2020, Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport was bombed, which resulted in severe damage to the buildings and to two Libyan Airlines airplanes. On May 14, the Tripoli Central Hospital in Zawiya Street was exposed to retaliatory attacks targeting civilians.
  • Most recently, on May 25, residents of the Ain Zara and Salahuddin areas of Tripoli were killed or wounded by improvised explosive devices placed near or in their homes, allegedly by LNA affiliated forces who had evacuated these areas. Pictures shared by forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) show antipersonnel landmines reportedly manufactured in former Soviet countries.

On April 28, 2020, the GNA also targeted a shipment carrying beekeeping material on the road linking the town of Nesma town the municipality of Al-Shweref, killing four people and injuring two others. In addition, incidents of retributive violence from governmental forces have been reported in Tarhuna, Sabratha and Surman.

  1. Violence and intimidation routinely used against any independent voice

Human rights defenders, like journalists, members of civil society organisations, bloggers, activists and members of the judiciary, regularly face smear campaigns, raids on their homes and workplaces, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and interrogations and harassment at security checkpoints, in addition to threats of military prosecution under the Law on Combating Terrorism (2014). The intensification of the conflict since April 2019 has further increased threats to their fundamental freedoms and physical integrity.

  • In January, two radio stations were attacked and set on fire in Sirte by a Salafist armed group affiliated with the LNA.  The same month in Benghazi, a group of eight influential youth and political activists led a campaign calling for a ceasefire throughout Libya. They were subjected to a media smear campaign, and intelligence services detained three of them for three days. They were told that they are banned from travel.
  • On 15 January, a journalist from the National Libyan Channel was kidnapped and tortured by four gunmen with ties to the Special Deterrent Forces (SDF).
  • In April, the premises of the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press (LCFP) and Radio Nass (a Libyan radio station led by youth activists) was raided by armed groups, allegedly to investigate why men and women both frequented the premises.  The armed intruders beat an individual, damaged the radio station’s equipment, and looted the video surveillance records.
  • On 3 April, the Director of Garabulli Radio was forcibly disappeared in eastern Tripoli. He was reportedly released the last week of May.
  • Authorities and armed groups also target the judiciary and political opposition with complete impunity. In February for instance, Judge Mohamed Ben Omar was forcibly disappeared from his home in Castelverde.
  1. Extrajudicial killings and inhuman treatment

  • On March 18, a 46-year old inmate at Kuwaifiyah Prison in Benghazi died after suffering from a fever. On March 28, the death of a prisoner wounded in the chest was also reported in Kuwaifiyah Prison.
  • The same day, a 21-year old inmate died in Gernada Prison in Derna, following reports of his deteriorating health condition. The systematic use of torture in Gernada Prison has been alleged several times.
  • Former detainees from the Maitika and Abu Salem prisons, respectively run by the Special Deterrent Force (SDF) and the Central Security Abu Salem Brigade (also known as “Ghneiwa”) – both militias subordinate to the GNA – gave accounts of prisoners in need of medical attention.
  • On 27 May 2020, 26 trafficked migrants from Bangladesh and four African countries were killed, and eleven others injured in a smuggling warehouse in Mizda. “Some of the migrants bear old marks of beatings and physical abuse”, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Video footage of the mass killing shows the presence of individuals in military dress affiliated to Al-Saiqa, a paramilitary unit affiliated with the LNA. This latest tragedy illustrates the links between networks of human traffickers and paramilitaries integrated within formalized security institutions.
  • On May 30, the Ministry of Interior of the GNA announced the discovery, in southern Tripoli, of the grave of a family of four, who had been kidnapped in December 2019.
  1. Enforced disappearance and arbitrary detainment: Exercising power through terror

  • Several reports of enforced disappearances, raids and arbitrary detentions have emerged in Sirte since it was taken over by the LNA. On 6 January, the house of a political activist was burned down. On 5 February, the destruction of a Sufi shrine and the arrest of a number of Sufis were reported, allegedly by a local Madkhali group aligned with the LNA.
  • On February 29, Benghazi Military Intelligence detained, for a few hours, a lawyer from the Bouzdira district of Benghazi, who was said to have posted a video criticizing corruption among security officials.
  • The Rada Special Deterrent Force (SDF) in Tripoli kidnapped the Director General of African Airways on 1 March, released him on 5 March, and then kidnapped him again two days later.
  • On 2 March, gunmen from the LNA in Derna arrested the Director General of the Al-Harish Hospital from his home, and eventually released him.On March 7, a legal advisor at the Military Police Department in Al-Marj was detained following his criticism of the kidnappings of members of the judiciary. He was released on 1 June.
  • On March 7, a lawyer was detained in Benghazi for a few hours and prevented from entering the military courtroom after his release.
  • On March 11, an armed group, believed to be the anti-terrorism unit affiliated with the LNA, kidnapped an engineer from his workplace in Brak al-Shati. He was transferred to the Internal Security Unit in Benghazi and reportedly tortured. His current location is unknown.
  • On March 19, lawyer Adnan Al-Orfi was released almost twenty days after his kidnapping in Benghazi.
  • The 9th Brigade, a paramilitary group also known as Al-Kaniyat, integrated within the LNA, is allegedly responsible for multiple incidences of enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial killing in Tarhuna. On April 5, they attacked, kidnapped and tortured three women from the same family. On 15 February, three bodies of civilians from Misrata and a Syrian national were discovered in Garabulli. Testimonies indicate they were kidnapped and killed by Al-Kaniyat.
  • On 28 April, an unidentified armed group raided the office of the Red Crescent in Tripoli. A volunteer was kidnapped and another attacked.
  1. Suffering of detainees, migrants and refugees exacerbated by the conflict and the pandemic

Migrants, refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs), and detainees (including unaccompanied children) are especially at risk from COVID-19 and from the conflict.

Living conditions in Libya’s prisons are already sub-standard, with more than 8,000 Libyans and non-Libyans held on flimsy legal grounds. They face torture and other ill-treatment, overcrowding, poor sanitation, and lack of access to medical care. In addition to torture, abuse, slavery and sexual violence, the dreadful conditions in which over 3,000 refugees and migrants are detained, in overcrowded locations with little access to water and sanitation, is also extremely alarming. With dozens of people sharing a cell, these centres already represent fertile ground for disease in normal times. Conditions in informal camps for the internally displaced are similarly distressing.

This situation has led to an increase in departures from the country, despite the halting of Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. Only in May, around 1,000 people attempted the crossing, and more than 400 were intercepted and brought back to detention centres near the frontlines. Alarming reports have emerged of migrants detained on boats in unbearable conditions, of private vessels used to push back migrants, and of people knowingly left to die, starving or drowning.

In the western region, more than 3000 migrants and asylum-seekers are on the frontlines of the conflict, inside and outside detention centres. During the pandemic, the number ofdetainees has been reduced through forced evacuations due to fighting and shortages of food and vital necessities. Women and children forced to leave detention centres have been left alone, lacking essential supplies and vulnerable to both the pandemic and to indiscriminate shelling. The coronavirus is also fuelling hatred towards migrants within the local population.

Conditions in detention centres in eastern Libya around Tobruk and around the Egyptian-Libyan border are especially worrying. Several smuggling warehouses have been reported to operate there, in complete impunity, with migrants therein exploited, traded or forced to pay money in exchange for their release. The Awlad Ali tribe has been involved in large smuggling operations of irregular migrants from Egypt to Ajdabiya and Bani Walid. These illegal activities are carried out with the knowledge of the Tobruk Security Directorate. A group of Yemeni migrants are also being exploited by officials of a detention center affiliated with the Eastern Ministry of Interior in Shahat.

In the south, most detention centres are out of service, either directly controlled by paramilitary groups affiliated with the LNA and with human traffickers, or controlled by the Interior Ministry of the eastern-based Interim Government. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 135 migrants were expelled to Niger. Around 1,000 were recently expelled to Chad or Sudan due to the risk of COVID-19 contagion and food shortages in the centres. Some of the deportees were Somali citizens. There is no information regarding to which country these individuals, potential asylum-seekers, were deported, especially as Somali asylum-seekers are not in contact with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) since voluntary returns were suspended due to COVID-19.

[1] The Libya Platform is a Libyan human rights coalition established in 2016 by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), currently gathering 11 human rights organisations.

[2]See p.3 (paragraph 14) in the report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (1 December 2016), accessible here.

Photo: Shelling of Al-Khadra Hospital, Defender Center for Human Rights