To mark the United Nations International Human Rights Day, a global day to honour the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) calls for accountability for human rights violations. Libya has experienced a severe escalation of violence and institutional instability that has resulted in grave human rights violations and humanitarian atrocities over the past year. As the global theme for International Human Rights day this year is the need for the protection of human rights every day of the year, LFJL would like to reflect on the human rights violations that have plagued the daily lives of Libyans in 2014. In particular, LFJL strongly condemns the regular attacks on civilians and human rights defenders, the continuing prevalence of torture in Libya and the increasing number of internally displaced persons.
Attacks on civilians and human rights defenders
Since May 2014, indiscriminate attacks by armed actors, as LFJL previously reported, as well as the reckless use of GRAD rockets, mortars, artillery and anti-aircraft machine guns in heavily populated civilian areas, have led to increasing numbers of civilian casualties and deaths. Although there have been no comprehensive official reports on the numbers killed since May 2014, civil society organisation Libya Body Count has reported that since May 2014, 2404 civilians have been killed. While this statistic fails to be indicative of the entire number of individuals who have been killed, it represents a worrying trend.
In defiance of international human rights and humanitarian law, many civilian buildings have been targeted and destroyed during the fighting. For example, on 17 July, Al-Afya Hospital near Tripoli airport was hit by several shells, and on 21 September Al Zahra Hospital was attacked prompting the evacuation of patients and staff. Most recently, on 7 December, Benghazi Medical Centre was targeted by shelling. According to the World Health Organisation, medical supplies are running dangerously low and the Libyan Ministry of Health has warned that violence has caused many expatriates, who comprise up to 80% of all medical personnel in Libyan hospitals, to flee the country. The lack of resources and personnel has resulted in a medical crisis that has in turn resulted in the deaths of many Libyans from treatable and preventable conditions.
Abductions and assassination attempts remain a prevalent concern in Libya in 2014 and have targeted key human rights stakeholders, including activists, members of civil society, lawyers, journalists and judges. Youth activists, Tawfik Bensaud and Sami Elkawafi, were killed as part of a series of 14 assassinations in Benghazi on 19 September. Civil society also lost a key voice with the assassination of prominent women’s rights activist Salwa Bugaighis on 25 June. Her husband, Essam al-Ghariani was abducted during the attack and remains missing. These threats have severely undermined the activities of Libya’s nascent civil society movement, causing many to flee the country to seek refuge in neighbouring states. The Libyan state must ensure that human rights defenders are supported and protected; threats and attacks must be investigated and the perpetrators held to account.
Instances of torture also continue to be widely documented in Libya. Recently published findings by LFJL partner DIGNITY found that in 2013, 53% of those arrested, detained or imprisoned in Libya reported being subjected to torture or violence. It has been reported to LFJL by several witnesses that torture occurs most often in pre-trial detention. Witnesses reported victims most often suffered from severe beatings, suffocation, electric shocks, and sexual violence. Victims also suffered from long term physical and psychological effects.
Although some efforts have been made by the state to combat torture, with the adoption of Law 10 of 2013 on Criminalising Torture, Enforced Disappearances, legislation still remains weak. As highlighted by LFJL and key anti-torture organisations at the time, the law fails to provide a comprehensive definition compliant with international standards. As well as weaknesses in the law, there is to date no effective mechanism for victims to seek reparations. Inadequacies in the law and the continuing insecurity in Libya have in turn further undermined prospects for the effective exercise of the rights of torture victims. The increased attacks on human rights defenders, witnesses and legal professionals have also meant that victims are often hesitant to seek redress due to fear of reprisals or attacks.
As families and communities flee violence, internal displacement has increased. In November, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency, estimated that 392,420 people had been displaced since the escalation of violence in May. These communities are now scattered across the country and often face a struggle for basic resources including, shelter, health care, food and water. A further 100,000 Libyan citizens and 150,000 migrant workers have fled Libya to neighbouring countries according to the United Nations Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
The Tawergha, a population of approximately 35,000, have been an internally displaced group since August 2011, when the town of Tawergha was destroyed for its apparent allegiances to Gaddafi. As a consequence of the recent fighting, individuals have been displaced from their temporary refuges in Benghazi and Tripoli. Witnesses have also reported that camps in Benghazi have been looted and burnt down. According to LFJL’s coalition for the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review, on August 2014 two Tawerghan camps near Tripoli Airport, Airport Road Camp and Fallah Camp, were abandoned by their residents as they were caught in heavy fighting between armed groups. As a result, Tawerghan families fled to nearby towns. In the same month, internally displaced persons in Benghazi were also caught in heavy clashes, which forced 80 families to flee the Sidi Faraj Camp.
In response to these ongoing concerns, LFJL urges the Libyan state to take immediate legal action against all individuals and groups responsible for the unlawful activities and human rights abuses. The state must work to strengthen the rule of law to end the impunity that has persisted since 2011 and to offer survivors the redress that is their right. The culture of impunity is a key cause of the current instability, and the state’s ongoing tolerance of such grave acts may constitute a crime against humanity for which Libya may be internationally responsible.
LFJL welcomes the preparations by UNSMIL to facilitate a second round of inclusive national dialogue in Ghadames next week as a step towards lasting peace. However, LFJL Director, Elham Saudi reminds all concerned that “Lasting peace is not possible without accountability for human rights violations. International Human Rights Day is an opportunity to remember this fact and to remind the Libyan state of its absolute responsibility to end impunity for human rights abuses. Accountability for human rights violations must be a central element of any settlement. Amnesties must not form any part of the ongoing peace process and the state must repeal all existing amnesties.”
On the occasion of International Human Rights Day and as part of LFJL's La Mubarir campaign, LFJL launches its latest anti-torture public service announcement: