Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) continues to assess the Libyan state’s responsibility for the scale of destruction caused by Storm Daniel in eastern Libya, and its inadequate response in the flood’s aftermath. We call on the establishment of an international independent investigative mechanism to hold those most responsible to account and to identify adequate measures of reparation, and for the adoption of extra protective measures for vulnerable impacted groups.
Ten days on, the catastrophic Storm Daniel floods, including those caused by the collapse of two dams uphill from the city of Derna, have washed away an unprecedented number of entire communities and districts in Libya’s eastern region. Reports on the death toll, estimated between 3,300 and 11,300, highlight the conflicting information coming out of Libya and point to the possible manipulation of facts by state actors. Reports are also surfacing of 2,000 to 4,000 persons having been buried in mass graves. Meanwhile, rescuers continue to search for another 10,000 missing persons, and tens of thousands more are displaced and in desperate need of aid.
Libya mourns as Derna, Sousa, Benghazi, Al-Marj and surrounding areas in the east deal with the aftermath. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2,217 buildings have been destroyed in Derna alone, including many with significant value for Libya’s cultural heritage. Communities in the flood-hit areas also report displaced landmines being found across the surrounding region, in addition to persons being poisoned by polluted sewage water entering the drinking water stream. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has warned this could lead to a second devastating crisis if this contamination continues.
Meanwhile tens of thousands of impacted individuals and families across Libya are living with the inaction and denial of responsibility by authorities for this catastrophe.
This scale of destruction is the product of decades of negligence by the Libyan state, the protracted conflict and ongoing power struggle that has given way for rampant corruption, depriving the Libyan people of safe, well-maintained infrastructure. This neglect has particularly affected the east where the legacy of the Gaddafi regime’s collective punishment on opposition strongholds – such as Derna – remains to this day.
In the context of Storm Daniel, this negligence and corruption becomes apparent upon the discovery that the Libyan state repeatedly ignored ongoing warnings of the dangers of the inadequate dams near Derna. The authorities also failed to protect citizens ahead of time by choosing to impose curfews and advising residents to stay in their homes after weather warnings, instead of evacuating them to safety.
Following the storm, the authorities quickly established a security cordon limiting access to providers of urgently needed humanitarian assistance, except for those provided or approved by the authorities. Journalists have also recently been barred from entering the flood affected areas to document the damage, while Libyan activists and journalists speaking out about government negligence and corruption are being targeted with arrest and questioning.
More recently, on 18 September, hundreds of protestors gathered in Derna calling for truth, justice and accountability, amongst other demands. Following the protests and coverage including that by Libyan journalists, communications lines in Derna was lost, with the authorities claiming this was due to a cut in the main communications cables in the city.
The people’s demand for an investigation into this disaster was clear. We remind the authorities that any investigation into what happened, aimed at identifying and holding to account those responsible, should include establishing a comprehensive register of loss, harm and damage suffered, to ensure that victims are able to obtain adequate and tailored measures of reparation, designed not only to repair, but also to guarantee non-repetition of similar disasters in the future.
Furthermore, in the event of future protests, we also remind the authorities that the Libyan people have the right to peacefully protest to express their opinions. The use of force by the authorities against peaceful protestors is strictly prohibited, unless violence erupts. In this scenario, the security forces must only use non-lethal force that is necessary and proportionate for self-defence. They must also ensure that there are safe exists for protest attendees who want to leave.
Today, LFJL makes a clear call on the Libyan authorities to facilitate immediate humanitarian assistance to those most affected. Agencies and individuals providing such assistance must be provided with unlimited and unhindered access to those in need.
We also call for the establishment of an international independent investigative mechanism to hold those most responsible to account. We are actively exploring avenues of accountability and reparation, in coordination with our partners in Libyan civil society, to honour the calls of the Libyan people who demand justice for the harm suffered.
In the flood’s aftermath, LFJL have observed that specific marginalised groups are currently made vulnerable in distinct and severe ways, and face unique, heightened risks. This requires a human rights approach to humanitarian assistance that caters for their vulnerabilities, and we call for further consideration and protection of rights for the following groups:
Unaccompanied children in the affected areas, who have been orphaned or who may still have living family members, unclear because of the lack of documentation of flood victims, are reportedly being posted online as "in need of homes," putting them at high risk of human trafficking.
The Libyan government must establish an effective mechanism to register children for their protection, and to facilitate and intensify family-tracing efforts. Posting pictures of children online must be strictly prohibited.
Children are particularly vulnerable during catastrophes and experience increased suffering especially with regards to their mental health and learning. The Libyan authorities must take appropriate measures to promote the psychological recovery and social reintegration of child victims in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)
Tens of thousands of families have been displaced as a result the floods in east Libya. The displaced population, both as a result of the floods and from the ongoing conflict affecting the east, are being neglected in the state’s response to this disaster. They lack adequate shelters, access to sanitation, and proper health care. Reports are also surfacing of forced evictions taking place of camps currently hosting displaced citizens of Tawergha, presumably to make way for flood victims.
The Libyan authorities must ensure that all displaced persons, regardless of their circumstances and without discrimination, be provided with essential food and potable water, basic shelter, appropriate clothing, medical services and sanitation. They must also ensure access of IDPs to psychological and social services. Special attention should be paid to the health needs of women, including access to female care health providers and reproductive health care and putting in place measures to prevent sexual and gender-based violence.
The displaced also have a fundamental right to be in proximity to their hometowns and communities, to seek information about their loved ones and, ultimately, to return to their homes. Upholding this right is a critical responsibility of the state, necessitating the provision of support and resources for their eventual return.
Prison and detention centre detainees
Detainees held in Gernada prison in the east, who already face dire conditions inside detention, are a major cause of concern, despite the lack of information on their current fate. The prison, located 22 kilometres southeast of Baida, is one of the facilities affected by the floods. We remind the authorities of their duty to ensure that all detainees have access to medical and psychological support and sanitation, in coordination with humanitarian agencies to honour the rights and safety of all detainees including in times of crises.
The families of those detained also have a right to know about the impact of the floods on detainees, whether they are alive or injured, and the conditions they’re facing in the flood's aftermath. Similarly, the detainees themselves also have the right to know the fate of their family members who may have been impacted by the storm. The authorities must ensure that the prisoners have access to family visits and are able to communicate with their loved ones on a regular basis.
Many detainees in Gernada prison are held arbitrarily and under conditions of enforced disappearance without clear charges, including some for their human rights and political work. The Libyan authorities must immediately release prisoners, unless they are charged with internationally recognised crimes and are held in accordance with fair trial standards.
Migrants and refugees
It is estimated that over 235,000 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are currently in the eastern regions of Libya. The significant majority of these are undocumented.
The longstanding ill-treatment, marginalisation and trafficking of the migrant and refugee population by the Libyan authorities, including the failure to register or offer protection services to them, has rendered the population practically untraceable in the wake of this natural disaster. In this context, the death toll of migrants and refugees as a result of this flood is unknown and those who have survived have even fewer rights to aid and reparation.
It is absolutely essential that the Libyan authorities coordinate with relevant international organisations to ensure the tracing of migrants and refugees that are missing and feared dead, in order to identify them and inform their families.
Urgent evacuation of those still in Libya is imperative for their safety and well-being. These migrants have long endured deplorable conditions in Libyan detention centres, marked by persistent human rights violations. Ensuring their humane treatment and immediate evacuation is critical to safeguard their lives in the aftermath of floods.
For further comment or interview requests, please contact LFJL's Communications Manager, Alexandra Azua at email@example.com.
Photo: Libyans protest outside mosque one week after deadly floods in Derna. ©Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS