Libya’s civilians have faced a decade of hostilities in what has been a constant political and social war. Therefore, there is an immediate need for multilateral cooperation & international support to be provided to the country for the sake of upholding International Law and to uplift those who have been denied their privileges for long under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
After the fall of the Muammar el-Qaddafi government in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in 2011, the country has faced utter turmoil at the hands of the nation’s own military body (the Libyan National Army, LNA), the terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) & the Ansar al-Sharia, and foreign-backed militias operating in North Africa.
Today, Libya is one country with three governments – the internationally recognized, UN-backed unitary, provisional Government of National Accord (GNA, which rules over the west of the country from its capital city, Tripoli), the LNA (which rules over the east of the country from the north-east city of Benghazi), and the House of Representatives (HoR, which presides over the city of Tobruk). Amidst the grave social, political, economic, cultural, and geostrategic losses suffered by Libya in the past decade, the repercussions for women, children, and vulnerable groups in the country have been drastic, flagrant, and unconscionable.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 2 lakh people have been internally displaced in Libya and approximately 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, owing to the prolonged armed conflict. The worst affected groups, in this light, have been the women and children. In Libya, the freedom and security of women are under constant threat. Women who refuse to conform to the country’s relatively conservative social norms and gender-biased roles (such as the confinement of women to the domestic sphere) are assaulted, sexually exploited, or are insulted through racial slurs. Gender activists and journalists are at the risk of extensive cyber-bullying, and receive constant death threats on speaking up against militant forces. The lack of clear laws and a constitution has led to a decline in reportage of gender-based violence and crimes, especially domestic abuse and sexual exploitation.
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Out of the 6,36,000 migrants and refugees documented to be living in Libya today, 8 percent of them are minors (under the age of 18), and are vulnerable to grave violations of child rights. Detained migrant and refugee children are held in inhumane conditions and detention centres and are prone to crossfire & targeted airstrikes. They are under threat of execution in schools, playgrounds, and in school buses. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has been documenting attacks on schools and healthcare facilities. From January to March of 2020, it found that 9 incidents of conflict drastically impacted education, one of which was a targeted attack by the Libyan National Army. The LNA has engaged itself in the abduction and killing of doctors as well. Both women and children are vulnerable to being used as sex workers or soldiers during this armed conflict, largely without consent.
Libya is a party to varied Protocols, Resolutions, and Decrees on the protection and rehabilitation of civilians in war zones. Libya has been part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) since 1993 and has acceded to the Optional Protocols to the CRC on the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, and on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The UN-backed, internationally recognized GNA must aim to carry out the thorough implementation of the CRC and its optional protocols within the country, to rehabilitate children who were injured, maimed, forcefully taken as soldiers, or sexually exploited during armed conflicts.
Most importantly, the healthcare vulnerabilities exposed by the recurrent Ebola, cholera, and malaria epidemics, as well as the current COVID-19 Pandemic, must be dealt with on priority, and with multilateral assistance from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Today, with the successful removal of IS and Al-Qaeda forces, as well as LNA militants from the west of Libya, the achievement of UNICEF’s 2020 targets of carrying out vaccination drives, and of providing basic healthcare facilities (including help during pregnancy and abortion) to 1,00,000 women and children in UNICEF-backed facilities must be a priority response, especially in the GNA-backed areas of the country.
Libya is victim to deep-rooted divisions based on political, economic, and gender-based grounds. The full and steady implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), which reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention & resolution of conflicts, peace-building, post-conflict reconstruction, and focuses on gender mainstreaming in peacekeeping projects, is necessary. Libya is not only the ground zero for violations against women and girls, but also politically discriminatory towards women’s roles. When the General National Congress (GNC) was deliberating upon women’s advocacy in politics, the quota for political inclusion women was dropped to 10 percent in the critical Constitution Drafting Assembly. Gender-balanced peacekeeping missions are needed because these would tend to weigh the problems faced by women and girls differently as other victims of conflict.
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To seek justice for the flagrant human rights violations committed by the LNA, led by General Haftar, there is a need for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to hold investigations upon these war crimes. Previously, the UNSC had referred the case of war crimes committed by Muammar Qaddafi to the court despite Libya not being a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC. A similar step can be taken in the context of Gen. Haftar as well. There is also a need to hold the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia in contempt for violating the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the UNSC Arms Embargo on Libya, by supporting militant activity in eastern Libya through the provision of drones, fighter jets, other undisclosed arms, as well as (Russian) mercenaries to support LNA and smaller Islamic militant forces.
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The GNA must also immediately mobilize its Ministry of Justice to work on creating a database of detainees, refugees, and immigrants in the country, to relieve those who were detained illegally or as political prisoners, and prosecute those who took advantage of lax border security. There is also a need to implement stricter controls on Libyan borders, especially since deficiencies in border security have led to 12% of Libya’s population to comprise of refugees and expats who were seeking to go across the Mediterranean, to Europe or the west, but became victims of conflict here. Borders are also vulnerable to the illegal smuggling of drugs, weapons, and of women or children forced into prostitution, and therefore, must be protected under the provisions of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, of which Libya is a party.
To understand the deteriorating condition of the refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in Libya, the Tawargha example must be looked at. When the Tawargha city was debilitated after engaging in a “civil war” with the Misrata citizens of Libya during the 2011 conflict, its citizens deserted the town and became displaced victims of war in their own country. Today, Tawargha is considered a ghost town.
Therefore, to elevate the situation of refugees, immigrants, and the internally displaced tribes within the country, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UNHCR can support special operations for rehabilitation in Libya, and carry out testing and distribution of protective equipment for the prevention of transmission of COVID-19. The process of seeking asylum and healthcare must be made easier, especially for women and children, through the creation of temporary shelters and setting up water, sanitation, and healthcare facilities in north and central Libya.
The success of 2015 UN-Brokered LPA, or the “Libyan Political Agreement”, should become the most important goal which needs to be pursued by Libya today. The LPA has been violated on various occasions at the hands of the House of Representatives or the LNA. The LPA is the most important step in the right direction to unify Libya politically. Further military interventions by any internal/ third-party would only aggravate the situation further.
In this light, not only must the LPA be thoroughly acknowledged and inculcated by the HoR, but the Constitutional referendum which was to be held in 2019, must be held right after the COVID-19 pandemic comes under control. Humanitarian interventions must be complementary to the political reconciliation process. Libya’s civilians have faced a decade of hostilities in what has been a constant political and social war. Therefore, there is an immediate need for multilateral cooperation & international support to be provided to the country for the sake of upholding International Law and to uplift those who have been denied their privileges for long under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
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About the author
Anushka Saxena is a student of History at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. She is an International Affairs enthusiast and has worked as a Researcher with various Indian think tanks, and with one based in Nepal. Her areas of research include Asia-Pacific, Africa, and India’s Diplomatic Engagements.