Libya: An Unprecedented Appeal for Accountability

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

United Nations officials and member states call for an international investigation into war crimes and human rights violations in Libya at the UN Human Rights Council


(October 1, 2019 – Geneva) High-ranking United Nations (UN) officials and dozens of states have called  for an international investigation into war crimes and human rights violations in Libya at the 42nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, held from September 9-27th. These calls represent what is to date the strongest push for accountability against the relentless cycle of violence and impunity marring the country and resulting in unspeakable civilian suffering and loss of life.

According to the Director of the Geneva Office of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Mr. Jeremie Smith, “At this session of the HRC we witnessed the clearest and most forceful call by UN member states, UNSMIL, the OHCHR on the urgent need for the UN to create an investigation on Libya since the government of Gaddafi fell.  It is now incumbent on UN member states to ensure these calls are translated into action by establishing such an investigation as soon as possible.  Failure to do so will only embolden armed groups in their use of violence, including against civilians, infrastructure, detainees, migrants, human rights defenders and members of the judiciary.”

The urgency of establishing an international investigation was emphasized during a high-level event entitled “Libya: Advancing Accountability for Human Rights Violations & Abuses,” held on the 20th of September during the Council session. The event was organized by the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and prominent international and Libyan civil society organizations, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). In a rare and exceptional joining of international forces, distinguished figures from the UN, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and international and Libyan human rights organisations were brought together to discuss appropriate means of strengthening the rule of law in Libya and breaking the cycle of impunity prevailing in the country, notably through the establishment of an independent international investigation at the Council.

Accountability is imperative to any progress towards peace, stability, and justice in Libya; and a Commission of Inquiry at the Human Rights Council is “simplest and strongest way to achieve” greater accountability for crimes committed in Libya, emphasized Mr. Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), speaking on behalf of UNSMIL. Unfortunately, the Libyan justice system is currently unable to ensure accountability due to ongoing violence in the country, pointed out Francesco Motta, Chief of OHCHR’s Asia, Pacific, Middle East and North African Branch. As such, he affirmed that the OHCHR was “ready to support” Mr. Salame’s call for an independent investigation.

The numerous state representatives in attendance were reminded by former Libyan Minister of Justice Salah Al Marghani, representing the Libya Platform, that each moment “we are speaking here” innocent civilians, migrants and refugees in Libya are being “murdered, kidnapped, raped” and subject to a host of other brutal acts of violence.  Justice for crimes in Libya is “neither optional nor negotiable” declared Geoffrey van Leeuwen, Director for Middle East of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, adding that the Netherlands would consult on how to move forward on this matter with partners.  Senior representatives from CIHRS, the International Commission of Jurists, Lawyers for Justice in Libya, Human Rights Watch, also spoke on the panel.

The OHCHR “strongly supports the establishment of an international body mandated to investigate the full range of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Libya and stands ready to fully play its role in support of its work,” reaffirmed the Deputy High Commissioner of the OHCHR, Ms. Kate Gilmore on the 25th of September, speaking before the UN Human Rights Council during an update by the OHCHR on Libya.  UNSMIL support for a Commission of Inquiry was reiterated by  SRSG Mr. Salamé, speaking via video link.

Importantly, many UN member states backed calls for such an investigation at the Human Rights Council; calls that included  a statement delivered on behalf of all members of the European Union. According to the EU statement, “Those responsible for serious violations of International Humanitarian Law and violations and abuses of international human rights law must be brought to justice and held to account. In order to facilitate this, comprehensive, independent and credible investigations have to be undertaken, including by the Human Rights Council.”

In its intervention during the same debate, CIHRS highlighted the growing consensus on the need for an investigation at the Council:

“International attempts to achieve a national ‘peace’ accord in Libya have appeared to down-play and marginalize national and international criminal accountability in order to appease armed groups within the country. Not only does this approach fail to provide a deterrent to the ongoing violence in Libya, but it leaves Libyan citizens who have struggled for national level accountability and justice sector reform without protection or international support. A new approach is required that puts accountability for ongoing violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law at the at the top of the list of priorities… A good first step would be to re-establish an International Commission of Inquiry on Libya at this Council.”

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