New United Nations Report Details Human Rights Abuses by Militias in Libya’s Ongoing Armed Conflict

Press Conference of the Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in Libya. Cherif Bassiouni, Chair of the Commission.Credit: UN Photo/UNIS - Geneva
Cherif Bassiouni, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in Libya at a press conference on April 8, 2011.
Credit: UN Photo/UNIS – Geneva

Last week, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) published a joint report providing an overview of human rights abuses committed in Libya from May through August 2014, amid ongoing fighting among militias for control of Benghazi and Tripoli. See UNSMIL & OHCHR, Overview of Violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law During the Ongoing Violence in Libya (2014). The report confirms that “all sides” are: indiscriminately shelling and attacking civilian objects, including hospitals, which is limiting access to medical care; detaining, abducting, and torturing fighters or suspected fighters; and attacking media professionals and civilians. See id. It concludes that the armed groups’ actions violate international human rights law and international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes, which are subject to prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC). See id.


Armed groups have continued to challenge the weakened Libyan government and battle one another for control since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. [Washington Post]

The UN Security Council established UNSMIL in September 2011 to promote the rule of law and monitor and protect human rights in Libya. See UN Security Council, Resolution 2009, UN Doc. S/RES/2009, 16 September 2011. Earlier that year, the Security Council referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court. See UN Security Council, Resolution 1970, UN Doc. S/RES/1970, 26 February 2011. Also in February 2011, the UN Human Rights Council established the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya, which later issued two reports on the human rights situation there.

Last month, as the situation intensified, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2174, which called for an immediate ceasefire and condemned all violence against civilians and civilian objects. See UN Security Council, Resolution 2174, UN Doc. S/RES/2174, 27 August 2014. The Security Council had issued a previous resolution in 2011 that called for an arms embargo, the freezing of assets, and travel bans for certain individuals and entities. See UN Security Council, Resolution 1970, UN Doc. S/RES/1970, 26 February 2011. Resolution 2174 reaffirmed that these sanctions will be imposed on individuals and entities that were “engaging in or providing support for acts that threaten the peace, stability or security of Libya, or obstruct or undermine the successful completion of its political transition.” See UN Security Council, Resolution 2174.

Resolution 2174 also stressed the importance of the government of Libya’s cooperation with the Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda. See id. In July, Bensouda urged “all parties involved to refrain from targeting civilians or civilian objects, or committing any criminal act that may fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC” and reiterated that her office “will not hesitate to investigate and prosecute those who commit crimes under the Court’s jurisdiction in Libya irrespective of their official status or affiliation.” [ICC]

Current Situation

The current dominant players are the militia groups known as the Libya Dawn alliance, which is primarily led by militias from the town. [HRW] The Zintan alliance is aligned with the Libya Dignity military campaign, which former General Khalifa Haftar began in May. [HRW] This campaign includes Libyan army officers, Libyan Air Force officers, army special forces, and other armed groups who are joined together in fighting against the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR). See UNSMIL & OHCHR, Overview of Violations. The SCBR is composed of multiple militia groups, including, inter alia, Ansar al-Sharia. [Al Jazeera] Libya Dawn initially attacked the Tripoli Airport on July 13, 2014, which led to six weeks of violence. See id. On August 24, 2014, the Libya Dawn alliance launched “Operation Dawn,” where its fighters seized control of Tripoli. See id.

Shortly after Operation Dawn, Libya’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told the United Nations Security Council that he “had always excluded the possibility of civil war but the situation has changed,” and now it “might unravel into a full-blown civil war if we’re not very careful and wise in our actions.” [REUTERS] On August 27, Tarek Mitri, the former Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya, stated that the armed groups’ confrontations in Libya are “unprecedented in their gravity.” He noted that many Libyans are skeptical “of the political process in their country and frustrated with their political elites,” but that there are many others who “refuse to be discouraged,” during “this difficult period of their country’s history.” [UNSMIL] The fighting in Tripoli this summer forced UNSMIL to evacuate its international staff, although it still actively monitored the situation. See UNSMIL & OHCHR, Overview of Violations.

United Nations’ Report Findings

The report states that “the fighting and risk of retaliation by armed groups have generated a climate of fear in which people are reluctant to talk about certain violations and abuses.” [UNSMIL] The report warns armed groups to refrain from “indiscriminate shelling, enforced disappearances, murder, abductions, torture and other ill-treatment, and destruction of property,” as these actions amount to war crimes. See UNSMIL & OHCHR, Overview of Violations; see also Rome Statute, art. 8(2)(a).

Although international humanitarian law forbids attacks against medical facilities, hospitals have been attacked in Tripoli and Benghazi. The report notes that dozens of civilians have been abducted, and that these abductions may amount to enforced disappearances if the parties do not acknowledge where the individuals are. UNSMIL estimates that 100,000 individuals are internally displaced, and that 150,000 individuals have fled Libya. Torture and unlawful killings, including public executions, have also been reported in Benghazi and Tripoli. At the time the report was drafted, courts in Tripoli were not functioning. The report is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to “highlight some of the main abuses and violations.” See UNSMIL & OHCHR,

The report included a series of recommendations for the Libyan government and the armed groups. It recommends that civilian protection be a top priority and that armed groups refrain from violating international law by releasing individuals who are detained and handing over their members that have committed human rights abuses to the justice system. The Libyan authorities were encouraged to: hold individuals accountable for human rights violations by instituting transitional justice measures and initiating prosecutions, cooperate fully with the ICC, and build State institutions. See id.

Additional Information

For additional information on international humanitarian law and the International Criminal Court, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. For further information about the armed groups that compose the Libya Dawn and Zintan alliance militias, see Human Rights Watch’s website.