Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Perils Facing Libyan Civilians

International community need to ensure that it protects non-combatants from violence by both sides in the conflict.
By Nasser
  • Migrants workers flee the Libyan conflict. (Photo: Magharebia/Flickr)
    Migrants workers flee the Libyan conflict. (Photo: Magharebia/Flickr)

The Libyan regime’s crackdown on the protest movement has led to mass casualties, but there is always the risk that opposition forces will carry out human rights abuses too.

Civilians have been taking up arms in a very disorganised way, and this can be dangerous. The international coalition needs to remember that their mandate is to protect civilians. If the rebels harm civilians, what will they do?

And the transitional government in Benghazi has to do more to organise and control the actions of armed groups to rule out the risk of abuse.

There is a possibility that if the rebels enter major cities like Sirte – where Muammar Gaddafi’s tribe is based – civilians could be caught in the middle. Even though the rebels’ target is the removal of the regime, rather than ordinary Libyans, there is a fear that if the pro-Gaddafi tribes resist this might lead to revenge attacks and the loss of even more lives.

But I hope there will not be widespread acts of revenge. Opposition figures have been very clear in their public statements that they want a new Libya, where the rule of law is established and there’s no room for acts of revenge. This suggests they are being wise.

The rebel forces, it seems, are made up essentially of two groups. One comprises elements of the regular army who have defected. There is discipline there, and acts of revenge are less likely. Then there are the civilians who have volunteered, who are less organised and disciplined, and I assume with them there is a danger they could lose control.

It is impossible to prevent revenge on a personal level, where people take the law into their own hands. But the transitional government must show its willingness to investigate crimes committed in the past and prosecute the perpetrators. This will help reassure people that justice will indeed be done.

I would say that intervention, under the mandate of the United Nations Security Council, has been a success in terms of protecting civilians.

Without the intervention of the international community, there would have been a massacre in Benghazi. It would have been attacked with tanks and heavy arms, resulting in a huge civilian loss of life.

From media reports, it does seem that civilians elsewhere have already been targeted by the regime, and there is suspicion that crimes against humanity have been committed.

The human rights situation in Libya has long been one characterised by gross violations, even though Libya is a party to almost all major human rights conventions, including the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

And although Libya is obliged by these to respect the rights of its citizens, its actions clearly demonstrate the opposite.

Over the year, various abuses have been documented and published in a number of reports issued by non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, AI, and Human Rights Watch, HRW.

With the engagement with the West in recent years, there had been some signs of willingness to institute some degree of reform. The regime seemed to be beginning to address the issue of human rights, even if just to improve their image to the outside world.

In 2007, there was a promise of a constitution, and a draft version was even published, but this offer was later withdrawn because the old guard was not happy with it.

There were hopes that the regime might address other pressing issues, for example the case of the Abu Salim prison massacre in which over 1,000 detained prisoners, mostly with Islamist backgrounds, were killed in 1996.

The families were only told about the fate of their relatives a few years ago, when there was a promise of a trial to establish what had happened. However, this was never realised and no one has ever been held accountable for the deaths.

Still, there were other periodic concessions, for instance the freeing of political prisoners from time to time - hundreds released in annual waves of amnesties.

But the regime offered little more, and even the promises of reform stopped.

I think there was a conflict between the conservatives and the reformists. And of course, nothing is done in Libya without the personal and direct involvement of Gaddafi. I can only assume that he decided that even minimal reform was a threat to the regime and allowing some other views to emerge would threaten his authority.

The West could and should have done more, but it seemed more concerned with agreeing business contracts with the regime rather than responding to the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people. There wasn’t much insistence that Tripoli do more to allow political participation or freedom of speech. So the regime felt comfortable with carrying on with repression.

Now I fear for the future, and that the country will be dragged into civil conflict. I would have loved to see a revolution similar to that of Egypt, a peaceful mass movement for democratic reform.

Unfortunately in Libya’s case it turned violent. The regime suppressed the uprising by force and didn’t allow people to go to the streets and demand change.

The International Criminal Court, ICC, is investigating whether crimes against humanity have been committed by the regime, but I am not sure we will see any justice done through the ICC. The latter can take a long time – look at the case of Slobodan Milosevic, he died in custody.

I believe domestic justice would be more effective. And it is important because it is closer to the victims and the scene of the crimes, in both a physical and emotional sense. Ideally, if the Gaddafi falls and we achieve democracy, we should be the ones to try the regime for the crimes it has committed.

Nasser is a 35-year-old from Tripoli, who is currently studying human rights in Europe.

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