International Criminal Liability for Unlawful Use of Force
February 25, 2011

(New York) - Members and commanders of the Libyan security forces, as well as foreign fighters, can be punished under international law for the unlawful use of force or firearms, Human Rights Watch said today. The prohibition applies, regardless of the person's rank, to the unlawful use of force against protesters and in any other situation in which the people using unlawful force are acting as law enforcement officials, Human Rights Watch said.

Criminal liability can apply to those who commit the crimes, as well as those who give the orders and those in a position of command who should have been aware of the abuses and failed to prevent them or report or prosecute those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

"Every policeman, soldier, and foreign fighter in Libya is on notice," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The world is watching you. You can be punished to the full extent of the law if you carry out unlawful attacks, and there is no immunity, even if you act under orders. You have a duty to disobey unlawful orders."

In addition to attacks on protesters, other acts of security forces that can and have led to criminal prosecutions include: unlawful detention, physical or mental abuse of detainees, and failure to ensure medical assistance at the earliest opportunity to anyone who is injured.

The use of force by state security forces is governed by international standards, and subject to international legal obligations that are binding on Libya, Human Rights Watch said.

Libya is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits arbitrary killings, including those resulting from unlawful or excessive use of force. This prohibition imposes an obligation on states to investigate, and where appropriate, to prosecute any such alleged killings.

The United Nations Principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials state that intentional use of lethal force or firearms is only permitted where "strictly unavoidable in order to protect life." It requires states to ensure that those responsible for arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms are punished in the criminal justice system, including those in command and those who follow unlawful orders.