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Update: The Security Council voted on March 17 to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, with the exception of foreign occupation. In response, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said: “For the second time in a month, the Security Council has defied expectations and risen to the occasion by making clear that all options are on the table to prevent mass atrocities in Libya. We hope that from now on, the Security Council will consistently live up to its duty to protect civilians in Libya and beyond.”

(New York) - The Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's violent crackdown on protests and his long record of serious abuses raise grave concerns for the safety of the civilian population in Benghazi and other eastern cities as the fighting in Libya shifts eastward, Human Rights Watch said today.

The international community, and especially the UN Security Council meeting on March 17, 2011, has a responsibility to use necessary and appropriate measures to protect civilians from large-scale atrocities, Human Rights Watch said.

"Libyan security forces' possible capture of Benghazi heightens concerns of more abuses as we've seen elsewhere in Libya, including killings and disappearances," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The world should not ignore the serious abuses by Libyan security forces over the past month, as well as Gaddafi's demonstrated disregard for human rights over four decades."

Since the Libyan uprising began on February 17, Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which government forces opened fire on peaceful protesters and the arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance of scores of people.

The Libyan government has prevented journalists and human rights researchers from gaining access to areas of fighting and places of detention, thereby preventing independent monitoring of government conduct.

"Gaddafi would not impose an information blockade if his forces were treating people well," Whitson said.

Gaddafi's deplorable human rights record over 41 years in power enhances the deep anxiety for the safety of the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said. Since he assumed power in 1969, Gaddafi has repeatedly used arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and political killings to maintain control.

The most notorious incident occurred in 1996 after a failed prisoners' revolt at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison. Security forces later killed an estimated 1,200 prisoners. The government recently started a process to compensate the families of some of those killed, but it has failed to punish any of the responsible security forces.

"The threat against Benghazi today is amplified by the seriousness of the uprising, which started in the east as a protest against Gaddafi's abusive rule," Whitson said.

As the United Nations General Assembly recognized in 2005, each state has a responsibility to prevent war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and genocide within its borders. When it fails in that duty, other states, through the United Nations, have the responsibility to use those measures that are necessary and appropriate to protect civilian populations from such crimes.

In a fast-changing environment with incomplete reporting of facts on the ground, Human Rights Watch urged the UN Security Council to consider the full range of options available to meet its responsibility to protect civilians from large-scale atrocities.

Human Rights Watch called on both the Libyan government and opposition forces to abide by international humanitarian law, stressing the duty of all forces to reject orders to kill noncombatants or to mistreat anyone in custody.

The UN Security Council referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court on February 26, giving the court jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"Government and rebel forces should take note that the world is watching, and war crimes will be punished," Whitson said.

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