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Libya: All Sides Obligated to Protect Civilians

National Transitional Council Should Protect Vulnerable Sites and Groups, Not Seek Revenge

(New York) – As fighting reaches the Libyan capital, Tripoli, all sides to the conflict – forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, forces of the National Transitional Council, and the NATO allies – need to ensure that they take all feasible steps to avoid harming civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. The National Transitional Council (NTC) should instruct its forces not to engage in acts of revenge, Human Rights Watch said.

“The pro-Gaddafi forces, fighters of the National Transitional Council, and NATO must do everything feasible to protect civilians caught in the fighting,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “NTC forces should not carry out reprisals against those who fought for or supported the Gaddafi government.”

Internally displaced persons in areas now controlled by NTC forces need immediate protection, Human Rights Watch said. Dark-skinned Libyans face particular risks, Human Rights Watch said, because they have frequently been accused of fighting as pro-Gaddafi mercenaries from other African countries.

Human Rights Watch also called on NTC forces to protect state institutions such as police stations, security offices, courts, prisons, and other facilities that could come under attack from NTC fighters or angry Tripoli residents. Arms depots and military facilities that may be vulnerable to looting should also be secured.

All those detained by rebel forces, including pro-Gaddafi fighters and Gaddafi supporters as well as members of the Gaddafi family, should be treated humanely in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law standards, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the NTC, on August 21, 2011, its forces arrested Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader, who is among those sought on an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for crimes against humanity. The ICC Office of the Prosecutor said that Seif al-Islam was reportedly detained by “rebel special forces.”

Seif al-Islam and others wanted by the ICC should be handed over to the courtfor fair trial, Human Rights Watch said. In April the NTC sent a letter to the ICC prosecutor promising to cooperate with the court.

On June 27, the ICC judges issued warrants for Muammar Gaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam, and Libya's intelligence chief, Abdullah Sanussi. They are wanted on charges of crimes against humanity for their roles in attacks on civilians, including peaceful demonstrators, in Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata, and other Libyan cities and towns after the start of anti-government protests in eastern Libya on February 15.

From August 4 to 11 Human Rights Watch sent a four-person team in Tripoli and other government-held parts of western Libya. The team engaged senior Libyan officials about human rights violations during the conflict and visited sites of NATO airstrikes where civilians are alleged to have died. It conducted brief visits to two prisons in Tripoli.

Since anti-government protests erupted in mid-February 2011, followed by armed clashes, government forces have committed numerous violations of the laws of war, including indiscriminate attacks in places with civilians such as Misrata and towns in the Western Mountains.

Rebel forces have carried out some acts of revenge in areas they captured that supported the government, including looting, arson, and some beatings of civilians. Opposition leaders have condemned such attacks and in speeches and television broadcasts over the past 24 hours have urged their fighters not to engage in retaliatory violence.

“The NTC has made welcome statements against revenge, but the danger of these attacks still exists,” Stork said. “Opposition leaders and the governments supporting them should keep pressing to avoid atrocities motivated by revenge.”

NATO forces should also take all feasible measures to avoid civilian casualties in their airstrikes, as required by international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch. Some airstrikes in western Libya recently inspected by Human Rights Watch apparently caused civilian deaths.

Libya is facing the possibility of a new state that respects fundamental rights,” said Stork. “But what happens in the next few days will set the tone for all that lies ahead.” 

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