To understand the current lawlessness in Libya, it helps to look at Muammar Gaddafi’s death two years ago today.
On October 20, 2011, armed rebels captured the dictator hiding in a drainpipe in Sirte after his convoy was bombed by NATO. He was captured alive but promptly ended up dead, his body on display in a meat locker in the nearby city of Misrata.
Less reported, that day anti-Gaddafi fighters also captured and killed at least 66 men from Gaddafi’s convoy. Armed groups apparently from Misrata brought these men to the nearby Mahari Hotel on the sea, where they shot them in cold blood.
Human Rights Watch visited the hotel the next day and saw the bodies in the garden, some with their hands tied behind their backs. A phone video by a militia member showed some of the same people alive and in custody the day before.
The Libyan authorities at the time, the National Transitional Council, promised to investigate the death of Muammar Gaddafi and his son Mutassim. That never happened.
Human Rights Watch presented the current government with our detailed findings about the killings at the Mahari Hotel. No known investigation is underway.
The groups who apparently took part in these crimes are known. They identified themselves with graffiti on the Mahari Hotel walls. They boasted about capturing the dictator, whose forces had committed horrible crimes in Misrata and elsewhere.
The failure to investigate systematic executions helped set the stage for the militia lawlessness in Libya today. Impunity for those and subsequent crimes sent the message that Libya’s armed groups stand above the law.
The reasons for today’s lawlessness are complex. Many militias outgun the state, and some of the militias responsible for today’s crimes did not exist at the time of the armed uprising against Gaddafi.
What remains essential is that the Libyan government and its allies abroad work together to bolster law-abiding state security forces and a justice system that holds perpetrators to account. The government should apply the law, no matter who the victim and who the perpetrator. The impartial nature of justice was one of the principles that brought the popular movement against Gaddafi to the streets.