Dear Minister Le Drian,

We are writing to you ahead of the planned ministerial meeting on Libya that you are co-chairing with your Italian counterpart and with the participation of global leaders during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, on Thursday September 26, 2019, to urge you to work with your colleagues from Italy and other countries to prioritize human rights concerns and the need for accountability for serious crimes as part of the discussion.

We have noted with growing concern the absence of accountability and human rights during negotiations for a truce and for a political settlement to end the current bloodshed in Libya. We firmly believe that an increased focus on justice and accountability is a necessary element to addressing violations and abuses in Libya and helping to deter further crimes.

The current fighting around Tripoli started in April 2019 when General Khalifa Hiftar, commander of the eastern armed group known as Libya National Army, launched an attack against armed groups in Tripoli that support the rival UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The fighting has resulted in over one thousand people killed, including more than one hundred civilians, and over one hundred and twenty thousand internally displaced people. Armed groups supporting all sides of the conflict are responsible for extensive damage to civilian infrastructure, have targeted medical personnel and have reportedly violated the arms embargo multiple times. 

Libya’s woes started long before the ongoing conflict. Over the past five years, Human Rights Watch has documented violations of international law in east, west and in southern Libya, including unlawful executions, abductions and enforced disappearances, and attacks on civilian infrastructure. Most of 48,000 people from Tawergha near Misrata remain displaced since 2011 despite multiple reconciliation agreements between Tawerghans and officials in Misrata, and families from Benghazi, Derna and Ajdabiya who oppose the LNA cannot return to their homes in eastern Libya for fear of torture, arbitrary detention and extra judicial killings.

Thousands of Libyans are held in long-term arbitrary detention, in abusive conditions, and without charge in prisons run by the Justice, Interior and Defense ministries of both competing governments in the east and west of the country. We have documented widespread and systematic ill treatment and abusive conditions in these prisons.

Migrants and asylum seekers held by smugglers and traffickers or in detention centers linked with the GNA suffer inhumane treatment, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and violence, including sexual assault, beatings and whippings. Outsourcing of migration controls to Libyan authorities by EU institutions and member states, and the EU’s collective abdication of responsibility for rescue at sea have contributed to the dire situation in Libya.

Journalists, media workers  and activists are regularly harassed and attacked  by authorities and armed groups in all parts of the country and most independent journalists have as a result fled the country. The space for critical speech has almost shut. Likewise, lawyers, judges and prosecutors have also been subjected to attacks and pressure by armed groups, which in part has led to the collapse of the national criminal justice system.

In Libya, there is a dire need to address the culture of impunity. The international community should work to ensure concrete consequences for the ongoing commission of serious crimes in the country. Due to the effective collapse of the domestic criminal justice system, Libyan authorities have failed to investigate or prosecute those responsible for grave abuses. While the International Criminal Court (ICC) has a mandate in the country, the court’s reach will also likely be limited to a handful of individuals considered to be most responsible for the crimes committed.  At the same time, our research has shown that foregoing accountability or insisting on a political settlement conditioned on impunity is simply not sustainable.

We therefore urge you together with other concerned actors to:

  • Publicly and unequivocally state that anyone responsible for violations of international law should be held accountable. This includes senior Libyan government officials, both civilian and military, who fail to make serious efforts to end or prevent violations by groups under their command;
  • Ensure that human rights and accountability are integral to any political settlement talks. A diverse pool of Libyan human rights activists should be supported to lead these efforts;
  • Ensure stronger implementation of the sanctions program that has been in place since 2011, given reported rampant violations of the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya that resulted in weapons and ammunitions reaching armed groups responsible for serious human rights violations;
  • Support the call of Libyan and international NGOs for the establishment of an international inquiry, with a mandate to document, monitor and publicly report on the human rights situation in Libya during the March 2020 session at the Human Rights Council as the next best opportunity. This mechanism should work to identify those responsible for serious crimes and human rights abuses, including against migrants and refugees, with a view to contributing to credible accountability efforts at the national and international levels. Ghassan Salameh, UN Special Representative to Libya, and the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights have endorsed this call;
  • Condition any support and engagement with Libyan authorities on the end of abuses against migrants and asylum seekers, call on Libyan authorities to shutter detention centers, and facilitate the evacuation of detained migrants and asylum seekers to safe places outside of Libya. France should accelerate resettlement of refugees evacuated out of Libya to safe third countries.
  • Support efforts by the International Criminal Court in Libya, including by pressing for the surrender of individuals wanted by the court and ensuring that the ICC prosecutor has sufficient resources to effectively carry out her work.

Thank you for your attention. We are happy to discuss these issues in detail at your convenience.

Warm Regards,

Bénédicte Jeannerod 
Director, France 
Human Rights Watch 

Hanan Salah
Senior Libya Researcher 
Human Rights Watch

Cc: UN Secretary General, Foreign ministers of Italy, Germany, UAE, Egypt, and Turkey, and representatives of permanent member states, the European Union, the African Union, and the Arab League