Rarely a day goes by without news from Syria or Iraq, on attacks, the continuous fighting and ongoing humanitarian crisis. It is undoubtedly the focus of international attention, even though other countries such as Libya and Yemen also experience persistent armed conflict, insecurity and enormous humanitarian challenges.
A few years back, the situation in Libya was actively reported on in the western mainstream media. However, the last big public discussions seemed to be limited to former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her connection as the former US Secretary of State to the killing of US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi. Now with the U.S. election finished, once in a while a news article on ISIS activity in Libya and other militia groups might catch our eye. But the bigger question on the current situation in Libya is not widely reported on by the international media. So where is the country now six years after Gaddafi was overthrown and hopes for a democratic and peaceful Nation seem fleeting?
Colonel Gaddafi had been in power since 1969, internationally condemned as a dictator violating the human rights of the Libyan population and amassing huge military arsenals. During the Arab Spring of 2011 Gaddafi and his government was overthrown by a large number of rebel groups and militia, supported by a number of developed countries, accompanied by a military intervention by a multi-State NATO-led coalition. The General National Council (GNC) subsequently took power but security problems remained widespread as the national military was left in a weak state and militia groups were now in possession of many of the arms and weapons amassed by Gaddafi and often funded by various political parties for their own protection. This situation enabled militia groups to seize control of almost all of Libya.
A return to security and stability was further hindered by political challenges that followed. The GNC was tasked with the responsibility of forming an interim government and drafting a constitution to be approved in a referendum, though this process was never completed. A number of GNC prime ministers came and were replaced, showing strong political disagreements. Elections were held to form the new body of the House of Representatives (HoR), but dominated by secularists and liberals and accompanied by violence and a low turnout the elections were not marked as success. The Islamist lawmakers in the GNC refused to recognise the HoR mandate and with the support of strong militia groups they occupied Tripoli. The newly elected parliament had to flee to eastern Libya.
Since then, the two rivalling governments have continued to set up administrative bodies. The UN recognises the elected HoR but continues to host efforts for both entities to find political agreement and national unity. A 2015 UN agreement declared the HoR as national legislative body while the GNC would become the President Council, a second chamber with veto and advisory powers. Together, both entities form the Government of National Accord. However, until now the agreement has not been put into practice with strong disagreements on both sides as to the exact terms of cooperation and a breakdown of cooperation earlier this year. Just earlier this March, the former HoR voted to annul its previous acceptance of a presidential council and the UN-backed government. Both entities continue fighting, especially over territories with oil production infrastructure.
Even if the political situation sees solutions in 2017, the real question remains who is in actual control of the territory. Neither of the two national entities have de facto control over the majority of the Libyan population. There are currently more than 2000 militia groups active, though several main factions control large territories, such as Libya Dawn which is in control of most of western Libya, including Tripoli and Misrata. The country's second largest city of Benghazi remains under the control of Ansar al-Sharia, which was deemed the most dangerous Islamist militia in Libya until ISIS extended its presence in Libya. Al-Qaeda is also present, in control of the eastern town of Derna. ISIS is in control of a large portion of coastline around the city of Sirte.
During the clashing and fighting among these groups in the past years, a large number of human rights abuses and war crimes have been recorded. Large number of fighters and civilians are continuously being unlawfully detained, tortured and killed. The reports of indiscriminate attacks, abductions and disappearances, and forced displacements of civilians are numerous. Cluster munitions and antipersonnel landmines, weapons that are internationally prohibited are still being deployed by some groups. An international arms embargo is active, though there are reported violations. The UN puts the number of people impacted by the current situation at over 3 million across the country. 2.44 million people are reported to be in need of protection and some form of humanitarian assistance as Internally Displaces Persons (IDPs), non-displaced conflict affected populations, refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.
With a collapsed criminal justice system and widespread abuse, torture and deaths in detention facilities controlled by the military as well as in those controlled by militia groups, there is little protection of human rights in Libya today. The situation encourages large numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to make their way to Europe by sea. In 2015, Human Rights Watch reported over 143,500 people having arrived in Italy from North Africa, the vast majority from Libya. Unfortunately, at least 3100 others died at sea on the way.
Given reports from early 2017 that the eastern Libyan authority has no plans to resume talks with the UN-backed HoR in the west, hopes for a peaceful resolution of ongoing conflicts and fighting in Libya are slim. The UN Stabilization Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) aims to continue discussions with Libyan and international experts on national reconciliation, while stressing the importance of strengthening the fundamental economic situation in the country and the need to address the growing economic crisis. In fact, the current lack of instability interrupts Libyan oil production without which Libya does not have much of a revenue. To stabilize itself, the struggling government needs funds to restore social services, restore infrastructure and strengthen the currency. To help this effort, the U.S. carried out bombing attacks on ISIS camps in Libya, since ISIS activity threatened oil infrastructure in the Sirte region.
It remains to be seen whether the Libyan government can restore stability and security over the course of this year, possibly with the help of Western countries wanting to prevent the country becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups. If this mission fails, Libya is bound to continue as a failed State with grave consequences for its already suffering population.
Written by Marie-Luise Schwarzenberg and published on 19-April-2017