GENEVA – Investigators commissioned by the United Nations' top human rights body said Monday they had evidence of possible crimes against humanity and war crimes in Libya. Many of the alleged crimes, they say, were committed against civilians and migrants detained in the country while trying to get to Europe.
Their findings come amid an unprecedented crackdown in Libya in recent days that has led to the detention of more than 5,000 migrants, including hundreds of children and women. Violence during the raids left at least one migrant dead, according to a U.N. tally obtained by The Associated Press on Monday.
The Libyan government had no immediate comment on the U.N. findings and has said the arrest campaign is a security operation against illegal migration and drug trafficking.
The report is the first from a “fact-finding mission” commissioned by the Human Rights Council. It includes accounts of murder, torture, enslavement, extrajudicial killings and rape. Its release could be a signal to international powers, like Russia and the European Union, to reassess their policies and support for some of the war's parties.
The report also comes at a sensitive time for Libya, where a transitional unity government is set to hold national elections by late this year, amid pressure from the U.N. and other world powers. Libyan lawmakers adopted a bill Monday regulating the parliamentary elections, said Abdullah Bliheg, a spokesman for the legislature, in a step toward making the vote happen.
Fighting has wracked Libya since the fall of former autocrat Moammar Gadhafi a decade ago. The country was for years split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups.
“Our investigations have established that all parties to the conflict, including third-state foreign fighters and mercenaries, have violated international humanitarian law, in particular the principle of proportionality and distinction," said Mohamed Auajjar, a former Moroccan justice minister who led the team. "Some have also committed war crimes.”
The principle of distinction requires parties to armed conflicts to distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects, while the principle of proportionality dictates warring sides must ensure limited incidental damage. The team also found that the practice of arbitrary disappearances and violence inside Libyan prisons could amount to crimes against humanity.
The experts cite reports indicating that the Libyan coast guard — which has been trained and equipped by the EU as part of efforts to stanch the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean — has mistreated migrants and handed some over to detention centers where there is widespread torture and sexual violence.
A report from the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, dated Oct. 3 but obtained by The AP on Monday, showed that 5,152 migrants have been detained in the series of raids in the western Libya town of Gargaresh since just Friday. Those numbers are likely to increase, the report said, as the crackdown continues. Authorities have distributed the migrants to detention centers in the capital of Tripoli. At least 4,187 of the detainees, including 511 women and 60 children, were sent to just one detention center, which the report's authors said was well over its capacity.
Libya has emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, hoping for a better life in Europe. But the lawlessness has made Libya’s detention centers rife with abuses, according to rights activists and migrants who make it out.
Another expert from the U.N. mission, Chaloka Beyani, said policies meant to push migrants back to Libya to keep them away from European shores ultimately lead to abuses.
“Upon return, and as our report indicates, this is one of the areas where we think that crimes against humanity have been committed,” said the London School of Economics law professor from Zambia.
The report cites findings that some 87,000 migrants have been intercepted by the Libyan coast guard since 2016, including about 7,000 who are now in centers run by the the country's Department for Combating Illegal Migration.
The experts also addressed the issue of foreign mercenaries operating in Libya's conflict. They said there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that personnel from a Russian private military company known as the Wagner Group, “may have committed the crime of murder.” The experts said they had documented an instance when forces from the group fired gunshots directly at people not taking direct part in the hostilities.
A U.N. panel found in 2020 that the group had provided between 800 and 1,200 mercenaries to support the offensive by Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter in his 14-month-long offensive on the capital Tripoli.
The fact-finding mission, which covers possible rights violations since 2016, adds to a litany of news reports, U.N. studies and warnings from advocacy groups about deadly violence, mistreatment of migrants and horrific conditions of detention across Libya in recent years.
The team, which drew from hundreds of documents and interviewed more than 150 people, including survivors of alleged torture, said it had some limited access to Libya — and spoke to prosecutors and Libyan authorities. But commissioned only last year by the Geneva-based council, they said more research is needed to identify both the Libyans and foreigners who should be held accountable.
Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert and senior fellow at the Global Initiative, said the findings are nothing new.
“A U.N. report coming out at this juncture, asserting the same, may carry a bit more weight, but won’t make much of a difference,” Harchaoui said.
Magdy reported from aboard the Geo Barents in the Mediterranean Sea.