Many humanitarian activists are calling on the international community to combat the growing human trafficking network in Libya. Volatility and political infighting in the country have complicated international humanitarian efforts, prompting stronger calls to coordinate, support, and enhance Libya’s capability to ensure human rights.
The fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 created a political vacuum. Since then, the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and rival faction, led by former Prime Minister Khalifa ad-Ghwell, have fought for political control. Instability has allowed the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to gain control of certain areas in the country. Many ISIL members travelled from Iraq and Syria after fleeing offensive operations against ISIL in those countries. U.S. intelligence has estimated that the number of ISIL fighters in Libya has doubled since 2014.
Due to inflation and a sharp decrease in oil production, experts are warning that the country’s economy is near collapse. Since 2011, the market for smuggling and trafficking humans has surpassed the market for goods. Often, migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa use the services of traffickers to flee from violence and poverty and stop in Libya, hoping to eventually find their way into Europe. Often, migrants then face similar violence, or worse, than what they attempted to flee.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 260,000 migrants and refugees currently live in Libya. The IOM reports that half of the migrants who successfully reached southern Italy had been held against their will inside Libya. Traffickers often beat, torture, and kill migrants, depriving them of food, water, and sunlight, while commonly forcing them to beg their families for ransom. Sexual abuse is commonplace for women travelling through Libya. Many women expect sexual assault while travelling, and take contraceptives to prevent becoming pregnant by their rapists.
Libya’s 2011 constitution, the supreme law of Libya, focuses mostly on the transitional government. However, it does obligate Libya to “safeguard human rights” (Article 7) and guarantee a “proper standard of living” (Article 8.)
However, due to an assault on the legal system, traffickers perpetrate violence with relative impunity. The court systems in Benghazi, Derna, and Sebha were suspended indefinitely after armed militias directed death threats and violence towards judges and prosecutors formerly employed under Gaddafi. Since 2014, armed groups have bombed courts and killed, assaulted, and abducted judges and prosecutors. The transitional government’s Justice Police lack the training and manpower necessary to protect judicial officials. Some judges have successfully transferred to other Libyan cities, some have fled the country, and some have resigned. Collapsed and suspended, the judicial system leaves victims with little opportunity to seek protection or remedies.
Libya is a member state to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Article 6 of the ICCPR explains that every individual has a guaranteed right to life; Article 7 forbids torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and Article 8 states that no one should be held in slavery. CAT dictates that Libya must “ensure in its legal system that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress.”
Security Council Resolution 1970 (2001) granted the International Criminal Court (ICC) jurisdiction to prosecute human rights abuses in Libya, despite the fact that the country is not party to the Rome Statute. However, the ICC has only opened one case on Libya, against Gaddafi himself, which was withdrawn after his death. The Court has not issued any warrants since.
Many European countries have supported initiatives to prevent human smuggling from Libya into southern Europe, citing in part the high death rate of migrants travelling by boat to Italy: one in every twenty people dies before reaching shore. Some human rights activists have criticized the efforts, arguing that NATO and the EU are more focused on shutting down Libya’s border than preventing abuses. Magdalena Mughrabi, Interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International, argues that the international community should increase the number of resettlement places and humanitarian visas in their respective countries, rather than dedicating more resources to patrol smuggling routes in the Mediterranean. She urges the international community to help prevent abuses in Libya, so refugees do not need to flee Libya in the first place.
The Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 28/30 in 2015, requesting that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) investigate human rights abuses in Libya. In February of 2016, the resulting OHCHR report made several key recommendations for the Libyan government and the UN Security Council. The report calls on the Libyan government to provide effective judicial remedies, address the proliferation of armed groups, resume state-building activities, prevent the recruitment of children into ISIL, and implement gender-sensitive protections and reporting mechanisms. It also recommends that the Security Council list individuals responsible for human rights violations under the current sanctions regime of the Security Council, increase the capacity of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to carry out monitoring and capacity-building activities, and follow up with the findings of abuses in the report.
On October 31, 2016, the United States and the United Kingdom convened a ministerial meeting in hopes of moving past the political stalemate between the GNA and the rival administration, which has prevented Libya from rebuilding its government and economy. Hopefully, this meeting signals an increased commitment from the international community, and a shift towards the enforcement of Libyan’s human rights.