(For information on the 2011 crisis, please click here.)
On 23 October 2011, Libyans celebrated as the NTC officially declared the country’s liberation. Shortly after, the NTC announced the formation of its interim government, which was charged with the uneasy tasks of achieving security, stability, and restoration of normal life in addition to organizing elections for parliament.
Despite the initial success of the 2011 revolution, the situation in Libya quickly deteriorated as the multiple militias and rebel groups who had fought against Gaddafi rapidly took possession of the massive stockpile of weapons acquired during the dictator’s four-decade reign. The interim government failed to secure control over Gaddafi’s arsenal and, in February 2014, an expert report to the UN Security Council determined that most weapons continued to be controlled by non-State armed groups. In addition, the militias owned weapons which had been provided to them by foreign governments, such as Franceand Qatar, during the revolution.
Awash in weapons, the militias and armed rebel groups refused to disarm and be integrated into the military. In addition to the domestic security implications of this proliferation, the UN Panel of Experts concluded in April 2013 that Libya had become a “significant and attractive source of weaponry in the region,” fueling conflicts throughout the Sahel-Sahara region and beyond.
For more on the implications from Libya’s weapons proliferation on regional crises, see ICRtoP 20 October 2014 blog, “‘Denying the Means:’ Small Arms Proliferation and Mass Atrocities.”
The numerous militias, previously united in their fight against Gaddafi, turned against one another when the revolution ended. With limited initiatives of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, the NTC decided to put the militias on its payroll, resulting in the further proliferation of armed groups which increasingly used their power to pursue political, ideological, or criminal agendas. Thus, the interim government and the successively elected governments failed to establish effective control over the various rebel groups and a state of lawlessness gradually engulfed the country. Human Rights Watch reported a deteriorating security atmosphere as the myriad of armed groups with different agendas and affiliations vied for power over the country’s territory and resources. The government’s inability to control them became obvious when, on 11 September 2012 armed militants, suspected of being affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia, the most radical Islamist militia in Libya, attacked the U.S. embassy in Benghazi killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and 3 other U.S. officials. In September 2013 militias took over key oil fields and ports in Libya, stripping the government of a vital source of revenue and legitimacy. The various armed groups also terrorized people and committed human rights abuses. In March 2014 Human Rights Watch warned that government institutions in the country, in particular the judicial system, were at risk of collapse. As a result, the Libyan ambassador to the UN cautioned the Security Council on 27 August, 2014 that Libya is now on the verge of “a full-blown civil war.”
Following elections in August 2012, the NTC transferred power to the General National Congress (GNC). As the first legitimately elected legislative body since the end of the revolution, the GNC was tasked with drafting a permanent constitution and assigning a government to rule the country until elections in late 2013. However, the Islamist-controlled GNC failed to meet its 18-month deadline for drafting a constitution and instead extended its mandate until Dec. 2014.
The GNC decisions provoked protests by many in Libya who opposed the protraction of the country’s political transition. The situation quickly escalated as General Khalifa Haftar, former member of Gaddafi's military turned rebel, gathered an armed group called the “Libyan National Army” (LNA). On 16 May, 2014, the group launched an offensive called “Operation Libyan Dignity” against Islamist militias and the GNC in May 2014. Soon after, on 19 May 2014, Haftar’s group grew larger as the former Libyan army’s Special Forces pledged support to the LNA. The fighting forced the GNC to organize newelections on 25 June 2014. The results of these elections plunged Libya into an even deeper crisis.
In the latest elections Islamist parties lost to more liberal and federalist candidates. This brought losses for Islamist militias and gains for General Haftar, who backs the newly-elected Libyan parliament (also known as the House of Representatives), which replaced the Islamist GNC. In August 2014 the House of Representatives had to move to the eastern port city of Tobruk in order to escape fighting between rival armed groups in the capital of Tripoli. The fighting in Tripoli began when a coalition of Islamist forces from the town of Misrata, united under the name of “Libyan Dawn,” refused to accept the election results and began a siege of Tripoli International Airport in an attempt to reinstate the GNC as the ruling government. After a five-week fight, on 23 August 2014, the Libyan Dawn coalition successfully took control over the Tripoli airport and proclaimed the restoration of the GNC as the governing authority of Libya. In effect, this has led to the existence of two opposing governments: the GNC backed by the “Libyan Dawn” Islamist alliance in Tripoli, and the officially elected House of Representatives in Tobruk, backed by Khalifa Haftar’s “Operation Dignity.”
Humanitarian Consequences and Calls for Action
While the battle for Libya is raging, the Libyan people have suffered devastating consequences, which have been exposed by civil society and in UN reports. According to OCHA estimates, around 2 million people have been affected by the recent conflict. OCHA’s recent figures estimate that more than 1000 people have died, while 107,028 are internally displaced and more than 150,000 people have sought refuge abroad. For those staying in Libya, the fighting has led to frequent power cuts and shortages of essential supplies.
A UNSMIL report from 4 September2014 details serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including some that may amount to war crimes, such as indiscriminate shelling, detentions, torture, abductions, and destruction of medical facilities. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also warned that such indiscriminate attacks constitute war crimes. The OHCHR stressed that perpetrators of such crimes could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. The ICC prosecutor has also stated that her office “will not hesitate to investigate and prosecute those crimes,” although no action has been taken yet.
Lawyers for Justice in Libya, a local civil society organization, has underscored that activists and members of civil society are singled out in attacks and assassinations. Furthermore, torture remains prevalent in many facilities while the perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity for their crimes. They warn that “the Libyan state’s ongoing tolerance of such grave acts may constitute a crime against humanity” and remind the House of Representatives of their responsibilities under international law to prevent and prosecute such crimes.
In response to attacks on human rights activists in Benghazi, Human Rights Watch warned that assassinations may constitute crimes against humanity and reiterated their calls for an international inquiry and prosecutions of the perpetrators. In a statement on 14 October 2014, UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid condemned the attacks on human rights defenders. He warned that attacks against civil society create a "climate of fear." The High Commissioner urged for prompt investigations to hold the perpetrators accountable, noting that "attacks against civilians are war crimes" over which the ICC has jurisdiction. On 15 October 2014, 15 civil society organizations urgently requested the United Nations Human Rights Council to hold a special session on accountability for grave and widespread human rights violations in Libya.
Violence in Benghazi further intensified in October 2014 when General Haftar vowed to “liberate” the city of terrorist groups. The fighting elicited international condemnation from the EU. In a joint statement from 18 October 2014, the governments of the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, and the U.K. expressed their conviction in the need for a political process to stop the violence.
International and Regional Responses to Post-Conflict Crisis
The escalating violence prompted Libya’s parliament to call on the Security Council to “immediately intervene to protect civilians and state institutions.” However, Member States have rejected any outside interference, expressing a desire for “peaceful and inclusive dialogue and within the framework of a political process.” On 29 September 2014 an UN-mediateddialogue aimed at resolving the crisis began in the Libyan town of Ghadames. It remains to be seen how effective the dialogue will be, given that Islamist militias have boycotted it.
In response to the conflict, the SC unanimously passed Resolution 2174 condemning the use of violence and calling for those responsible to be held accountable. Notably, the Resolution also extended the sanctions regime established in Resolution 1970 to target those responsible for the current violence. On October 2, 2014 the SC reaffirmed its readiness to use “targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans against individuals and entities that threatened Libya’s peace and stability.”
Regional actors have also become involved in the conflict, with some taking sides, which has raised concerns of a proxy war among rival Arab states in the region. On the one hand, the governments of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have allegedly carried out airstrikes on behalf of the elected government against Islamist militants in the country, while the governments of Turkey and Qatar are said to be backing the Islamist groups. Egypt has also offered military training and support to Libyan pro-government forces, while Algeria has developed a plan to solve the crisis through hosting a national dialogue between the rival parties. On 19 October 2014, the governments of Egypt and Sudan pledged support for the Libyan military in its fight with armed militias. Sudan’s pledges come as a surprise, given allegations that it has aided Islamist militias in the past. The involvement of regional actors has the potential to complicate the situation even further, compromising the prospects of reaching a political solution anytime soon. A 24 September 2014 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace cautions against any side-taking and urges outside actors to stop equipping and funding armed groups in the country. Instead, fighting parties must be encouraged to reconcile their differences in an inclusive political process.
Libya and the Responsibility to Rebuild
Libya was a test-case for implementing the third pillar of RtoP. Despite its initial success, however, Libya’s revolution did not bring lasting peace and failed to prevent renewed violence. Libya’s crisis shows that the Responsibility to Protect does not end when conflict stops. Rather, it is a continuous process that requires post-conflict capacity-building in order to prevent a reoccurrence of atrocities. As such, it requires a responsibility to rebuild the state once the conflict is over. In his 2012 report “The Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response,” Ban Ki-moon explains that this process might include “building the institutions, legislation, practices and attitudes to lessen the likelihood of…[atrocity] reoccurrence.” Otherwise, the state may be unable to discharge its obligations for the protection of citizens in the long run. The post-revolutionary Libya never developed the capacity to enforce a lasting peace and stability in the country. The case of Libya thus serves as a stark reminder that failing to strengthen the state’s capacity for upholding its “responsibility to protect” jeopardizes the success of the country in the long run.
Special thanks to Aleksandra Angelova for her work in writing this page.