Despite Pact, Deliberate Damage, Security Concerns Prevent Return to Tawergha.
Most of the 48,000 former residents of the Libyan town of Tawergha, forcibly displaced for seven years, have not been able to return home, Human Rights Watch said today after visiting the town.
Despite reconciliation agreements that should have paved the way for Tawerghans’ return, the massive and deliberate destruction of the town and its infrastructure, and a pervasive feeling of insecurity, have kept all but a few families from returning.
New satellite imagery analysis shows that between 2013 and 2017, when militias from the nearby city of Misrata effectively controlled Tawergha, over 20 kilometers of the city’s underground electric cable network was most likely removed and apparently stolen.
“The militias, predominantly from Misrata, that uprooted and expelled the Tawerghans didn’t stop there but presided over the city’s systematic destruction, apparently to ensure that the displaced would find it impossible to return,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The Government of National Accord should urgently devise a strategy for Tawerghans’ safe return, ensuring reconstruction and security, and accountability for militia members and commanders responsible for deliberate displacement and destruction.”
The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor should consider possible war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Tawergha community as part of her office’s ongoing investigative efforts to address ongoing grave abuses in Libya, Human Rights Watch said.
An estimated 48,000 Tawerghans have been dispersed around the country since the uprising that ousted Gaddafi in 2011. In August of that year, the entire civilian population fled approaching anti-Gaddafi armed groups, predominantly from Misrata, fearing attacks and reprisals.
In what amounts to collective punishment and forced displacement, a possible crime against humanity, armed Misrata groups and civilian authorities subsequently blocked and threatened Tawerghans who tried to return home, accusing them of siding with Gaddafi and of committing atrocities against those seeking his overthrow.
People from Tawergha were unable to visit, let alone return, to their homes until the signing of the peace charter in 2018.
Representatives of the two cities signed a reconciliation charter in June that in principle provided for the Tawerghans’ return. But as of December, only about 100 families have attempted to resettle in their hometown, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Returnees face a devastated infrastructure, with no electricity, running water, or telecommunications, and scant education and health services. Some said they still feared attacks and retaliation by Misrata militias.
Human Rights Watch visited the Libyan town of Tawergha, where only a handful of the 48,000 former residents forcibly displaced for seven years have returned to their homes.
Human Rights Watch visited Tawergha in September and met with the Local Council, the main body representing and coordinating relief for the city, nongovernmental organizations, the commander in charge of security from the predominantly Misrata-staffed Central Military Region – a unit nominally aligned with the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Defense Ministry, and eight Tawerghan families who had returned.
Human Rights Watch also visited Misrata and met with municipal officials who negotiated the return process and are overseeing the implementation of peace agreements on Misrata’s behalf.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed by telephone in December five families from Tawergha living in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Ajdabiya, who have decided against returning, citing the destruction and security concerns. Names of those interviewed, other than officials, have been changed to protect them from possible reprisals.
Tawergha Local Council members told Human Rights Watch that all power stations, water purification plants, water distribution tanks, and underground electric cables had been looted or damaged to the point of being inoperable.
A tour of the city confirmed that this appeared to be wholly or largely true. Researchers also found that all public administrative buildings, including the courthouse, and the main bank branch, the general hospital and many if not all 22 schools suffered damage, much of it apparently from arson, as well as looting.
Local Council members said that all of the town’s private houses and shops had also been looted and damaged. When researchers drove through the town, and in nearby agricultural areas close to the river, every structure they saw or stopped at appeared to have some structural damage, including some caused by fire.
Three council members said that when displaced Tawerghans first attempted to return to the town in 2013, armed groups from Misrata looted and destroyed the town further to prevent their return.
Historic satellite imagery assessed by Human Rights Watch also shows continuing deliberate destruction of electricity infrastructure after April 2013.
Armed groups from Misrata and civilian authorities in that city have exercised effective control, without interruption, over Tawergha since August 2011.
The armed groups were largely affiliated with the Misrata Military Council, which coordinated military activities of armed groups from Misrata in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution.
Armed groups from Misrata, given their effective control of the city since 2011 either destroyed and looted the town themselves, or allowed others to do so, Human Rights Watch said.
Under international human rights and humanitarian law, the GNA, as the recognized and competent government authority, is required to facilitate the voluntary, safe and dignified return of displaced people to their homes and help them recover their homes, property and possessions, Human Rights Watch said.
The Libyan authorities are required to investigate and prosecute all those responsible for international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, including commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes committed by their subordinates and failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent the crimes.
During the visit, Human Rights Watch observed that, despite the GNA’s commitment, reconstruction and recovery have yet to start in earnest.
As of December 2018, the state electricity company had installed only one electricity cable, for street lights, on part of the main road. One NGO was retrieving unexploded remnants, and international organizations had provided limited food and non-food parcels, residents said.
The head of the Local Council of Tawergha, Abderrahman al-Shakshak told researchers during a meeting in Tawergha on September 24 that despite pledges by authorities, the initial phase of clearing debris and assessing damage was moving slowly.
All Tawerghan residents interviewed by telephone said the scale of destruction had prevented their return. Some expressed anxiety about being in a city that remained under the watch and effective control of Misrata militias.
Four of the five displaced Tawerghans interviewed also said they objected to provisions in the Reconciliation Charter that curbed their rights, including to express themselves.
Acts aimed at preventing the return of the civilian population to their homes in safety and dignity, including physically blocking people from going back and deliberate destruction and looting, are unlawful, Human Rights Watch said.
The ICC prosecutor has a mandate to investigate crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011.
Rampant militia violations since then have largely gone unpunished at the domestic or international level. That includes violations against Tawerghans, such as mass long-term arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, forced displacement, and unlawful killings.
The ICC prosecutor should probe ongoing grave crimes by all sides, including possible serious crimes against Tawerghans, including deliberate acts preventing their return.
“While nothing can reverse seven years of forced displacement and dispersal, a measure of accountability for causing and preventing their return will not only bring justice to victims of serious violations and restore dignity, but it could serve as a deterrent for future crimes,” Salah said.
Since August 2011, anti-Gaddafi fighters and later other militias, mostly from Misrata, arbitrarily detained, tortured, disappeared, and harassed people from Tawergha with impunity.
According to the Tawergha Local Council, 170 people from Tawergha remain missing, the majority of them, they said, having been disappeared by anti-Gaddafi fighters during, or in the immediate aftermath of, the 2011 revolution.
In June 2013 Tawergha residents who were dispersed around the country attempted to return, but militia barred them. Authorities in the eastern city of Ajdabiya intercepted and turned back a convoy of Tawerghans trying to make the journey from Benghazi.
The government at the time, religious leaders, local leaders, and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) all cautioned against a unilateral initiative by Tawerghans to return, citing security concerns.
The UN helped open a reconciliation process in 2016 between the people of Tawergha and Misrata aimed at ending the forced displacement and compensating victims.
Representatives of both sides signed an agreement in August 2016. It provided for a fund by the UN-backed GNA to compensate victims and for lifting obstacles imposed by Misrata groups to the Tawerghans’ return.
After months of wrangling, the two sides agreed in April 2017 to modify the agreement based on requests from Misrata. The final compensation plan appeared to favor victims from Misrata, who will receive a higher compensation, over victims from Tawergha and excluded compensation for anyone presumed to have been pro-Gaddafi fighters or sympathizers.
The sole provision on justice says: “The Libyan State shall take all necessary legal action to prosecute those accused” of crimes.
The Presidential Council of the GNA ratified the agreement in June 2017, and pledged the government’s “continued commitment to coordinate security arrangements, and to prepare necessary services for the anticipated return of the people of Tawergha and work toward providing necessary requirements for a dignified life according to the terms of the agreement.”
Thousands of people from Tawergha decided to return on February 1, 2018, based on the agreement, but forces from Misrata blocked thousands of people from returning and threatened to use force against anyone else who tried, apparently because some members of these Misrata forces disagreed with the agreement’s terms.
Hundreds of families were stranded in new makeshift tent-camps east of the city, most in Qararet al-Qatef, 35 kilometers to the east. Many ended up returning to where they had been temporarily living.
On June 3, representatives from Misrata and Tawergha signed a reconciliation charter that was met with substantial opposition from Tawerghan community leaders, elders and activists, to end the dispute and allow Tawerghans to return.
Al-Shakshak said that the two sides signed the charter to overcome objections from some officials and armed groups in Misrata, who had been blocking the return of Tawerghans.
The charter, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, imposes conditions on the return of Tawerghans, some of which run counter to international human rights norms and international humanitarian law.
The charter threatens free-speech rights, saying that Tawerghans are to “cease media campaigns, statements and demonstrations that may fan the flames of strife […].”
The charter stipulates that “return shall be ensured for those who were regular residents of Tawergha prior to the 17 February Revolution, who recognize and pledge to abide by the provisions this Charter and the Agreement signed by both parties.”
Forcing Tawerghans to abide by a charter as a condition for their return compromises their right as displaced people to return to their homes and violates their right to peacefully choose to express their views (or not) on the agreements.
Moreover, the preamble of the charter assigns responsibility for crimes in 2011, including “crimes against humanity,” only to Tawerghans, even though there is evidence linking Misrata fighters to atrocities.
It also limits accountability for current and future crimes only to Libyan courts, violating the right to effective remedy and ignoring the ongoing jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
The charter does not apply equally the right to truth and knowledge about what happened to missing people and appears to favor victims from Misrata over victims from Tawergha.
To continue in Part 2