By Kaamil Ahmed
Rights groups and UN warn of rapidly accelerating danger as banned cluster weapons are deployed.
The threat posed by unexploded bombs is rising exponentially in wartorn Libya, experts have warned, with the use of banned cluster weapons a source of particular concern.
The UN’s Mine Action Service (Unmas) said that even parts of the country previously cleared of explosive material had been recontaminated following a surge in fighting since April last year, when the warlord Khalifa Haftar launched a campaign to seize the capital, Tripoli.
“The threat posed by explosive remnants of war has increased,” said Bob Seddon, Unmas’s threat mitigation officer, at a meeting of experts in Geneva last Wednesday.
The UN’s mission in Libya reported last month that the volume of unexploded ordnance in Tripoli had increased “exponentially” and it had received hundreds of reports from civilians living in areas affected by fighting.
“It is estimated that there are between 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes of uncontrolled munitions across Libya,” said Seddon.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said last week that Haftar’s forces used banned cluster munitions in attacks on Tripoli as recently as December.
A statement from the group said its investigators had visited the site of an airstrike by Haftar’s forces and found remnants of cluster bombs, which spray small explosive charges that can fail to detonate, creating continuing danger for civilians.
Explosives accounted for most of the 900 civilian deaths and casualties in Libya in 2019, according to the advocacy group Action on Armed Violence.
“Cluster munitions should never be used by anyone under any circumstances due to the foreseeable and unacceptable harm for civilians,” said Stephen Goose, arms division director at HRW.
The UN security council passed a resolution calling for a “lasting ceasefire” between Haftar’s forces and the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli, following talks between the two sides last month.
Libya analyst Jalel Harchaoui said, however, that the security council’s members were to blame for the dangers posed to civilians by unexploded munitions.
He said they had shown “zero commitment” to enforcing an arms embargo against Libya announced in 2011 and that violations were on the rise. “There’s a ree-for-all, almost like a green light that is essentially being sent by the member states of the security council,” said Harchaoui, a research fellow with the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute.
“All types of ugly ordnance, including cluster ordnance, are shipped into Libya, and no member state of the security council is willing to broach the issue of imposing any kind of mechanism that would be unpleasant or costly to the states that are violating the arms embargo.”
According to Amnesty International, Turkey has been the main supplier of weapons to Tripoli, while the United Arab Emirates has supplied Haftar’s Libyan National Army.
Harchaoui said he feared fighting in Libya would worsen despite the calls for a ceasefire, with civilians increasingly affected.
Haftar announced another push to capture Tripoli in December, since when roughly 150,000 people have been displaced in the capital’s south.
The dangers posed to civilians by unexploded munitions were highlighted when the US announced on 31 January that it planned to allow the use of landmines. The Department of Defense claimed the mines would be “nonpersistent” and expire after a short period, but anti-mine activists warned civilians would be endangered if these mechanisms failed.
Alma Taslidžan Al-Osta, of the disability charity Human & Inclusion, said: “The idea that so-called ‘advanced’ landmines will be safer than older types of devices is absurd.
“What happens if they don’t neutralise as intended? Our teams see, first-hand, how weapons often marketed as ‘self destructing’ continue to injure, maim and terrorise civilians all over the world on a daily basis.”