By Sam Peters
Fighting continues to flare up across Libya, violating peace resolutions agreed at January’s Berlin summit. The destructive harvest of war is increasingly being reaped by the most innocent and vulnerable – children.
With neither side respecting the rule of international law and with foreign elements continuing to provide arms in contravention of security council decrees, prospects for children’s rights appear to grow bleaker by the day.
Speaking to a former representative of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), I learnt more about the recruitment of minors and how the war over information is key in protecting Libyan human rights.
Since the much heralded peace talks in mid-January, a so called truce brokered between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and forces aligned with General Khalifa Haftar (LNA) remains valid in name only.
An attempted arms embargo has done little to stem the flow of munitions into the country, leading to it being branded “a joke” by UN deputy envoy Stephanie Williams.
The total lack of concern amongst all parties for such edicts has ensured abuses against civilians go entirely unpunished.
“Serious violations” committed since the start of February are “impacting civilians in all parts of the country on a scale never seen before,” according to Yacoub El Hillo, UN Humanitarian coordinator for Libya.
Furthermore, of the 900,000 people requiring humanitarian assistance in the country, more than half are women and children. A large number of foreign migrants also living in jeopardy
“Today, children in Libya are in a dire and untenable situation that the rest of the world should find unacceptable,” was the message according to UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore prior to January’s peace talks.
Her statement decried the shelling of urban settlements and “attacks against civilian infrastructure” that have resulted in 90,000 children becoming Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) since 2019.
In addition, it is estimated that conflict across Libya has resulted in some 200,000 children being denied access to education. Ms Fore also condemned the recruitment of children into armed groups, calling for those possessing “influence” over young people to desist in recruiting them for martial purposes.
If UNICEF’s claims can be validated, this would amount to a direct contravention of the 2001 Pan-African Forum position on the recruitment of under 18s into armed groups – an agreement to which Libya was a signatory.
However, attempts to discover and prosecute child recruitment have been severely hindered by a lack of reliable information on the issue. This has largely been down to the limitations placed upon NGOs and monitoring personnel in the country.
The constantly evolving situation on the ground makes monitoring the fighting, documenting abuses and providing aid incredibly difficult. Such a fluid topography of conflict makes the study of child recruitment equally challenging.
The UN representatives that I spoke to whilst compiling this report were confident in stating that child recruitment is widespread on all sides. However, neither were able to present hard statistical evidence to support their assertions.
Such assumptions are based on a historical tendency to recruit children, stretching back to the time of Qadaffi. According to the former UNSMIL officer, boys in their teens have a longstanding tradition of joining the armed forces and local militia groups.
This is deemed a rite of passage of sorts, enabling a sociological transition from adolescence to adulthood, forcing them to “man-up.”
Historical accounts of child recruitment are corroborated by UNICEF, who in 2014 dealt with recently demobilised fighters claiming to have been under 18 at time of enlistment.
Speaking to a programme coordinator for the UN population agency (UNFPA) in Libya, a consistent progression of youth recruitment becomes apparent. Under 18s were involved in the 2011 liberation struggle against Qadaffi, in street battles combatting Benghazi based extremists in 2014 and during the fight to oust ISIL from Sirte in 2016.
According to the UN and my interviewees for this report, children are now also being recruited into armed units on opposing sides of the current fighting.
Nonetheless, despite the historical trajectories of child recruitment and contemporary UN statements, empirical accounts substantiating any such offences are incredibly difficult to identify.
In 2017, UNICEF heralded the release of 125 children associated with armed groups in the Zintan region, southeast of Tripoli. They then reiterated prohibitive warnings against the recruitment of children, claiming that hundreds had been recruited since 2011.
Parallel UN statements have made similar claims, yet all have included an unwritten disclaimer of uncertainty, with accusations unable to be verified “owing to security and access restrictions.”
According to my UN interviewees, this sparsity of information stems not only from aforementioned conflict realities, but also represents an astute tactical move on the part of the GNA.
By inhibiting UN and NGO attempts to study the conflict, the GNA hopes to promote only its side of the story, tarnishing the reputation of the LNA and its affiliates.
The Tripoli government has created an impassable quagmire of bureaucracy for those attempting to discover truths about the conflict, stopping short of banning NGOs and fact-finding missions in the country.
By damming the flow of information coming out of Libya, the GNA has thus been able to promote an easily marketable narrative of good against evil, casting the LNA as the sole perpetrator of crimes such as child recruitment.
In 2019, the GNA interior and foreign ministers contacted the UN to accuse General Haftar and his forces of using children as “mercenaries.” Then in May 2019, President Al-Saraj made the following statement:
“And I think what is going on now in terms of human rights violations has become clear to everybody – the recruiting of child soldiers, disrespecting dead bodies, the targeting of civilians. I think it is now clear to all parties, including the USA.”
At around the same time, Sky News showed footage of around 100 LNA fighters that had been captured and detained by GNA forces in the battle for Tripoli.
Among these were several identified as being under 18. The Sky journalist making the report clearly states that the jailers of these supposed child soldiers were “keen to show us some of them.”
When one youthful looking individual explains how he and others like him were duped into military service, under the false pretence of going on parade near the town of Zawiya, his statement is given under the close watch of his captors. This well orchestrated access afforded to Sky News offers several insights into the battle for human rights in Libya.
Firstly, it suggests that forces aligned with General Haftar may indeed by deploying children as armed combatants. The lack of evidence showing the LNA’s adherence to international law and historical tendencies towards child recruitment in Libya could support such a conclusion.
Secondly, and perhaps of far greater significance, is the unspoken message incorporated within the report. By allowing western media to show carefully selected “evidence” of child recruitment, the Libyan government aims to cement its position as the only legitimate and law-abiding power in the region.
Without any hard evidence implicating its forces in similar crimes, the conflict discourse surrounding Libya becomes another weapon at the GNA’s disposal. The international community must remain aware of this when choosing to whom and how they provide support.
Disinformation has become such a crucial facet of post-modern conflict that it warrants greater robustness in international containment efforts. The struggle for cyberspace sows discord without regard for geographical jurisdiction.
Media denial, monitored access, state-sanctioned bots and ‘Fake News’ must be fervently resisted by all those proclaiming peace.
This requires an enhancement of countermeasures to disinformation, ensuring that these carry the same weight as legislation designed to govern the physical realm.
In line with this policy, the international community must acknowledge flaws inherent to its largely unquestioning support for the Libyan government.
As made clear by Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas, the international community must endeavour to “create transparency” in Libya, enabling the genuine detection, prosecution and prevention of abuses, regardless of which side is committing them.
The Organization of World Peace