Five Years After the siege of Tripoli

Illicit Economies and Human Rights Violations

Militias in Libya, empowered by an extensive state-delegated security role, have demonstrated a flagrant tendency to abuse power, resulting in severe violations of human rights including arbitrary detention, extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearance, forced displacement and abductions committed in a country with a discredited judicial system that has impeded any chance of reaffirming justice and the rule of law.

These armed groups have exploited that veneer of legality to engage in more illicit economic activities including human smuggling and trafficking especially of migrants and asylum seekers who are trying to reach the European continent.

For the eastern authority, migrant smuggling across the eastern coast has served as a lucrative business which has culminated in one of the deadliest shipwrecks in years that sank off the coast of Greece taking the lives of hundreds.

Additionally, based on a UN report19 issued in 2023 by the Independent Fact-Finding Mission investigating severe human rights violations allegedly committed since 2016 against both Libyans and foreign nationals.

Migrants, in particular, have been the target of systematic torture as they were ‘enslaved in official detention centres’ where they were subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment, including sexual assault, forced labour and denied access to basic life necessities like food and water.

These acts, while they amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law, they are being executed under the auspices of government-affiliated agencies like the Libyan Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration and the coast guard who still benefit from technical and financial assistance from the EU.

While it is challenging to ascertain precise figures, the IOM reported20 as of 2023, more than 17,000 of migrants were intercepted by the coastguard, and returned to war-torn Libya where many of them get detained in investigation facilities while a severe lack of transparency remains regarding their whereabouts, the reason, and the conditions of their detention.

The same investigation has also uncovered a widespread tendency of the Libyan authority to encroach on the work of civil society associations and stifle any expression of opposition through various forms of intimidation and the use of force exercised against defenceless civilians, journalists, and human rights defenders.

The report discloses that between January 2020 and March 2022, more than 581 civilians, both nationals and migrants, were either tortured to death or executed in detention facilities by law enforcement agents and militias; an indiscriminate violence with total impunity that have become the new normal.

Although civilians enjoy protection under international humanitarian law and are considered illegitimate and unlawful targets of armed hostilities, the use of force in Libya has been one of an indiscriminate nature where lines are blurred and distinctions between combatants and noncombatants are omitted.

Between April and June 2020, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) reported a 173% increase in the number of civilian casualties (which include deaths and injuries) reaching 358 of men, women and children affected by the major escalation of armed hostilities and arbitrary deployment of heavy weaponry, explosive remnants of war and airstrikes on civilian populated areas.

The Way Ahead

Restoring justice and ending the grip of militia rule in Libya is a complex task that demands a multifaceted approach. In order for elections to effectively materialize, there needs to be concerted action to confront human rights abuses and disentangle criminally linked actors from Libyan institutions who are at the centre of blocking any prospect for security sector reforms: a status-quo that only preserves impunity and obstructs reconciliation.

The recent and abrupt resignation of the UN Special Envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, and the postponement of the reconciliation conference that was planned for April, all highlight the complex trajectory facing the North African nation.

While the lack of political will from Libyan leaders is a focal factor for the failure of the democratic transition, the unabated international interventions and interference in the country’s domestic political and security affairs further undermine any potential of finding a viable solution to the Libyan crisis.

Although 2024 marks the 10th consecutive year since Libyans went to the polls, the first quarter of the year has only confirmed that the environment is still inconducive for holding parliamentary or presidential elections.

Deep fractions over the control of key oilfields and allocation of profits have been the striking theme since January, with protests erupting in many regions in the country, notably the Al-Sharara field that is the biggest in Libya, demanding the equal distribution of wealth and development projects.

Such political tension is also clear from the recent public disagreements between the newly unified Central Bank of Libya (CBL) and the GNU over the government’s expansive financial expenditures and fiscal policies that have led to the re-emergence of country-wide liquidity crisis, and which prompted the bank to alter the exchange rate and devalue the Libyan Dinar.

The path to democracy hinges on the acknowledgment, investigation, and prosecution of those responsible for egregious abuses during the three civil wars, as well as those implicated in alleged cases of corruption and mismanagement of the vast oil revenues that have further reinforced the state of underdevelopment in the country.

Crucially, transitional justice depends on the establishment of a robust and impartial judiciary capable of fairly addressing grievances and holding perpetrators accountable. The reinforcement of Libya’s rule of law stands as a critical obligation not only to honour the suffering of victims but also to establish a foundation of trust necessary for any functioning democracy.

It is imperative to ensure that international support directly contributes to the growth of lawful institutions and the rule of law and not empower the wrong entities. In this endeavour, foreign actors like the EU should apply more stringent regulations to ensure that their financial assistance does not inadvertently prop up criminal networks.

Funds intended for development, reconstruction, and stability must be closely monitored and audited to prevent their diversion into the hands of those perpetuating violence and human rights abuses.


In recognizing the complexities of Libya’s current state of affairs, it is essential to understand that the way ahead should be guided by a multifaceted approach driven by the constructive engagement of both the international community and national authorities with the ultimate goal being contingent upon safeguarding the well-being of the Libyan people.

The International Community:

• Should acknowledge the fallacies in its engagement in Libya and reassess its approach to arms control in a way that prioritizes the interests of the Libyan people and takes into consideration the need for genuine and lasting reconciliation.

• Should accord significant attention to judicial reforms and work to strengthen the domestic legal institutions in order to achieve accountability for all human rights violations and ensure justice for all victims.

• Should rally support for an international and independent investigation mechanism, along with the establishment of an ad-hoc court to prosecute every individual accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

• All international donors, notably the EU, should implement robust monitoring schemes and apply strict human rights due diligence in their funding to ensure that financial aid does not inadvertently support criminal networks.

The Libyan Authorities:

• Should develop effective incentives to encourage the disarmament, dissolution, and reintegration of former militia group members into society, while offering skill training and alternative employment opportunities to facilitate their transition to civilian life.

• Should take full ownership of the process of reforming the security sector, ensuring that it becomes unified, professional, and accountable.

• Should put aside self-interests and political considerations, actively and collectively work towards the creation of a positive and transparent civil society environment conducive to democratic and equitable election processes.

• Should commit to achieving a balanced economic development strategy that encourages the incentive for diversified investments and reduces dependence on oil revenues, deters the recourse to illicit forms of economic transactions, and guarantees a fair distribution of profits across the whole country.


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