There’s much anguish these days over the impotence of the international community when it comes to protecting civilians in times of war. Politics is taking precedence over human rights as the bodies pile up in places like Aleppo, a city that’s become synonymous with unwarranted bloodshed. Yet the world is overlooking another conflict in a separate post-Arab Spring country that’s suffering its own fair share of despair at the hands of ruthless violence and a silent global village: Libya.
Since the fall of Mouammar Ghaddafi in 2011, Libya’s political transition has been in limbo. A UN-recognized government based in the West side of the country finds itself at war with forces led by a brutal general named Khalifa Haftar. He has in turn allied himself with a separate, self-declared regime that doesn’t recognize its UN-recognized counterpart’s legitimacy. Haftar and his militias have wreaked havoc on Libya, particularly the city of Benghazi, which he’s currently laying siege to. Within the city is a neighbourhood called Ganfouda, which is being starved of food, water, and medicine thanks to Haftar’s cruel tactics since July 2016. Indiscriminate drone attacks, operated by foreign allies including the United Arab Emirates, under NATO watch, have resulted in almost a hundred civilian deaths including women and children. Amnesty International has described children looking like skin and bones.
Meanwhile, United Nations Special Mission to Libya (UNSMIL), led by Special Representative Martin Kobler, has been almost inactive on Ganfouda. The mission is tasked with helping facilitate Libya’s democratic transition and to promote the rule of law, particularly the preservation of human rights. Its failure to speak out loudly or to act meaningfully on Ganfouda amounts to a failure of this mandate.
The recent freedom of some families by Haftar’s militias is in fact what human right activists have been warning against. Women and children have been taken into custody. Men and boys have been separated from their families. Women have been under days of interrogation. Some civilians have disappeared and their relatives can’t locate them anywhere. Worst of all, there are reports of men being executed. This is not unexpected. Haftar’s spokespersons have publicly discounted human rights as a priority in their military operation and have openly stated that male civilians will be executed and women will be held in contempt of authorities. Kobler can’t claim he didn’t know this would happen.
Kobler and the international community have been quick to welcome the freedom of civilians causing eyes to shift away from Ganfouda and what is really happening on the ground. Instead they should be calling for the protection and reunification of Ganfouda civilians with their loved ones.
Sadly, it’s become a habit of the UN to set aside human rights in hopes of securing desirable political outcomes. The UN doesn’t necessarily love General Haftar, a man with a lot of blood on his hands, but they fear isolating him will lead to a worse political crisis. So they’re apparently willing to ignore his excessive abuses in hopes of roping him into a political deal. In short, the UN doesn’t want to be mired in a sticky situation in Libya, even if it means resorting to press releases and tweets in the face of Haftar’s crimes.
Ganfouda has been called by many as a tragic combination of today’s Aleppo and the 1992 Srebrenica massacre, which also suffered a siege and the systematic massacring of men and young boys. If the people of Libya are going to be saved from a Ganfouda-like situation in the future, the UN will have to bear their teeth in support of human rights. Ganfouda won’t be the only neighbourhood to experience extensive tragedy as Haftar paves his path to power in post-revolution Libya. They have to hold authoritarian figures accountable for their war crimes. Simply staring at their shoes when asked to stop massive bloodletting won't do and a failure to respond will result in their unnecessary complicity.