The Libyan revolution might have deposed a dictator, but it also created months of chaos, with a vacuum of authority and accountability. Civilians in Libya have experienced countless human rights abuses, the reports of which are just beginning to surface.
News from Libya has often been confusing and sometimes contradictory, so information about human rights has tended to be buried in reports about the progress of the rebels in their fight against Gadhafi. The rebel leaders of the National Transitional Council have objected to the presence of UN military observers and police to help restore order, leaving many questions about the extent of human rights abuses by both sides. Now, with Gadhafi’s power essentially gone, news of the conflict’s effects on civilians has made the need for peace — and for subsequent justice and accountability — even more pressing.
The Associated Press reported that the Libyan rebels have been rounding up thousands of black Africans and detaining them in temporary jails. The rebels accused the detainees of fighting as mercenaries for Gadhafi, even though many say they are innocent migrant workers. Many black Africans from other countries, such as Mali and Niger, had come to Libya seeking work in recent decades. Since many of those people have different forms of ID and often served in Gadhafi’s military at some point, the rebels are suspicious that they are all mercenaries even if they claim to support the rebel cause. The rebels assert they are treating the detainees well, but the fact still remains that they have been holding people — by some estimates, more than 5,000 people in Tripoli — against their will without a trial.
Handling the prisoners is one of the first major tests for the rebel leaders, who are scrambling to set up a government that they promise will respect human rights and international norms, unlike the dictatorship they overthrew.
The rebels’ National Transitional Council has called on fighters not to abuse prisoners and says those accused of crimes will receive fair trials. There has been little credible evidence of rebels killing or systematically abusing captives during the six-month conflict. Still, the African Union and Amnesty International have protested the treatment of blacks inside Libya, saying there is a potential for serious abuse.
“The danger is that there is no oversight by any authorities, and the people who are carrying out the arrests — more like abductions — are not trained to respect human rights,” said Diana Eltahawy of Amnesty International. “They are people who carry a lot of anger against people they believe committed atrocities.”
Even so, the treatment of detainees is significantly better than the reports of human rights abuses by the pro-Gadhafi forces. The International Criminal Court has already issued indictments against Gadhafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and his intelligence chief Abdallah al-Senousi for allegedly ordering security forces to kill unarmed protesters when the conflict began in February.
Since then, the abuses have intensified. Physicians for Human Rights found that troops loyal to Gadhafi have forced civilians to act as human shields and have employed systematic rape as a weapon of war. Their report urges further investigations into these human rights abuses so that the perpetrators will be punished for their actions: “Prosecutions, vetting, and other necessary methods of accountability will guide the Libyan people as they choose how best to forge a secure and just social and political order in the aftermath of conflict.”
Other human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have collected evidence that confirm abuses by Gadhafi’s troops, including arbitrary slayings, hostage-taking, and rapes. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that many Libyans have “disappeared,” with their whereabouts and welfare unknown. A spokesperson for OHCHR said, “We are also deeply concerned about reports that there are still thousands of people unaccounted for who were arrested or taken prisoner by Gadhafi security forces either earlier in the conflict, or before it even started.”
The exact numbers of civilian deaths, and the extent of the violence, are still unclear as the conflict continues.
Civil wars always have a significant impact on civilians as well as soldiers, and the ramifications of internal violence do not disappear when “peace” is declared. Once the Libyan revolution is complete, the new government will have to deal with the devastation left behind by a bloody, months-long conflict. Hopefully, the new leaders will hold human rights violators accountable for their wartime actions and will make a firm commitment to protecting all citizens.