Stop the War and CND protest outside Parliament, 12th July 2011. Photo: Flickr/Stop the War Coalition Stop the War and CND protest outside Parliament, 12th July 2011. Photo: Flickr/Stop the War Coalition

Libyans are still paying the price with their lives for the 2011 Nato intervention. A stark reminder of why we urgently need an antiwar government argues Eleftheria Kousta

Libya has been in a constant state of conflict since 2011. What was regarded initially as a successful intervention by the Nato alliance and the mainstream media has turned into a nightmare for the Libyan people; who saw their country rapidly disintegrate into a chaotic no man’s land. But seven years later little is broadcasted from the region and the whole situation has fallen into obscurity. Yet, despite the silence by the international institutions and the press, enormous problems still persist.

Amid the popular uprising of 2011, Western governments decided that the most efficient way to avert conflict was a military intervention. Through the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, United States, Britain and France exploited the authorisation for a “no-fly zone” over the eastern region of Benghazi, to carry out airstrikes against the Libyan military and to provide rebels with substantial military assistance. Tripoli was soon captured, Gaddafi was brutally executed and his body was dragged through the streets. The media were quick to call the intervention a success and to praise the Nato elites for their “sound” judgement and interventionist policy.

Double standards

The Libyan people had every right to protest a tyrannical and arbitrary regime. Yet Western powers intervened in pursuit of their own interests and did not account for the damage it would cause. The intervention was clearly not humanitarian, as civilians’ safety and welfare were of minimal importance to the Nato coalition. According to UN records the death toll before the intervention was around 1,000-2,000 but the figures rose 10 times more following foreign intervention. The National Transition Council estimates the losses at 30,000 dead and 50,000 wounded (S. Milne, The Guardian 2011).

The double standards applied by Western powers to the Libyan uprising should be noted. Similar violence against protesters in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Egypt did not spark outrage and did not receive a comparable military response from Western governments. Moreover, when rebel groups started committing atrocities such as mass executions, unlawful detentions and torture in prisons, Nato turned a blind eye to the crimes of their allies.

Nato was keen to impose resolution 1973 on Gaddafi’s army but not on the rebels, thus clearly giving the advantage to that side.

Different factions and US sympathies

After 2011 parliamentary democracy in Libya has failed to take roots. In 2014 the elected interim government based in Tobruk lost most of its power and currently operates from the sidelines. Meanwhile, unrest attracted militias and terrorist groups that found the lack of control by an official authority appealing. The East of the country is controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA) who are Gaddafists and are led by Agilah Saleh. They have some domestic recognition, but their style of leadership could not be considered by any means legitimate.

The West is controlled by the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Al-Sarraj. Their government was operating from exile in Tunis and managed to return to Tripoli in 2016 with the help of Nato. They are the internationally recognised government of Libya and they are backed by the UN and Nato. However, they lack domestic recognition and even the Interim Government refuses to acknowledge them as the legitimate government of Libya. With mutual efforts by both factions, ISIS and other militias have started to retreat with loss of control in the cities of Benghazi, Sabratha and Sirte.

Yet the number one priority of the GNA government is to seize important oil-producing areas from the Islamist factions, thus consolidating the Western-supported puppet government. On the one hand, LNA in the East has already imposed martial law, thus indicating that if they manage to dominate the region a military junta is very possible. Yet, we should emphasise the fact that the GNA is not domestically recognised. Open military conflict between the two sides could be easily revived and in this case, the West is de facto backing GNA, which will be keen to support on the ground with their military presence.

Effects on civilians and damage of infrastructure

The Libyan people are suffering. Since 2014 the conflict has claimed thousands of lives (ACLED, 2018) and infrastructure critical to their survival has been demolished. According to International Organization for Migration (IOM), since August 2016 the number of displaced people has risen by 35,000 – most of them being civilians who fled Sirte when GNA launched an offensive against ISIS in May. In October 2016 the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs projected that 1.3 million civilians were in need of humanitarian aid. A crisis hotspot is the Benghazi-Ganfouda region where years of conflict have left most of its citizens without access to water, food, electricity and medical services. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 60% of public hospitals in areas where conflict persists have either shut down or have become inaccessible.

Human rights abuses

According to the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, all factions have committed human rights’ abuses by using their coercive apparatuses in order to crack down on activists, opposition and media workers. Numerous activists and press representatives have gone missing, been threatened with violence and systematically censored. Human Rights Watch reports: “Armed groups affiliated to varying degrees with one of the three competing governments have proliferated. In western Libya, armed groups operate checkpoints, police neighbourhoods, and run prisons, but are also involved in criminal activities including smuggling, extortion, and thuggery.”

The general environment of impunity has left civil society shattered as many fear for their safety, thus enabling the responsible groups to continue their reign of terror. Intimidation of women’s rights groups is also rampant as attitudes towards an already marginalised group deteriorate. Unlawful executions and imprisonment have occurred in numerous cases. Amnesty International lists the following incidents: IS beheaded 11 members of a local security force in Sabratha. In June 2017. 12 men were shot in Tripoli upon their release, after they’ve been convicted of committing crimes under Gaddafi’s regime. In July 2017, 14 bodies were found in al-Laithi, an area recaptured by LNA.Human Rights Watch also makes mention: From March to August 2016, 141 civilians have been killed as a result of shelling in the cities of Benghazi, Derna and Sirte (UN Support Mission in Libya).

In February an unidentified aircraft attacked a hospital compound in Derna killing two and causing extensive damage. Moreover, external forces are continuing military activities. A US airstrike on an alleged ISIS camp in Sabratha left 50 people dead, including two Serbian nationals who were held as hostages. In the absence of a comprehensive judicial system, it is unlikely that the perpetrators of this crimes will be prosecuted any time soon.

Refugee crisis, trafficking and the EU, UN, Nato stance

Libya has become a hub for refugees and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and reach the shores of Italy. In October 2016, IOM identified 276,957 migrants trying to cross. The full number is estimated to be way higher, around 700,000 to 1 million. According to UNHCR only 38,241 of them are registered. UNHCR also estimates that, as of 2017, 24 migrant centres are operating in Libya under inhumane standards.

According to the Libya Annual Report 2016-2017 conducted by Amnesty International, the responsible state department for handling the refugee detention centres (Department for Combating Irregular Migration), has engaged in questionable practices, as they literally ‘snatch’ suspected migrants and put them in camps usually without checking their claims and documents. Also, it is noted that detention centres sometimes are controlled by armed groups outside the GNA’s control. Another worrisome statistic by UN estimates that, as of 2016-17, 5,022 people have died, while trying to cross the Mediterranean, with the Libyan coastguard saving 14,038 of them from boats that capsized.

People smuggling has become a very profitable business, with traffickers charging as high as £3,000 for an uncertain passage to Europe. Many of the refugees end up being trafficked by the militias and other Libyans that have access to concentration facilities. Women are often sold into the sex trade and are trafficked in Italy and across Libya for this purpose. Men are even snatched from cramped detention centres and are sold as “livestock” in public auctions. They can go for as low as $400 per head, thus indicating how cheap life has become in this part of the world. The conditions of their detention are well documented.

The EU, UN and Nato policy has sacrificed their chances of finding a safe haven and in many instances has managed to push them back in Libya where they are bound to fall into the grip of traffickers, thus perpetuating a never-ending cycle of abuse. All this racist violence is not new: since the final days of the uprising in 2011 “rebel” groups (that enjoyed Nato backing) have been conducting a terror campaign against black migrants and Libyans. They have been subjected to mass detention, lynching and torture for unfound reasons.

Seven years on from the intervention and the ‘holy’ trinity of Nato has yet to take responsibility for leading Libya into chaos. The UK has sacrificed a viable foreign policy in favour of the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, thus escalating global conflict and minimising the security of citizens around the world. The British government is accountable to the Libyan people for following the neo-imperialist direction of the United States and for failing not only to prevent the subsequent conflict, but also playing an active part in creating the conditions for it to unfold. The Libya intervention is a stark reminder of why an anti-war government is so desperately needed.