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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Oral update of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Libya pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 34/38

Human rights in Libya

27 September 2017

Human Rights Council – 36th session
Address by Ms. Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

September 2017

Mr. President, Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

On behalf of the High Commissioner, it is my privilege to provide the Council this oral update. An update on the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) will be presented at a later stage.

At the outset, I wish to reiterate the High Commissioner’s appreciation for the invitation to visit Libya that President Serraj has extended to him. We further welcome the appointment of a Minister of Justice, who can be an important focal point for human rights issues. I also wish to convey the High Commissioner’s appreciation to SRSG Salamé and his predecessor, SRSG Kobler, for the excellent cooperation between our offices.


As you are aware, this Council’s resolution 34/38 adopted in March this year, requests OHCHR to continue to monitor and report on human rights violations and abuses across Libya with a view to reducing and addressing impunity. Whilst we will present a fuller report on these matters in March 2018, I will use this occasion to provide you with a more immediate update.

Throughout the year, the human rights component of UNSMIL, with the support of OHCHR, has continued its monitoring and reporting role. Our human rights team has visited Libya frequently, meeting with a diverse range of stakeholders - victims, migrants and Libyans in detention camps for internally displaced persons, with hospital representatives and with the Government as well as armed groups.

We have publically and privately intervened on individual cases and in response to patterns of violations and abuses.  We have worked with a broad range of interlocutors – despite associated security challenges that inhibit free movement of our UN teams around the country such as that met three months ago when seven of our staff, following a visit to a migrant detention centre, were travelling in an UNSMIL convoy that was then attacked by an armed group in al-Zawiya, west of Tripoli.

Across Libya, it is armed groups that are defining the overall human rights situation for the country’s people - armed groups that is on all sides of the conflict, including those that support the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its allies.  On all sides of the conflict, armed groups have violated international humanitarian and human rights law, causing civilian casualties - holding hostage, torturing and killing men, women and children with impunity - operating outside any effective framework of accountability.


People in Libya are quite simply sick and tired of this situation. Its impact is felt by children, women and men across the country.  It is civilians who are being hurt, abducted, raped tortured and killed, and it is the people of Libya who demand that decisive action be taken to bring this parlous circumstance to a close. They wish simply to live their lives in safety, in dignity and without fear.

However, instead of delivering significant meaningful and inclusive progress towards justice, for accountability, and in the interests of sustained peace, violations and abuses continue unabated.

The perpetrators are criminally liable for their actions, including potentially before the International Criminal Court.  In this regard, the Court’s recent arrest warrant for Mahmoud Al-Werfalli, for murder as a war crime, is welcome. Indeed, we call on all parties in Libya to fully cooperate with the International Criminal Court, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1970.

Criminal violence and impunity have worsened into an all-out humanitarian crisis in Derna, where the LNA is restricting freedom of movement of civilians in and out of the city, and obstructing their access to basic necessities, including to food and fuel.

Disappearances also continue. A Tripoli-based activist, Jaber Zain, remains forcibly disappeared having been abducted on 26 September 2016 after attending a seminar on women’s rights. Members of the Second Support Brigade, nominally under the Ministry of Interior, were believed to have taken him, but denied they are holding him.   

Children continued to be gravely impacted by the conflict.  They are numbered among the country’s civilian casualties, and have been victims of targeted killing and hostage taking.  I do note however that in April, three boys and four girls (aged 5-17) who had been held by the LNA were released in a prisoner exchange deal with the Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB). 

The human rights component of the mission has documented, in addition, numerous instances in which women have been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty, often due to family affiliations or for the purpose of prisoner exchanges.  In many instances, women are being held in facilities without female guards, amidst reports of sexual abuse.

To help address our serious concerns related to conditions of detention, in April and May, in Tripoli and Tunis, UNSMIL facilitated workshops for police officers, members of the judiciary and civil society on methods for reduction of pre-trial detention rates, prison reform and international standards on the treatment of prisoners.


Numbers of migrants in Libya continue to be held arbitrarily for indefinite periods and in inhuman conditions. Inside official and unofficial detention centres they are subjected to horrific abuse. We have received numerous reports of migrants being killed, beaten, tortured, raped, extorted, and forced to work for no pay – with little access to sanitation facilities, food, water, or medical care.  Information received further suggests migrant women and girls are being subjected to rape, including gang rape and other sexual violence and exploitation whilst detained, including in official detention centres.

The situation at sea is no less tragic. On 10 May, the Libyan Naval Coast Guard interrupted a rescue underway in international waters by a German NGO, Sea Watch.  This interception was conducted in a dangerous manner, with the result that the Libyan Naval Coastal Guard took over the operation, returning 600 refugees and migrants to Libya, who were then transferred to official detention centres where many of them were beaten and ill-treated.

Most recently, the Coast Guard announced the prohibition of search and rescue operations in international waters near to Libya upon the threat of force. We reiterate our call upon Libya, the European Union and Italy to urgently take the steps necessary to ensure that NGOs can safely resume search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea in line with international law – and to ensure that cooperation between them fully respects the rights and dignity of migrants and the principle of non-refoulement. The significant support provided by European States and others to Libyan authorities must prevent, not further, human rights violations against migrants.

I note the findings of two of this Council’s Special Rapporteurs that “The solution is not to restrict access to international waters or firing weapons to threaten boats, as Libya has reportedly done repeatedly.” This is in contravention of the obligation to rescue people in distress and will only result in more deaths of migrants at sea”, as the experts have advised.

And we urge due attention to their concerns that “The EU’s proposed new action plan, including a code of conduct for organizations operating rescue boats, threatens life and breaches international standards by condemning people to face further human rights violations in Libya”.

From the UN side, we have stepped up our dialogue with Government counterparts on the need for accountability of security forces, also in the context of implementing the UN’s human rights due diligence policy.


The cases we have documented reveal a fundamental lack of protection for civilians and starkly illustrate the desperate situation of people in the most vulnerable situations – all of whom have little or no recourse to redress. The situation is so dire, the threat of violence and intimidation so oppressive, that we struggle to hear their voices, let alone secure their protection or provide them the modest relief of due justice.  Disturbingly, in many cases, credible information received points to the involvement of specific armed groups, some of which are acting under the authority of the State and receive State salaries.


The rampant impunity afflicting the people of Libya not only destroys lives today, but viciously erodes prospects for peace tomorrow.  Impunity must find no home in Libya.

The Government, with the support of the United Nations and other partners, must now start a systematic process to remove law enforcement powers from armed groups and bring all detention and interrogation facilities back under its jurisdiction. All allegations of human rights abuses should be investigated and perpetrators brought to justice.

There are a number other areas for further dedicated effort and support, including from the international community.  Libya needs help to plan for demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of armed groups; to establish a professional army and effective law enforcement agencies via fair and transparent vetting; to establish associated internal investigative mechanisms and suspension procedures; to provide the justice system with needed protection and support.  Such progress towards ensuring accountability is very much needed. Our Office stands ready, including through the human rights component of UNSMIL, to support such efforts.

Last, but not least, I wish to highlight that, as this Council envisaged in its resolution, a number of special procedures mandate holders have approached the Government to organize visits to Libya including the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries.  We encourage the Libyan authorities to accept these visits in view of the expertise the mandate holders can provide and given the pressing need to address effectively the specific human rights issues affecting the people of Libya.

Thank you.