Skip to Main Content
Printer Friendly Home > Issues > Mass Atrocities > War Crimes in Libya

Background: War Crimes in Libya

Libyan Doctor with Sniper Victim

In August 2011, the 42-year-long rule of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi came to a de facto end as rebel forces led by the Transitional National Council (TNC) and NATO air strikes overwhelmed remnant forces defending the Libyan dictator’s compound in Tripoli. Libyans first took to the streets to protest Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s autocratic rule in February 2011. His response was quick and brutal: attack protesters and target civilians in a deliberate campaign to quash dissent across the country. As Qaddafi troops closed in on the eastern city of Benghazi and threatened to decimate the population in March, the Arab League called for international intervention. Despite NATO’s subsequent air campaign to protect Libyan civilians, untold thousands have suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of Qaddafi forces since the uprising began.

PHR released a report documenting severe human rights violations committed by Qaddafi’s tyrannical regime,  Witness to War Crimes: Evidence from Misrata, Libya  (pdf). At the time of the release of this report the guns have not yet fallen silent and the whereabouts of Qaddafi and the circumstances of his family and supporters who were an integral part of his brutal regime remain unclear. Nevertheless, an intense debate is underway regarding Libya’s future political vision and leadership.

It is critical that civilian authorities led by the TNC assert full control over Libya and establish the rule of law to prevent further bloodshed, vigilante justice, looting, and violence. The international community must assist the newly emerging civilian authorities in providing basic services to the Libyan people as Libya develops a constitutional framework and mechanisms and builds civil society and institutions.

Such a difficult process can best succeed if Libya confronts without revenge the legacy of severe human rights violations committed by Qaddafi’s tyrannical regime. This effort must also examine reports of human rights violations committed by rebel forces and NATO. In the current absence of developed legal institutions, it is crucial that Libyan transitional authorities fully collaborate with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has already issued arrest warrants for Qaddafi and others. The Libyan people must also develop a screening process that would keep human rights violators out of future positions of power. 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.

This report documents some of the most severe human rights violations that must be addressed as a new civilian government emerges. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) gathered evidence of war crimes in Misrata, western Libya in June 2011, shortly after rebel forces liberated the coastal city. PHR focused its investigation on Misrata because it sustained a lengthy two-month siege and its residents reportedly suffered some of the most egregious abuses. PHR investigators conducted in-depth interviews with 54 residents of Misrata and its surrounding villages and uncovered evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, torture, rape, forced internment, and disappearance. PHR’s report details the experiences of those ordinary citizens and sheds light on Qaddafi’s systematic assault on a besieged city. This report does not present evidence that either confirms or denies whether rebel and NATO forces may have committed war crimes.

Key findings of this report:

  • Four eyewitnesses reported that Qaddafi troops forcibly detained 107 civilians and used them as human shields to guard military munitions from NATO attacks south of Misrata. One father told PHR how Qaddafi soldiers forced his two young children to sit on a military tank, and threatened the family, “You’ll stay here, and if NATO attacks us, you’ll die too.” Qaddafi military reportedly shielded weapons in civilian areas including markets, mosques, and schools.
  • PHR inspected four medical facilities and interviewed 21 Libyan medical personnel. One volunteer ambulance driver detailed his own detention and torture, as well as witnessing the summary execution of a civilian. An orthopedic surgeon reported eight separate instances where ambulances marked with the emblematic Red Crescent were attacked while medics tried to reach injured combatants on the front line. Other health workers reported targeted attacks by Qaddafi troops against medical workers, facilities, and civilian patients.
  • Four eyewitnesses reported that Qaddafi forces demolished a home for the elderly and abducted its 36 resident disabled, elderly, and homeless civilians. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
  • Official military orders provided to PHR present strong evidence that Qaddafi ordered his troops to starve civilian residents in Misrata. In addition to pillaging food stores, government forces blocked civilians from receiving humanitarian aid.
  • One witness reported that Qaddafi forces transformed an elementary school into a detention site where they reportedly raped women and girls as young as 14 years old. PHR also documented reports of honor killings that occurred in response to these rapes.
  • A 25-year-old villager recounted how Qaddafi soldiers detained him and other unarmed villagers in a semi-truck trailer, deprived them of food and water, and tortured them for days.

Witness to War Crimes concludes with policy recommendations for the Libyan Transitional National Council, the International Criminal Court, and the U.S. government.

Physicians for Human Rights also calls on the Obama Administration to support legislative efforts in the U.S. Congress, including the Medical Neutrality Protection Act of 2011, introduced by Representatives Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Walter Jones (R-NC), so that the U.S. may more effectively respond to violations of medical neutrality.

The rule of law must be the bedrock of a new and free Libya. As the Transitional National Council charts a new course for the country in a post-Qaddafi era, it must ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice and held to account for their abuses. Individual accountability for crimes under the rule of law is the best guarantee for preventing future human rights violations and ending a cycle of violence. The evidence of war crimes in this report is not merely for the historical record; it is for securing justice and accountability for all Libyans.

>> Read Witness to War Crimes: Evidence from Misrata, Libya (pdf)

>> Read the report's Executive Summary in Arabic - عربي (pdf)

>> Libya Conflict Timeline