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Libya’s enforced disappearances: Time to end cycle of impunity

Elise Flecher
By Elise Flecher

Senior Programmes Officer at Lawyers for Justice in Libya

Posted on Tuesday, 16 February 2021 09:44, updated on Wednesday, 17 February 2021 18:34

UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva
President of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord of Libya Faiez Mustafa Serraj attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

When Jabir Zain stepped out of a café in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in 2016 after speaking at an event promoting women’s rights, unknown attackers bundled him into a car and took him away.

They kept him in detention for over two years, subjecting him to repeated interrogations and torture. Zain, who was targeted because of his work as an activist, remembers the experience vividly: “The first thought that comes to one’s mind when they put you inside that car is that I’m going to die,” he told Lawyers for Justice in Libya in an interview.

Zain was the victim of an enforced disappearance: detention by state agents or those working with them combined with a refusal to acknowledge or with attempts to conceal their whereabouts, and he is not alone. Thousands of people in Libya have been subjected to this crime, while perpetrators enjoy complete impunity.

A history of enforced disappearances

This phenomenon is not new to Libya. The former Gaddafi regime disappeared opponents in a widespread and systematic manner to silence dissenting voices, subjecting many to unlawful detention, torture and extrajudicial killings.

Following the fall of the regime in 2011, the widespread use of enforced disappearances has continued across the country. To tighten their grip on power and territory, armed groups and militias affiliated to both governments in the west and the east have continued to target people for their real or perceived political opinions or affiliations, tribal links, human rights activism or identity.

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Cases have surged since the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) launched an offensive on Tripoli in April 2019, sparking renewed fighting. One such case is that of Seham Sergiwa, a defender of women’s rights and a member of the House of Representatives, Libya’s legislative authority.

A group of armed men abducted Sergiwa from her home in July 2019 after she had been openly critical of the LAAF offensive. To date, her fate remains unknown. While Sergiwa’s disappearance generated international outrage and wide media attention, thousands of other cases go unreported.

By their very nature, enforced disappearances create a climate of fear, impacting not only the direct victim, but also their families, friends and communities as a whole, who often spend years in anguish before they discover the fate of the disappeared person.

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Families rarely report cases out of fear of retaliation, and the country’s already weak criminal justice system has been crippled by attacks on the independence of the judiciary, making it effectively unable to operate. Libya’s legal framework also has significant gaps. While a 2013 law criminalized torture and enforced disappearance, it fails to comply with international standards and to address the needs of the victims. As a result, victims and their families receive no support from the authorities in seeking truth, justice and reparations.

What needs to happen

In addition to amending its domestic laws to bring them into line with international standards, Libya should ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (ICPPED), which marked its 10-year anniversary in December 2020.

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During a review of Libya at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva a month before, 16 UN member states recommended that it ratify the treaty. Libya reiterated its readiness to do so, and yet so far this remains an empty promise.

Taking this much-needed step would demonstrate a serious commitment to tackling this crime and addressing the broader environment of impunity that continues to hinder accountability in Libya today.

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To date, 63 states have ratified the ICPPED, with only 17 African states among them. However, there have been some recent indications that the long-ignored issue is finally receiving the regional attention it deserves.

In August 2020 the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights began developing guidelines to protect people from enforced disappearances, addressing the lack of a regional instrument on the issue, and in November Sudan approved the ratification of the ICPPED.

Bottom line

As the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum continues talks aimed at negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict, Libya should seize this regional momentum, follow the lead of some of its African neighbours and ratify the ICPPED, sending a strong message to the victims that their voices have been heard, at last.

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