20 January, 2022

The Humanitarian Collective

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The Libyan Civil War: History, Conflict, and What You Need to Know

Staff Writer and Editor Purvi Jonnalagadda examines the history and context of the brutal Libyan Civil War, and accesses the current situation regarding militia power in the country.

Throughout Libya’s history and even today, human rights in the Northern African nation have been tragically and continually abused. In 2011, when Libya’s former Prime Minister Muammar al-Gaddafi was overthrown, armed groups, militias, and forces with connections to three rival governments violated international law and human rights in a multitude of ways. Since Gaddafi was overthrown, NATO-backed forces have caused a great deal of chaos in the country. In the same year as the successful coup, NATO attempted a military intervention of the capital involving multiple other nations as well as NATO backed rebel groups. 

This response by NATO was largely problematic, as these rebel groups had unclear intentions, causing further unrest. Moreover, multiple militias throughout Libya banded together to end Gaddafi’s rule, but because the militias are split along ethnic, regional, and local lines, they have differing ideologies. 

The commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, is the most powerful general in Libya as his forces control most of the country. Haftar has also had the support of Egypt and the UAE for  years.

As a result, Libyan civilians live in constant fear. Militias have attacked civilian homes along with abducting, arresting, and detaining many citizens. In prisons controlled by militias, armed groups, and even state officials, people are horribly tortured and mistreated. Marginalized groups such as migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers are the most vulnerable to these human rights violations, as they face further discrimination from these groups based upon their differing backgrounds. 

Since 2014, the country has been divided over fighting these breakout political and military groups. The Islamic State, one of these militant groups, has greatly capitalized on this internal conflict and instability, seizing power over multiple coastal cities by means of physical violence and oppression of locals. To this day, the group remains in control of the desert regions towards the interior of Libya.

It is no secret to the international community that these continuous, armed conflicts have exacerbated humanitarian, political, and overall security in Libya. In total, armed conflicts caused 284 civilian deaths and 363 injuries; most of the deaths and injuries were a result of violations of the international humanitarian law by the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the LNA. The GNA is an interim government for Libya which is based in Tripoli, Libya’s capital. The coalition is backed by the UN, and the LNA, which is also militarily supported by other countries. 

Nevertheless, these militia groups still hold great power despite UN support for the GNA. Libyan breakout militia groups have also attacked numerous homes, causing the displacement of over 140,000 people from Tripoli. This displacement has also affected civilians’ access to healthcare, electricity, and other basic necessities. Armed groups, many of which are associated with the GNA, have executed, abducted, and tortured people, keeping them away from their families. For months now, the GNA has quelled freedom of expression by harassing and abducting many Libyan citizens, including human rights defenders and activists, also many of which have been forced to flee the country. Further, authorities have largely failed in protecting Libyan women; women are often in danger of gender-based violence caused by militias and armed groups. Currently, women who outwardly express their opinions of the GNA are often threatened and in some cases kidnapped. Armed groups have also leveled assault against Libyans based on their sexual orientation, just another instance of the GNA targeting marginalized groups. At this moment, 1.3 million people are currently seeking humanitarian aid.

The government of Libya has simply failed to provide citizens with a stable, representative, and non-oppressive government. Due to the ongoing Civil War, Libya’s system of authority has been ineffective and increasingly weak. 

In addition, almost all law enforcement agencies are dysfunctional. In some cases, prisoners held for crimes against the government were held longer than their sentence initially stated, and many others have been held without proper charges. 

Overall, there is one important message to take away from this internal political crisis: Armed militias hold the most power in Libya. As a result of their support from the GNA, militias and armed groups have been able to continue operating outside the law.

This all leads us to one crucial question: Why is preventing this crisis from becoming stabilized? 

Libya has struggled to end its conflict because of an external source of money and weapons for corrupt oligarchs. For instance, because of their loyalty to LNA general Khalifa Haftar, Jordan, Turkey, Chad, Sudan, and the UAE have been supplying Libya with weapons and military support. The UN has continually attempted to broker peace, however their intervention has widely been a failed attempt. In 2019, the UN Security Council renewed the arms embargo on Libya for another year and called for mandatory inspection of vessels thought to be in violation of the embargo. In simpler terms, the embargo prohibits the sale of arms to Libya in an attempt to reduce the conflict by revoking the ammunition. However, the embargo has led to an increase in the smuggling of illegal materials and weapons.

This trend of smuggling weapons due to the embargo has had disastrous impacts. In June of 2020, a French frigate, or ship, tried to inspect a Tanzanian cargo ship thought to be smuggling weapons into Libya. The French armed forces ministry said the frigate was harassed by three Turkish navy vessels that were accompanying the cargo ship. However, Turkey has denied these allegations. NATO ordered an investigation, yet its findings remain classified. The Pentagon has also refused to speak about the issue, in an attempt to preserve their relationship with Turkey. This is only one incident that has led to an increase in tensions in Libya and among other involved countries. 

Currently, the civil war is escalating because of increasing air defense and the use of drones. The conflict has come down to what experts described as “an eye for an eye.” An attack by one group leads to an attack from the other military group; this cycle continues leading to indefinite amounts of destruction and an uncountable number of deaths.

As of now, the humanitarian conflict in Libya has worsened because of outside countries’ loyalty to Libya’s military leaders, and because of a lack of government control. Although Libya has been in a conflict for many years, the situation has greatly worsened with the coup overthrowing Gadaffi. Overall, an international solution appears unlikely, however many international organizations and non-profits are providing glimmers of hope for the Libyan people.


Contribute to Doctors Without Borders: https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/countries/libya

Contribute to Save the Children Libya:


More basic information on the crisis: https://www.rescue.org/country/libya

Sources: Links embedded. 

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Purvi Jonnalagadda is a rising junior at Horace Mann School in New York City. She enjoys baking, reading, and learning about current events, and she is thrilled to be a part of The Humanitarian Collective.