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Will the world let Libya’s Ganfouda become the next Srebrenica?

As food and water run out in Ganfouda, the world must force the Tobruk-based government and Operation Dignity leaders to stop their crimes

Much of the world’s attention - if not already fixated on a Trump presidency - has been captured by the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq involving the Islamic State and the Syrian regime, but another tragedy has been unfolding gradually in eastern Libya.

Libya’s deteriorating political situation started almost immediately after the Arab Spring protests and subsequent Western intervention that helped overthrow long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

'Children look like skin and bones because of the lack of food and poor nutrition' 

- Resident in Ganfouda 

Peaceful transition into a democratic government fell through and a civil war has filled the political vacuum instead.

Since 2014 in eastern Libyan, one side of the war, the Tobruk-based government’s so-called “Operation Dignity” led by a military marshal, Khalifa Haftar, against Islamist militias and Benghazi armed groups has laid siege to much of Benghazi, including, most recently, Ganfouda.

Over the past two years of fighting, both Haftar’s forces and militias and armed groups that have formed a coalition known as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR) have committed serious human rights abuses and violated international humanitarian law, according to the UN Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this year, cars drive at night past buildings destroyed by fighting between forces loyal to Haftar and armed groups (AFP)
The armed conflict in Ganfouda, in effect, is choking the civilian population to death. But the especially heavy-handed methods and routinely illegal tactics of the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Haftar’s command – including repeated air strikes which have essentially pinned down residents - have now created a humanitarian disaster in the neighbourhood of Ganfouda.

Hundreds of civilians, including 130 Libyan families and foreign nationals who have been besieged for months and trapped by the fighting, are at risk of starving to death. They are running out of food, and the food they have left is inedible. Water is contaminated, infants are without milk and the sick are running out of medication. 

"Children look like skin and bones because of the lack of food and poor nutrition," a resident told Amnesty.

The International Criminal Court investigates

Less than two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be part of a delegation which included human rights advocates and organisations like Human Rights Solidarity that visited the International Criminal Court in the Hague to talk about what’s been happening in Benghazi.

Recently, an Operation Dignity deputy announced on Libyan national television that every man and boy in the area would be killed

Attending with relatives of many civilians held captive in Ganfouda, we were able to give a second-hand account of the tragedy that is unfolding.

We met with the prosecutor general of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, to inform her of the current situation, which includes the intensified bombardment of civilian structures by Operation Dignity forces and their foreign allies, worsening a harrowing humanitarian crisis.

Recently, an Operation Dignity deputy announced on Libyan national television that every man and boy in the area would be killed, a statement that was reaffirmed with an offer by Haftar’s LNA to free only the women and children of Ganfouda, while all males between the ages of 15 and 65 would have to surrender to the operation’s forces.

During our meetings, a senior ICC lawyer actively investigating the atrocities in Benghazi drew a striking analogy between the method and language used and what happened in Bosnia more than 20 years ago.

In 2005, a Bosnian boy searches for a relative's coffin in a former factory used as a morgue in Potocari, where the remains of 610 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, aged between 14 and 75, killed in Srebrenica were to be buried (AFP)
It was near the end of that three-year conflict when Serb politician Radovan Karadzic orchestrated the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys outside the Srebrenica enclave. In March this year, Karadzic was convicted of war crimes over the massacre and sentenced to 40 years in jail.

Last year, at a UN meeting marking the 20th anniversary of the slaughter in Bosnia, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said that the atrocities would remain a stain on the international body.

“We gather in humility and regret,” Eliasson said, “to recognise the failure of the United Nations and the international community to prevent this tragedy.”

United Nations Security Council intervention

This week, while briefing the UN’s 15-member Security Council, Bensouda explained that Libya will be a priority in 2017 because of “widespread violence, lawlessness and impunity in the country, a desire to provide justice for victims of Rome Statute crimes". Bensouda also announced that her office intends to apply for new warrants of arrest and hopes to have them served in the near fuure.

Even if the UN were successful, the involvement of the French military which is blocking aid from entering ports and United Arab Emirates drones strikes on civilians, is a major hindrance

Today, the UN Special Mission in Libya, led by Martin Kobler, must take timely action by providing emergency relief to the captive families. Then, the UN must secure the safe exit of all of Ganfouda’s civilians.

This week also saw the appointment of Ireland’s Valle Ribeiro as the new head of the UN’s deputy special representative for Libya, and her top priority must be to do those two things for Ganfouda. They must all work to prevent a repeat of past errors.

But here’s the final piece of this tragedy: even if the UN were successful in its commitment to Libya, the involvement of the French military, which is reportedly blocking all aid from entering through the ports, and drone air strikes by the United Arab Emirates on civilians, is a major hindrance.

UN member states cannot be divided when it comes to the lives of civilians, war crimes, and humanitarian disasters. The UN Security Council should intervene to call for an immediate ceasefire in Benghazi by all parties - foreign or domestic. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, should condemn the actions of all sides involved in the armed conflict, which has resulted in Ganfouda’s crisis.

We also call upon the US and Canadian governments to condemn the atrocities being committed in Ganfouda and elsewhere in Libya, and have raised these issues directly with President Obama and the US State Department as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of the Canadian Parliament.

Let the people go

If the situation in Ganfouda is truly like the nightmare that unfolded in Bosnia in the 1990s, then urgent international attention is needed. The world must force the Tobruk-based government and its Dignity Operation leaders to cease their bloody crimes, as they have shown no sign of stopping on their own. 

If the situation in Ganfouda is truly like the nightmare that unfolded in Bosnia in the 1990s, then urgent international attention is needed

While they recently announced that they would be willing to let women and children escape the siege of Ganfouda, these words have amounted to nothing and are most likely meant to distract international attention while they go about their bloody business.

All we want is justice and safety for Libya’s civilians. We’re not interested in defaming anyone or acting on anything else but the truth. The people of Ganfouda should be allowed to leave safely by sea under the protection of the UN.

A Libyan boy rides his bicycle in front of destroyed building in Benghazi (AFP)
If the international community, led by the world powers and international organisations, are serious about not repeating mistakes from the past, they must act on the crisis in Libya.

To ignore Ganfouda is to ignore the tragic lesson that the dead in Srebrenica have taught us.

- Dr AbdelRahman Ali is a human rights activist and one of the founders of Voices of Liberty and Justice for Ganfouda.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: Children in Ganfouda ask for food and milk (MEE/Families in Ganfouda)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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