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UN cash crunch still delaying Libya rights abuse probe

‘Due to the liquidity crisis… the mission has not yet started.’

The image shows several men carrying a coffin with the Libya skyline in the background.
Mourners carry bodies exhumed from a mass grave to rebury them in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. (Hazem Ahmed/REUTERS)

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Nearly eight months after the UN said it was launching an investigation into human rights abuses in Libya, the mission is yet to really start its work due to funding problems.

The UN Human Rights Council announced the establishment of the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya late last June, as a year of violent clashes centred on the capital, Tripoli, subsided and mass graves were discovered in key battlegrounds like Tarhouna.

Read more → A Libyan town reckons with its past horrors and uncertain future

But so far a UN-wide cash crunch means the 16-member team, which is supposed to “to document alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by all parties in Libya since the start of 2016”, hasn’t actually done any investigating on the ground.

The UN adopted a proposal in October to postpone the investigation due a lack of funds, and Olga Nakajo, the mission’s Geneva-based interim coordinator, confirmed to The New Humanitarian last week that it was still to really get underway for the same reason.

“Due to the liquidity crisis [at the UN]... the 16-member team has not yet started,” Nakajo said. “A start-up independent team has… initially identified key interlocuteurs, including civil society, regional organisations, and… contacts outside the country,” she said, adding that experts would be deployed to Tunis, where they will be based, as soon as money does arrive. 

Last April, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the UN was facing a cash crisis because member states had not paid their dues – a problem made worse by the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Fighting between forces affiliated with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) enveloped Libya’s capital between April 2019 and June of last year. Libya has generally been wracked by violent conflict and power struggles in the decade since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011. 

Mass graves have been discovered in places like Tarhouna, and while Libyan officials have promised their own investigations, some have called for international bodies to step in, given the fact that local authorities are short on funding and many do not trust the judiciary. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that the “inability of the justice system to function effectively has led to widespread impunity, particularly for violations and abuses perpetrated by armed groups”.

Last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC), said it was looking into war crimes and crimes against humanity following the discovery of multiple mass graves in Libya. It said in a recent report that its office had “received credible information indicating that forces from Tarhouna affiliated with the LNA are alleged to have committed serious crimes including killings, abductions, enforced disappearances, pillaging and the destruction of property”. It is not clear if its investigations will lead to charges.

One source close to the UN investigation, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, suggested that the mission was put on hold in order to allow Libyan players – and their external foreign backers – to come to the political deal that has now resulted in an interim government. The new president, two vice presidents, and prime minister – selected in a UN-backed process – have significant hurdles ahead in a divided country: These include forming a new government and holding elections around the end of 2021.

“The UN mission is prioritising the semblance of progress over a deal that addresses the main obstacles to lasting stability,” the source said.

But Nakajo denied this allegation, telling TNH: “At least from what I have seen personally, there has not been any kind of pressure to delay the work.”

The investigation’s mandate is set to expire in September, and it is not clear if it will be renewed if funding remains a problem.

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