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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

LIBYA: A protection challenge for the opposition

BENGHAZI, 24 August 2011 (IRIN) - The entry by Libyan opposition fighters into Tripoli clearly marks a turning point for the Libyan opposition after six months of fighting against Col Muammar Gaddafi's government.

But while the balance of power appears to have shifted decisively in Libya, some observers are raising strong concerns over the protection of civilians as Gaddafi's successors prepare to take over.

"We fear that those who have suffered under Gaddafi will now seek revenge and that will set Libya off on a downward spiral away from the stated objectives of this uprising, which are: justice, human rights, the rule of law and protected freedoms," said Human Rights Watch (HRW) adviser Jerry Abrahams.

"The NTC [National Transitional Council - i.e. the emerging rebel government] right now should focus on protecting vulnerable groups," Abrahams told IRIN. "At the top of that list are dark-skinned Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans, who have frequently been accused of serving Gaddafi as foreign mercenaries and have come under violent attack. We hope the NTC will take measures to call for people not to harm them and will show that Libya is breaking from the past."

The rebels entered Tripoli and overran parts of the presidential compound on 23 August, as fighting continued in various towns and villages between opposition and pro-Gaddafi fighters. In Tripoli, fighting prompted the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to charter a boat to carry 300 migrants out of the city, but security conditions at the port delayed docking.

"We urgently call on all parties to allow IOM to carry out its humanitarian work in safety and begin evacuating the many thousands of migrants who want to leave Tripoli," said William Lacy Swing, IOM director-general. "We have seen with our Misrata operations at the height of the conflict there that migrants were often the innocent victims of the violence. This must not be the case again."

While there are no clear numbers of migrants still in Tripoli, several thousand have registered with the IOM for assistance in recent days. Continuing fighting in Tripoli's residential areas, amid celebratory gunfire, also raised fears for civilians living there.

"I am disturbed by reports of forced displacement and prevention of movement in areas where there is fighting," Valerie Amos, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, warned. "We need to be able to bring in and replenish relief supplies and provide support to people in need in Tripoli and in the areas where people have fled."

Difficulties in response

Going back six months, the plight of the displaced was a major concern for humanitarian actors at the start of the crisis. The IOM and UNHCR both had an established presence in Libya, dealing with refugees and migrant worker populations. When fighting broke out in February, it was the mass displacement and outflow of these communities that featured most strongly in the first international appeals, focusing on transportation needs and transit camps, with thousands fleeing west into Tunisia and east into Egypt; others heading south to Niger and Chad; Bangladeshis, Filipinos and others returning to Asia.

While the fiercest fighting during the crisis has been confined to limited areas of Libya, humanitarian organisations have admitted to difficulties in responding throughout to shifting fronts and territorial gains, dealing with new waves of displaced. Problems of access and the on-off nature of the fighting made it difficult to raise protection issues and get commitments from both sides to adhere to international humanitarian law, particularly as the conflict worsened and was marked by often indiscriminate assaults with heavy civilian casualties.

There were other complications. The de facto partition of the country into rebel and Gaddafi-held territory made countrywide operations extremely difficult, even for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which established a delegation in Tripoli in April. There were also concerns about making a clear separation between military and humanitarian objectives. Some of the high profile aid operators in Libya are based in countries strongly identified with NATO's offensive against Gaddafi and publicly aligned with the NTC.

Aid delegates on a recent mission to Tripoli fielded a series of complaints from health officials and ministers over the international community's alleged neglect of humanitarian needs outside rebel-controlled territory and on the humanitarian consequences of air raids and sanctions.

NGOs, UN agencies and other Libya watchers over the past six months have talked repeatedly of working in a situation that was, in many ways, far removed from "a traditional humanitarian emergency". As a major oil producer with a pre-war national gross domestic product of over $150 billion, Libya had rarely been seen as a candidate for foreign aid, more as a potential donor. The Red Crescent was long established, but most of Libya's own, modest network of relief and welfare organizations was tied to the state and Gaddafi's own family and entourage.

The Libyan leader's international rehabilitation, recast in recent years as a Middle East moderate, had led to closer ties with the European Union and hints of joint projects and new trade agreements.

Post-crisis NGO influx

The crisis in 2011 triggered a substantial influx of international NGOs. Most had little or no experience of Libya, but many of the problems encountered were familiar from other contexts. There were difficulties in getting access to frontline areas against a background of ongoing fighting and security concerns.

NGOs were dealing with a deeply traumatized population, unfamiliar with civil war and the deprivation and loss it brings in its wake. There was also the deadly impact of war materiel to contend with, particularly unexploded bombs and mortars.

Even in areas like Benghazi which stabilized after the violence in February and March, large parts of the population faced serious disruption. Despite Libya's strong record in the past on health and education, the war had a damaging impact on both sectors, with schools and hospitals heavily dependent on local volunteers after the huge exodus of third-country nationals.

Ordinary civilians also had to contend with water treatment and sanitation problems, oil shortages and power cuts. Bank closures led inevitably to liquidity problems.

Now NGO leaders warn that donors must stay the course. "There are still needs to be addressed," ICRC spokesman Steven Anderson told IRIN. While the focus would soon switch "from emergency to early recovery", a key priority for the ICRC at the current time was getting access to casualties in Tripoli, Anderson added.

The NTC and its own aid officials say they want to lead now and avoid a culture of dependency. "We can take care of things 100 percent," a senior Libyan humanitarian activist in Benghazi told IRIN recently. "We have the qualifications, we have the manpower and we have the capability. What we don't have is the funding."

NTC role critical

With the 42-year rule of Gaddafi on the verge of collapse, observers have warned that the NTC and its affiliates will face a major challenge administering the whole of Libya. Much of the initial speculation on the identity and orientation of a post-Gaddafi Libya had focused on the country's oil wealth, the potential gains for new investors, the interest in major infrastructural development, and a diversified private sector.

But the NTC, a hastily formed coalition whose key constituent elements included both former Gaddafi ministerial heavyweights and US-based academics, has stressed the need for substantial external support in areas like health and education, hinting that outside organizations that came in to tackle an emergency triggered by a bitter domestic conflict have both an interest in and an obligation to help Libya through a tough, complicated period of reconstruction, reconciliation and recovery.

"The challenge for [the NTC] as well as for international actors who enabled its drive into Tripoli, is threefold: to establish a broadly inclusive and representative transitional governing body; address immediate security risks; and find an appropriate balance between, on the one hand, the search for accountability and justice and, on the other, the imperative of avoiding arbitrary score-settling and revenge," the International Crisis Group said.

Abrahams of the HRW said the rapid emergence of focused civil society organisations was a source of encouragement, but warned of the need for vigilance".

"The NTC must be watched, encouraged and cajoled," Abrahams said. "We don't want a victor's justice here."


Copyright © IRIN 2011
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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