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Allegations of slavery in Libya

There has been increasing concern about allegations of open slave markets being held in Libya, particularly after the release on 15 November 2017 of a report on CNN news channel appearing to show live video of Africans being auctioned in Libya.

On 4 November, the International Organisation for Migration had released a statement that IOM employees had documented “shocking events” documenting “slave markets” of Africans migrating through Libya.

The EU’s policy has come in for some criticism: on 11 December Amnesty International published a report in which the organisation accused European governments of “complicity”. Amnesty accused the Italian Government of refoulement, returning migrants and refugees to face the prospect of torture, which Amnesty said breached both treaty obligations and customary international law. European governments are supporting the Libyan coastguard, but Amnesty alleges that the coastguard often collaborates with people smugglers.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement after visiting DCIM detention centres in Libya:

“Extra-judicial killings, slavery, torture, rape, human trafficking and starvation are only some of the abuses reportedly inflicted on migrants in both official and informal detention centres in the country.”

The Libyan officials have denied that slavery is widespread. The Libyan Chargé d’Affaires in London said he had: “never seen or heard any signs of racism in Libya” adding that if any allegation of slavery were proved, it would be the “act of an individual, and not a systematic practice.”

No effective Libyan government

Libya’s lack of effective government is at the root of the trouble. At present, the UN- and EU-approved government is struggling to establish its authority: the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) is looking increasingly weak, while the rival House of Representatives HoR) government is gaining ground. The military forces of General Khalifa Haftar, fighting for the HoR government, have had a series of successes and is now in control of about two thirds of Libyan territory, including most of the oil industry.

Foreign intervention

Libya has become the stage for important international rivalries. Turkey, Sudan and Qatar are supporting the GNA and have recognised it as the legitimate government. Meanwhile, Russia, Egypt, Chad, the UAE and, to a certain extent, Saudi Arabia, have been supporting Haftar and the HoR.

The crisis that broke out in June 2017 between Qatar (and Turkey) on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt has sharpened the two sides’ rivalry in Libya.

According to a June 2017 UN report, a Belarus-manufactured helicopter was transferred by the UAE to Libya, in breach of the arms embargo, earlier reports suggest that fixed wing warplanes have followed the same route. Qatar is widely reported to be funding Islamist groups associated with Libya Dawn, although direct military intervention seems to be limited.

In July 2017, Egypt opened a large military base near the Libyan border in a ceremony attended by Haftar and UAE leader.

The UK Government “remains committed to the Government of National Accord and the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA).”

Humanitarian situation

The conflict is leading to atrocities. Human Rights Watch says: “Forces engaged in the conflict are guilty of arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, disappearances, and the forceful displacement of people.”

Nearly a quarter of a million Libyans are internally displaced.

Nearly 100,000 are in need of food assistance.

In May 2017 there were 68 civilian casualties, mainly caused by bombs and gunfire – it was the highest monthly figure so far in 2017.

More than half a million Libyan children are in need of some sort of humanitarian assistance.

UK Government response

In December 2017 the Middle East Minister Alistair Burt set out the Government’s response to the allegations:

“The UK is determined to eliminate the scourge of forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking. The UK regularly raises with the Libyan Government the need for wider respect for human rights and accountability across the country. During his visit to Libya in August the Foreign Secretary raised with Prime Minister Serraj the importance of offering humanitarian support to migrants and the need to respect human rights. I also raised our concerns about the human rights situation in Libya, including the issue of slavery, with the Libyan Deputy Prime Minister at the Mediterranean Dialogues in Rome on 1 December and welcomed the investigation into this issue. The British Embassy to Libya has further underlined our concerns about these reports in our recent discussions with the Libyan Government, and will continue to monitor the situation closely.”

The UK Government says that ending slavery is a policy priority:

“The Prime Minister has made tackling modern slavery a foreign policy priority, and in September this year launched a Call to Action to End Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, committing to doubling UK aid spend in support of this objective to £150 million. We are determined to work with our international partners to hold to account those acting with impunity in Libya, including through sanctions against those who are complicit in serious human rights abuses and violations. The Prime Minister has already committed to increasing efforts to tackle smuggling and trafficking in Libya through building the capacity of Libyan law enforcement agencies, and supporting efforts to sanction people smugglers at the UN. We also support the Declaration from the EU-Africa Summit on this issue. UK programming has enabled the assisted voluntary return of over 1,400 migrants from Libya this year, and we support further efforts in this area, including by the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.”

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