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LIBYA: U.N. Experts Probe Human Rights Abuses

Isolda Agazzi

GENEVA, Apr 8 2011 (IPS) - The international commission of inquiry established by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate alleged violations of human rights in Libya will start its mission next week, and report on all crimes, committed by anyone, including foreign powers.

The three-member commission – made up of Cherif Bassiouni, Asma Khader and Philippe Kirsch – will leave Geneva for Libya, Egypt and Tunisia on Sunday. The three experts will spend the rest of the month investigating alleged violations of human rights in Libya and present a report to the Human Rights Council (HRC) on Jun. 17.

“The HRC resolution gives us a broad mandate,” Professor Bassiouni, the chair of the commission, told reporters Friday. “It does not specify what human rights violations we can investigate; therefore it applies to all violations, committed by anyone or any party.

“We will also identify accountability for violations of humanitarian law, human rights obligations contained in U.N. covenants and agreements to which Libya is a party and customary international law,” Bassiouni added.

The mission will meet with the Libyan government, U.N. officials, various international organisations and NGOs, but also with people in prisons and hospitals, with civilians and combatants. It will go to zones under government and opposition control.

Asked whether, if found, they would also report on a crime committed by a foreign power, the experts replied that their mandate covers all human rights violations in Libya, regardless who committed them. “So whoever commits the violations will be reported,” they said.


Peter Splinter, Amnesty International representative to the U.N. in Geneva, told IPS that the Commissioners “are interested in looking not just at current violations, but also at the context within which they have occurred.”

This might involve a probe into “support by other governments to the Libyan regime,” he added.

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who has just returned from a two-week mission to eastern Libya, says he had found massive amounts of unexploded ordnance, abandoned and unsecured weapons and munitions, and recently-laid landmines that pose a great threat to civilians.

“I was very surprised to discover that the Belgian government had sold weapons to Libya as late as 2009,” he told IPS, adding: “Western countries were selling arms to a government that has such a long record of abusing its own population and being involved in terrorist activities (abroad).”

Asked whether the commission of inquiry should also look into this aspect, he answered that the issue is broader and may be outside the commission’s mandate, “but governments that have supplied weapons have the responsibility to deal with the legacy, help secure and destroy them and pay for the removal of landmines.”

Many weapons date back to the 1970s and 1980s, when Libya was under embargo. “Many of them were clearly sold in violation of international law,” Bouckaert continued.

“We found weapons from North Korea labelled as spare parts for tractors and bulldozers. Arms sales companies have a responsibility to consider the use their weapons will be put to. If they know that they will be used for repression, they have the obligation to stop the sales.”

As a former staff member of the U.N. mission of inquiry in Guinea, Bouckaert believes that the HRC mission is important to establish what really happened and to call for accountability.

Libya has not directly replied to the request for visiting the zones under government control, but it has issued a press release announcing publicly that the commission will be welcome in Libya, starting Apr. 15.

“I believe that the commission will be allowed to go to Tripoli,” Bouckaert commented. “The question is whether it will be able to do the real work there or whether the government will try to manipulate its presence. The more important negotiations are about minimal working conditions. You cannot just go there and be put on a government tour.”

Bassiouni assures that sources of information will be secured and witnesses protected. The mission will cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) that has received a mandate by a referral of the Security Council on Feb. 26. Five days later, the ICC Prosecutor announced his decision to open an investigation on the situation in Libya.

The experts insist on the need to have more information before discussing what they will do later. They do not want to point the finger at anyone before having accurately ascertained the facts. “Whether eventual crimes rise to the level of criminal accountability and whether they will be transmitted to the ICC, we will see,” they say.

But what is the credibility of such a mission, given the recent step back of Justice Richard Goldstone from his own report on the Gaza conflict?

The South African jurist was the head of the United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict that released a report in September 2009 which blasted both Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas for war crimes committed during the 22-day conflict in 2008-2009.

“There is a lot of back and forth in the press with the Goldstone report,” Peter Splinter replied. “He did not walk away, he reaffirmed his report. He just said that, if he had known, he would not have talked about a deliberate policy of targeting civilians. Why did he not know what he knows now? Because he was not allowed to go to Israel. But it is unfair to say that it discredits U.N. missions of inquiry.”

For Splinter, the mission to Libya has highly qualified and high profile international jurists, which gives ground for optimism about what can be expected. “It is an important step, but the timeframe is very tight”, he said.

“The conflict is still going on, people are still (being) killed,” Bassiouni acknowledged. “This is the fourth war I am going to investigate and many things come out later.”

The reason: “People (who may testify) are in hospitals, or have family inside and cannot talk till the dust has come down. Investigations of this sort are not like instant solutions,” Bassiouni said, adding “We will do the best we can, but our intention is to include a recommendation for an extension of the period of time to be able to continue our work.”

 
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