(New York) – At least seven civilians, including three children, died in the joint Egyptian/Libyan airstrikes on the eastern city of Derna on February 16, 2015. Libya and Egypt should conduct speedy and transparent investigations into the deaths.
Indiscriminate attacks that cannot or do not distinguish between military targets and civilians or civilian infrastructure violate the laws of war. Serious violations of the laws of war, carried out with criminal intent, may be war crimes.
Egypt said on February 16 that it had carried out air strikes targeting extremist militants in Derna. This followed the mass killing of 21 Coptic Christians, including 20 Egyptians on February 15 by militants who pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Libya’s army chief of staff issued astatement confirming its coordination with Egypt in conducting the Derna air strikes. Forces loyal to the internationally recognized government, based out of eastern Libya, are engaged in an armed conflict with militant groups, including groups that pledged allegiance to ISIS, in the eastern region.
“Egypt and Libya say they are fighting extremists affiliated with ISIS, but that doesn’t give them a free hand to kill civilians,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “All parties to the conflicts in Libya need to do their utmost to spare civilians and should immediately investigate any civilian casualties.”
Human Rights Watch documented seven civilian deaths that appear to be a result of the airstrikes on Derna, and interviewed families of six of the victims by phone, all killed in their homes in the eastern city’s Al-Shiha neighborhood. The dead included a mother, Rabiha al-Mansouri, and three of her four children, Afraa, Zakaria, and Huthaifa al-Karshoufi, who died when a missile hit their home. Others were Osama al-Shteiwi, a student who was watching from the roof of his home, who was hit by shrapnel; Attia Bousheiba al-Shaari, who died after the front of his house collapsed on him; and Hanan Faraj al-Drissi, who was on the roof of her home when a missile struck the street in front.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that the air strikes wounded at least 20 other civilians, some of whom were in intensive care at al-Hreish hospital.
Family members interviewed by Human Rights Watch said military plane over-flights and air strikes started at about 5 a.m., and many residents went onto their rooftops to observe them. All of the interviewees said that two missiles struck their neighborhood between 7 and 7:30 a.m. and that none of the homes that were hit were being used to store weapons or ammunition by local militiamen.
The head of Libya’s air force, which operates under the authority of Libya’s internationally recognized government based in eastern Libya, said in an interview that his forces had carried out “air strikes on houses in the city of Derna, which were the headquarters for ground launchers and weapons for the organization Daesh [ISIS],” and that the air strikes killed between 40 and 50 militants. He made no reference to civilian casualties.
Attacks targeting civilians or civilian property, and attacks that do not or cannot discriminate between civilians and fighters, are prohibited under the international laws governing the conduct of armed conflicts. Attacks that are intended to punish civilians, including family members of a commander or fighter from an opposing faction, constitute collective punishment, which is also unlawful. Attacks that cause extensive and disproportionate destruction of property when carried out unlawfully and wantonly are also prohibited, Human Rights Watch said.
All parties to the conflicts in Libya, which now includes Egypt, are required to abide by the laws of war, which require them to take all feasible steps to protect civilians. Attacking parties are required by international law to take into account the risk to civilians that an attack would pose even if opposing forces are present and have situated military targets within or near populated areas.
Certain serious violations of the laws of war, when committed with criminal intent, are war crimes. Those who commit, order, assist, or have command responsibility for war crimes are subject to prosecution by domestic courts or the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011, under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970.
ICC investigations in Libya remain limited to cases from 2011 involving officials of the former Gaddafi government. Despite ongoing serious crimes that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya, the prosecutor of the ICC has not brought any additional cases and has not announced any new investigations. The prosecutor should examine reports of serious ongoing crimes in Libya, with a view to determining whether further investigations are warranted.
The UN Human Rights Council should establish an investigative mechanism or appoint a special rapporteur on Libya to investigate all serious and widespread human rights violations in Libya, which may constitute possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, with the view to ensuring that those responsible for serious crimes are held accountable.
In 2014 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2174, which threatens those responsible for serious crimes with sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, but the Security Council has yet to implement it effectively. The resolution also reiterated that individuals and groups were bound by an existing arms embargo, as stipulated in Security Council Resolution 1970 (2011).
“Unless the Security Council acts quickly and decisively to hold those responsible for civilian deaths and injuries accountable and to reinforce the existing arms embargo, there is a risk that the situation will deteriorate further and result in many more civilian deaths,” Whitson said.
Several armed groups in eastern Libya publicly pledged allegiance to ISIS in November 2014, declared that they had established “Barqa Province,” and conducted public extrajudicial executions and floggings. At least two other armed groups have claimed affiliation to ISIS in what they refer to as the Tripoli and Fezzan Provinces, respectively western Libya – including the capital, and southern Libya. These armed groups have claimed responsibility for several attacks, including the apparent mass killing of 21 Christian Copts near Sirte, and a January 27, 2015 attack on a luxury hotel in Tripoli that killed nine civilians.
On February 20, armed groups that claim to be affiliated to ISIS committed twin suicide attacks in the eastern town of al-Gubba, 40 kilometers from Derna, killing at least 44 people and injuring dozens more. A statement released by the “Barqa Province of IS” said the attacks were in retaliation for the Derna airstrikes.
The current armed conflicts, which began in May 2014 in eastern Libya and spread to the west two months later, has left the country with two rival governments: an internationally recognized government based in al-Bayda in the east, and a rival, self-proclaimed government in Tripoli that controls much of western Libya. Both claim to be the legitimate government of all of Libya, but neither has been able to exert control nationally. Meanwhile, Libya’s institutions, particularly its judiciary, are at near-collapse, with courts and prosecutors in most cities no longer functioning because of direct targeting of judges and prosecutors by militants, and general insecurity.
Evidence From Witnesses and Family Members
Human Rights Watch spoke by phone with two members of the al-Kharshoufi family on February 18 and February 20, 2015. They said a rocket struck the family home on the morning of February 16, immediately killing Rabiha al-Mansouri and three of her four children – ages 2, 6, and 7. Al-Mansouri’s husband and their 8-year-old son survived. One relative told Human Rights Watch: “The house was nearly destroyed after one of the missiles landed straight on it at around 7 a.m. It’s a big four-story family home, and the ceiling, which is very heavy, landed where the mother and her four children were staying.”
Another relative told Human Rights Watch that the bombing almost totally destroyed 16 other houses in the same neighborhood and caused some damage to another 32 homes.
A brother of Osama al-Shteiwi, who spoke to Human Rights Watch by phone on February 20, said he saw Osama killed instantly when shrapnel hit his head as he was on the roof of their home trying to film the air strikes, which had begun at about 5a.m. He said Osama had returned to Libya from Turkey, where he was an engineering student, on February 2, when his scholarship funds ran out.
“My brother and I had been up since the early morning when we first heard over-flights of military airplanes and air strikes in the distance,” the brother said. “Just seconds before the missiles landed on our house, I shouted to my brother to come back indoors, but it was too late. Shrapnel hit him on the head and severed it from his body. He died instantly.” Osama’s brother said he had not heard any anti-aircraft weapons fired from their neighborhood although “there was a lot of shooting that day, from all over the city,” including small arms fire from their neighborhood.
Human Rights Watch saw a copy of Osama’s burial certificate, which stated the cause of death and listed the injuries he had sustained.
The son of Attia Bousheiba al-Shaari, who was at the family home the day of the air strike, told Human Rights Watch in a call on February 20 that his father was in front of their house to warm up the car sometime between 7 and 7:30 a.m., waiting for one of his daughters, when a missile struck in front of the home.
“We had been hearing air strikes since the early morning in the city and we heard them coming closer, but our home is in a residential area, we never expected anything like this to happen,” the son said. “I cannot begin to describe what it felt like when the missile struck. I ran out immediately after and saw that the front of our home had just fallen off. I then saw that my father was lying on the ground next to his car. He had injuries on his face and I specifically remember blood running out of his ear. I brought him to the hospital, but it was too late, he’d died immediately.”
The son said that he had not heard any shooting from their street before the air strike: “Our neighborhood is neutral. I do not know of anyone who stores weapons or ammunition. I find it very strange that our street was targeted specifically.”
Human Rights Watch was unable to contact family members of the other victim, Hanan al-Drissi, but spoke by phone to three of her neighbors, who said she died instantly when a rocket hit her home. One neighbor said that al-Drissi was on the roof at the time, and that one of her sisters, also at the house, was critically injured.