This article is the first in a new series we are producing in partnership Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute that features the voices of experts and advocates from countries affected by U.S. national security policies.

This month marks the sevenyear anniversary of the 2011 U.S. and NATO military intervention in Libya, and the United States is still heavily involved in the country, conducting airstrikes and special operations raids against suspected terrorist groups in cities like Sirte.

The current form of American military operations in Libya, and the rationales advanced to justify those operations, is, however, a far cry from the stated reasons why the United States intervened in the first place. Initial claims that the U.S. and NATO were intervening to protect the human rights of the Libyan people have been usurped by the narrow objective of defeating ISIS, largely ignoring the conditions that have allowed violent extremism to emerge in the country in the first place.

Libya’s transition has been transformed too. The United States has not articulated a coherent policy for the country. Local partners are chosen based on their ability to maintain security without consideration for the impact their empowerment has on wider politics and relations in the country. Libyan society is no longer viewed as calling for democracy, but pleading for stability. The need for stability has resulted in the U.S. and international community veering dangerously close to endorsing a new Libyan dictatorship: through the support of militia groups that are accused of human right abuses and war crimes.

There is significant irony in collaborating with actors to end the instability that they helped create. The objective of this counterterrorism strategy, to find a group capable of imposing stability by force, is a fantasy in Libya. The country’s current instability is caused, in part, by the scramble of U.S. and foreign allies trying to back the right actor by playing all sides. Any successful strategy by the U.S. and its allies must instead be one that does not empower abusive militia groups or seek short-term military gains, but more fully integrates human rights concerns into its considerations and partnerships as necessary to protect human rights.

Background to current U.S. involvement in Libya

To understand this situation, and thereby fix it, one needs to look back to the summer of 2014. Libya was fractured and hardly resembled a sovereign state. The Libyan transitional government – The General National Congress – failed to establish effective democratic institutions. Many of the militias that had formed during the 2011 uprising refused to disarm. These groups sustained their control by creating chaos, assassinating critical voices, and threatening government actors at gunpoint – claiming that violence was necessary to safeguard the revolution. In reality, they privately profited from the instability and the criminal enterprises it enabled.

The collapse of Libyan State power and the lack of accountability for human rights violations led to a new wave of violence, as militias increasingly came into competition. These rivalries culminated in the formation of two nationwide militia coalitions in July 2014, Operation Dignity – an anti-“Islamist” insurgency group formed by General Haftar – and Libya Dawn. The conflict between these two groups would result in the deaths of over 5,000 persons.

In the face of this renewed conflict, the United States initially failed to articulate its response. It seemed as though the U.S. administration was distancing itself from what then-U.S. Barack Obama would later call behind closed doors, a “shit show.” Obama blamed European allies for not being attentive enough to the situation unfolding in Libya. But the United States itself had taken a noticeable step back from Libya following the attacks on its Benghazi embassy in 2012, and the strong criticism of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that followed the attack. It is notable that the significant policy choices the United States took as Libya began to unravel in 2014 were the removal of its embassy due to security concerns and a special forces operation which detained and rendered the suspect of the Benghazi embassy attack to the United States.

The rise of ISIS in Libya and the U.S. response

In September 2014, Libya came back onto the U.S. agenda when several militia groups in the port city of Derna announced that they had pledged their affiliation to ISIS. At this point, the U.S. had started bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and was rallying international support to counter the ISIS threat.  The strong counterterrorism rhetoric that accompanied the anti-ISIS campaign made it difficult for the United States to dismiss the emergence of ISIS in Libya, less than 300 kilometres from Europe.

This development significantly reframed how the U.S. understood its involvement in Libya. The United States had to empower a strong authority to act against groups representing what it perceived as an emerging terrorist threat. This shift required new foreign policy strategies. The activities of building democratic institutions, human rights accountability, and the rule of law became heavily deprioritized. Support offered by the U.S. Agency for International Development reflected this shift, by limiting its “human rights activities” to enhancing political participation and supporting small-scale infrastructure and municipality projects.

Faced with the possibility of a terrorist threat in Libya, it was apparent that the U.S. needed a legitimate sovereign actor that could “consent” to a sustained U.S. military intervention. The solution was to wait for the peace process to establish a new unified government.

The need for stability and an internationally endorsed state partner were thus given primacy in the talks between the rival governments, facilitated by the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Despite the documentation of widespread human rights violations and the ongoing impunity enjoyed by militia factions, accountability measures failed to materialise in any meaningful form during these discussions. The resulting Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) only contained a muted recognition that “all armed formations” owed a commitment to human rights and a condemnation of “violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

The rushed Libyan agreement reflected the belief that human rights accountability would complicate and slow things down. Any government was seen as better than none at this stage, and at least the international community would be able to engage meaningfully again. When asked by commentators what would happen if this unity government failed, many States repeated the same line “Plan B is more of Plan A”; in other words – there could always be more peace talks.

When Libya’s new unity government, the Government of National Accord (the GNA), was established in 2016, the U.S. was finally able to pursue its counterterrorism policy. Within a year, the U.S. launched a sustained military campaign, Operation Odyssey Lightning” carried out by AFRICOM following an official request for assistance from the GNA. For many in Libya, the U.S. pattern of bombing suspected terrorist targets in Libya, with no real strategy in place for ensuring security in the country, seems reminiscent of U.S. military involvement in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

In the five months between August 2016 and December 2016, more than 495 airstrikes were carried out by U.S. forces as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning, reportedly killing 800 to 900 Islamic State fighters. The U.S. State Department and Defense Department provided optimistic updates to the press about the territory ceded by ISIS and how the U.S. was working with GNA-affiliated forces. AFRICOM branded its military activities to liberate Sirte from ISIS control as an exemplary success.

However, this isolated counterterrorism policy success did little to resolve the fundamental political problems facing Libya. More than a year-and-a-half later, America’s unfocused policy in Libya has worsened under a Trump administration. To Libyans, the only thing that the U.S. intervention achieved so far is the empowerment of militias that have been implicated in human rights and international criminal law violations.

While much of the international attention given to Libya in 2016 focused on the U.S. air campaign, the actions of  local U.S.-backed ground forces who were alleged to be involved in abuses were not sufficiently scrutinized by the press. U.S. backed troops included the Misrata Brigades, a group admonished in the U.N. report by the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya for attacks against civilians, and Bunyan Al-Marsous, a group which prevented the return of internally displaced persons in Libya as recently as February 2018.

US Airstrikes and Support for Non-State Actors

The United States’ collaboration with groups like the Misrata Brigades sent a clear message to Libyans, one that was in direct conflict with the rhetoric of the Libyan political agreement, which called on Libya’s governing powers to “ensure the rights of the Libyan people… and end impunity.”  The message sent from Washington was that a unified government was no longer required. Human rights mattered no longer, while abusive militias would be tolerated, even endorsed, if they assisted in furthering U.S. counterterrorism goals.

The willingness to work with partners beyond the Government of National Accord has set an example for the rest of the international community. Take the case of General Khalifa Haftar, a militia leader accused of ordering war crimes and widely seen as a major impediment to the GNA’s legitimacy. Even though U.N. Security Council Resolution 2259 requires all U.N. Member States to “cease support to and official contact with parallel institutions that claim to be the legitimate authority,” Haftar continues to receive varying levels of support from the U.K., France, the U.S., Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. The U.K., France, and the U.S. even recently went as far as to praise a Haftaraligned militia for investigating claims against Haftar’s subordinate Mahmoud-al-Werfalli who is subject to an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Russian government has also been involved stating that Libya must “find a compromise on [Haftar’s] participation in the new Libyan leadership,” and made agreements to establish two additional  Russian military bases in eastern Libya based on Haftar’s consent.

Support for actors such as Haftar has fueled resentment, increased instability, and sowed a fertile ground for further terrorism and conflict in Libya. This is the deep paradox of current U.S. counterterrorism policy – chasing the fantasy of strongmen to quash opposition, only to create more dissent in the process.

As an organization of lawyers working to promote human rights in Libya, we argue that an alternative vision to the one laid out by the U.S. and the international community remains possible, one which integrates the objectives of human rights and counterterrorism together. This requires seeing human rights as synonymous with establishing security and stability, rather than as a hindrance to such goals. Vetting and imposing human rights conditions before collaborating with state and non-state actors would go a long way in demonstrating that the U.S. acts consistently with its rhetoric. Introducing accountability into future political reconciliation agreements may provide assurances that future human rights abuses will not be tolerated, and provide a platform to build trust between communities. As demonstrated in other contexts, providing this support to human rights can help achieve an environment that alleviates the systematic causes of violent extremism.

Image: J. Weeks/VOA via Wikimedia Commons.