key human rights issues:
WHat the media can do

What is Torture?

The 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) defines torture as:

“…any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

Most, if not all torture survivors will suffer long-term psychological symptoms. Long-term physical health issues are also common, such as permanent disability and chronic pain. Torture impacts the socio-economic status of survivors as many are unable to continue working. When the survivors are the sole breadwinners, they and their families are often pushed into poverty.  Torture undermines faith in the rule of law and good governance and puts victims in a position where they feel no one can help them.

Read our handbook for journalists covering torture.

The Legal Framework

Under international law, the notion of torture is not limited to acts involving State officials. War crimes tribunals and criminal courts have convicted perpetrators of torture even when they had no connection to the state. Usually, however, torture takes place during the initial phase of arrest and detention, thus often in the hands of police, military or other security agencies and may be in official places of detention such as police stations, or in unofficial (or ‘secret’) locations used to perpetrate torture.

Torture may also relate to specific elements of the conditions of detention which are constructed to deliberately aggravate mental and physical suffering. Harsh conditions of detention may in some cases constitute torture. Torture can also take place outside of detention – at military checkpoints or during public protests, or in the context of an armed conflict.

Torture can also involve other types of officials who exercise control over individuals, such as hospital or mental health facility administrators, teaching staff, or officials at centres holding asylum seekers or refugees. In certain circumstances, the public officials may be understood to be persons holding de facto power, in the absence of any real government control, or where the government has contracted private security forces to carry out certain governance functions. In countries where there are militia or rebel forces in charge of certain areas or certain functions, such as Libya, these persons can be responsible for torture.

The Use of Torture in Libya

Since the Libya’s 2011 uprising, thousands of people have been deprived of their fundamental human rights and subjected to enforced disappearancestorture and other ill-treatment and prolonged detention.  In Libya, the period following the uprising has been characterised by fighting between different armed groups. These groups have become involved in the systematic perpetration of acts of torture and ill-treatment against perceived political opponents, activists and members of ethnic and/or religious minority groups.

States are required to protect persons from acts causing severe pain or suffering, even when those acts are carried out by private individuals. An example of this may be prisoner-on-prisoner violence; if the prison guards do not intervene to prevent this kind of behaviour, when they had the power to do so, the state can be held responsible.

What the Media Can Do

The media can play a vital role in informing the public about acts of torture, which often happens because the perpetrators feel like they are untouchable and above the law. Investigating and prosecuting torture cases is therefore an important way to prevent the practice, as it reminds would-be perpetrators that there will be serious consequences. Through accurate reporting, journalists can increase awareness of the prevalence of torture, its victims, and perpetrators. The media can also provide important insights into the impact of torture on the survivors and their communities and the many challenges that may be preventing survivors from achieving justice.

A typical question that is posed by journalists is whether the threshold of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” needs to be extreme to be regarded as torture. The threshold need not be extreme as the characterisation of the severity of harm is relative; it depends on all the circumstances of the case, such as the duration of the treatment, its physical or mental effects and, in some cases, the sex, age and state of health of the victim. The reality is that many torture cases go unreported in the media. This is because survivors often don’t come forward easily.

What is Enforced Disappearance?

The 2010 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (ICPPED) defines enforced disappearance as:

“…the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State, following by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”

Enforced disappearance may violate a range of human rights including:

  • The right to recognition as a person before the law
  • The right to liberty and security of the person
  • The right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • The right to life, when the disappeared person is killed
  • The right to an identity
  • The right to a fair trial and to judicial guarantees
  • The right to an effective remedy, including reparation and compensation; and
  • The right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of a disappearance.

Once largely used by military dictatorships, enforced disappearances now happen in every region of the world and in a wide range of contexts. The victims of these abductions are often political opposition figures, public officials, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, activists, and members of vulnerable groups.  Families of the disappeared and communities as a whole suffer the consequences of enforced disappearances, and one of its effects is to instil a sense of fear and insecurity among the communities of those targeted. Globally, the vast majority of victims of enforced disappearance are men. But it is women who most often lead the struggle to find out what happened in the minutes, days and years following the disappearance – putting themselves at risk of intimidation, persecution and violence.

The Legal Framework

The ICPPED is the main international treaty that prohibits the use of enforced disappearances and the right to justice and reparations to the victims. The treaty sets out three core elements for an enforced disappearance:

  1. There is an arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty
  2. That conduct is carried out by agents of the state or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorisation, support, or acquiescence of the state


  3. The conduct is followed either by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places such person outside the protection of the law

Enforced disappearances affect not only the individuals disappeared but also their families and friends, who often do not discover the fate of the disappeared person for years, if at all. Article 24 of the ICPPED defines victims of enforced disappearances as “the disappeared person and any individual who has suffered harm as the direct result of an enforced disappearance.” This definition is deemed to include the relatives of the disappeared person. In Libya, women, whether wives, daughters or mothers, are particularly affected by the disappearance of their male relatives. In addition to the emotional and psychological impact the disappearance has on the family members, often women lose the main breadwinner of the household. Further, family members trying to reveal the truth about the disappeared often face threats and intimidation from the state, which in some cases could in themselves amount to torture and other ill-treatment.

Libya is not a state party to the ICPPED, which came into force in December 2010. However, as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Libya is obliged to prevent arbitrary arrest and detention; to respect the rights of those arrested to be promptly informed of the charges against them; to bring them before the judicial authorities within a reasonable time; and to allow them to challenge the lawfulness of their detention (Article 9). These rights protect similar rights to those protected by the prohibition on enforced disappearance.

Libya has also ratified the Convention Against Torture (CAT), which enshrine the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which is often violated when enforced disappearances take place.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) qualifies enforced disappearances as a crime against humanity when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” Courts have also held that the disappearance and presumed killing of persons without any investigation or confirmation of the whereabouts of the body may constitute a form of continuing torture on the relatives. While Libya has not signed the ICC Rome Statute, the ICC has jurisdiction over crimes included in the Rome Statue related to “the situation in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya since 15 February 2011.”

Enforced Disappearances in Libya

During the Gaddafi regime, the state and its agencies systematically used enforced disappearances to target political opponents, students, journalists, human rights defenders and anyone critical or seen as posing a threat to the regime whether inside or outside Libya. Thousands of victims were arrested and subjected to enforced disappearances for years, with their whereabouts unknown and the government refusing to disclose information about their fate or location.

Since the overthrow of Gaddafi in October 2011, enforced disappearances have continued across the country. Thousands of people have been deprived of their fundamental human rights and subjected to enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment and prolonged detention.

Some of those disappeared have eventually been found in prisons and detention centres, whereas others have never been found or their bodies have been left in streets, rubbish bins or in the sea. Both governments in the East and West of Libya and their affiliated militias have frequently carried out this heinous crime, destroying thousands of lives. Families of the disappeared often avoid reporting the incidents of enforced disappearances to the authorities due to fear of retaliation and intimidation from those authorities or affiliated militias.

The Libyan state and affiliated militias routinely abduct people from streets, cafes, checkpoints, homes, and places of work. They usually raid and search the victims’ homes before taking them to undisclosed locations, confiscating phones, papers, laptops or any other equipment that they think may contain information about the political affiliation or human rights activism of the victims.

They also force the victims through intimidation and torture to disclose the passwords of their email and social media accounts to identify their political affiliations. The abductions are usually conducted in the middle of the night or early hours of the morning by heavily armed men. They hold the victims under conditions of enforced disappearance with no access to lawyers or families and outside the oversight of the judiciary.

Torture and other ill-treatment are particularly prevalent in the initial periods of detention when detainees are interrogated by state agents or their affiliated militias. Torture and other ill-treatment

are used to intimidate, extract confessions, or obtain information about third parties and as retaliation or as a discriminatory punishment against some groups. In some cases, torture and ill- treatment has resulted in the death of detainees in custody. Lack of food, water, and access to health care or vital medical assistance also contribute to death in custody. Hundreds of individuals taken by militias and subjected to enforced disappearance have been extra-judicially killed and their bodies found at a later date. Female victims of enforced disappearances are also subject to torture and other ill-treatment. Women’s vulnerability is increased as they are often held in facilities without female guards. Families are sometimes able to get information about their loved ones from former detainees who were held alongside them or unofficially through the guards at the detention centre or prison.

For more information on enforced disappearances in Libya, see LFJL’s in-depth report, Unforgotten: Enforced Disappearance in Libya (September 2020).

What the Media Can Do

The media can play a vital role in investigating and drawing attention to cases of enforced disappearance, which can put pressure on those responsible to release information about the disappeared person or to release them. As detailed by LFJL, enforced disappearances affect not only the individuals disappeared but also their families and friends, who are often forced to spend years in anguish before they discover the fate of the disappeared person. Article 24 of the ICPPED defines victims of enforced disappearances as “the disappeared person and any individual who has suffered harm as the direct result of an enforced disappearance.” This definition is deemed to include the relatives of the disappeared person. In Libya, women, whether wives, daughters or mothers, are particularly affected by the disappearance of their male relatives. In addition to the emotional and psychological impact the disappearance has on the family members, often women lose the main breadwinner of the household. Further, family members trying to reveal the truth about the disappeared often face threats and intimidation from the state, which in some cases could in themselves amount to torture and other ill-treatment. While families and others close to the disappeared person may wish to draw attention to the case, it is important to respect the family’s wishes if they do not want to share their story.

What is Targeting of Civilians?

During armed conflict, civilians are routinely killed or injured, and civilian infrastructure is damaged or destroyed in targeted or indiscriminate attacks, which contravene international humanitarian law.

The Legal Framework

The protection of civilians during armed conflict is a cornerstone of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). According to Rule No.1 of customary international humanitarian law (known as the principle of distinction):

“The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.”

In addition, according to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and 1977 Additional Protocols, civilians and all persons not taking part in combat may under no circumstances be the object of attack and must be spared and protected.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) defines the deliberate targeting of civilians or the use of certain weapons which are inherently indiscriminate as war crimes.

Attacks on civilians, if perpetrated in a widespread or systematic manner, with knowledge of the attack, and pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack, may also amount to crimes against humanity.

Attacks against Civilians and Civilian Objects in Libya

The escalation of violence in Libya since the start of Haftar’s advance on Tripoli has led to a significant increase in civilian casualties. From 1 February to 31 March 2019, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) documented 20 civilian deaths and 69 civilian injuries across the entire country, while immediately following the start of the offensive, between 4 April and 7 May 2019 the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported 104 verified civilian casualties including 23 deaths and the displacement of 58,800 people in Tripoli alone. A year later, between 1 April and 30 June 2020 UNSMIL documented at least 358 civilian casualties nationwide, an increase of 173% on the preceding quarter.

The hostilities have seen increased attacks against civilian infrastructure. Five medical staff were killed in a July 2019 attack on a field hospital, one of 37 attacks on health facilities that year documented by the World Health Organisation’s Surveillance System of Attacks on Healthcare system as of that month.63 As of November 2019, SRSG Ghassan Salame stated that there had been over sixty attacks on health care facilities, medical personnel, and ambulances since the start of 2019. As of 10 December 2020, the World Health Organisation’s Surveillance System of Attacks on Healthcare system had documented 86 attacks since 1 April 2019, resulting in 83 deaths.

Armed groups have targeted civilian areas in Tripoli and its surroundings, including detention centres where asylum-seekers and refugees were being held.64 Systematic attacks on Mitiga airport, Tripoli’s only functioning civilian airport, have resulted in the cancellation of flights, for days at time, eventually leading to the temporary shutdown of the airport in September 2019. In the space of three months since July 2019, Mitiga airport was targeted nine times: on 20 July, 29 July, 3 August, 14 August, 15-16 August, 1 September, 9 September and 17 September. This significantly affected the mobility of civilians and the transfer of much needed humanitarian aid during that time.

The involvement of international actors has fuelled the conflict further, with several states acting in direct violation of the arms embargo established by the UN Security Council, which prohibits the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of military goods to Libya. Ongoing breaches of the arms embargo were reported in January 2020.

What the Media Can Do

Given the challenges of reporting in Libya, voices of the human victims of the conflict are often left unheard. However, with a political transition process underway in Libya led by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, it is more important than ever that the media reports on the devastating impact of the conflict on ordinary Libyans and draws attention to the perpetrators of these crimes.

What is Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV)?

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) refers to “any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships.”, and while SGBV affects both men and women, some groups are particularly vulnerable, including “older persons, persons with disabilities, adolescent girls, children, LGBTI persons, and female heads of households.”

The Legal Framework

The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is the first international instrument explicitly addressing violence against women, states that:

“violence against women’ means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

Libya acceded to Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1989. Libya also acceded to the first optional Protocol, which allows the international committee to receive complaints on human rights violations from either individuals or groups, in 2004.

SGBV in Libya

The Libyan State’s inability to control armed groups has left women vulnerable, with no accountability for attacks against them. In the absence of a central state authority, women have had to take their safety into their own hands, by adhering to specific dress codes, travelling with a male guardian, or restricting their movements to the daytime.

Since 2014, women human rights defenders have been routinely subjected to gender-based violence and threats, including physical assault, abductions, sexual violence, as well as gender-related slurs and smear campaigns designed to undermine and undercut the legitimacy of their work. The threat of reprisals, combined with a lack of accountability for such acts or specific steps by the state actors to address these risks, has effectively forced women out of public life.

The assassination of women’s rights advocate Salwa Bugaighis, who was shot dead in her own home in June 2014, was a turning point. From that moment on, civil society began to withdraw from public space, political leadership and activism. Salwa Bugaighis’ murder was followed by the killing of former Derna Congress member Fariha Al-Berkawi on 17 July 2014, and human rights activist Entisar El Hassari on 24 February 2015. Women’s rights defender and member of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives Seham Sergiwa was abducted from her home by armed men on 17 July 2019, and her whereabouts remains unknown. On 10 November, a group of unknown armed men shot lawyer and political activist Hanan Al-Barassi in Benghazi city centre in broad daylight. Al-Barassi was known for her political engagement and criticism of the human rights violations and abuses and corruption allegedly committed by authorities in Eastern Libya and their affiliated militias. Al-Barassi was active on social media, and often posted videos on Facebook in which she criticised the LAAF. Her last video was posted a few hours before her killing.

Women migrants and refugees are particularly vulnerable. According to a report on refugee and migrants published by conducted by OHCHR and UNSMIL which involved 1,300 first-hand accounts gathered by UN staff, “the overwhelming majority of women and older teenage girls interviewed by UNSMIL reported being gang raped by smugglers or traffickers.” However, SGBV remains under reported.

What the Media Can Do

While some violations of international law can be investigated using open-source methods, an increasingly hostile public space which emerged as the conflict escalated hasforced an increasing number of women to live their lives in the private sphere. Furthermore, Libya is a socially conservative society in which women’s voices are often marginalised. This has made it particularly difficult for the media to report on the conflict’s impact on women. However, reporting on the specific ways in which SGBV affects both men and women is needed to raise awareness and stimulate public policy discussions on this issue.