Nicolette Boehland, currently a fellow with CIVIC, the Campaign for Innnocent Victims in Conflict, in Libya, previously researched the use of weapons in Libya with Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic.
Deminers gathered and marked off these weapons found at the Zintan ammunition storage area. Deminers across the country said they often could not destroy the munitions they collected due to a lack of explosives. Photo by Nicolette Boehland.
TRIPOLI, Libya -- In Tripoli, the mornings during the month of Ramadan are eerily, almost post-apocalyptically calm. Determined to take advantage of this uncharacteristic peace and quiet, a friend and I set off one morning for a walk by the sea. I took in the scene—the huge ships in the Tripoli harbor, a broad, well-made highway running parallel to the water, lamps and flowers along the sidewalk’s edge, a small park with a merry-go-round and trampolines that would soon be overrun with children—and I thought to myself how far Libya has come.
In less than a year since the end of the armed conflict was officially announced, the country is making huge progress toward stability and peace. Since I arrived here three weeks ago to work with the advocacy organization CIVIC on issues related to civilian protection, I’ve been lucky enough to witness signs of this progress first-hand. Some of these signs have been widely recognized and celebrated, such as the country’s successful elections on July 7. Other signs are more subtle, gleaned from conversations with Libyans who were at great risk just a year ago and now tell me, alhumdullillah (thanks be to God), they have nothing to fear.
Still, as a human rights researcher, my confidence in Libya’s prospects for stability in the future is marred by a particularly visible threat: the abandoned weapons that still remain here. Most post-conflict countries face challenges with explosive remnants of war, but the sheer scale of unused weapons left over after Libya’s 2011 armed conflict is almost unprecedented.
Over the course of more than four decades, Khadafy's regime acquired a massive stockpile of weapons, worth billions of US dollars and contained in hundreds of storage facilities spread across Libya. Due to the chaos and fighting of the 2011 armed conflict in Libya, some weapons were moved out of the country. However vast quantities remained within Libya. Today, the country is awash in weapons, ranging from bullets and mortars to torpedoes and surface-to-air missiles.
The urgency of the situation first struck me back in March, when I visited Libya as part of a four-person team from the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. On that mission, we documented a massive amount of abandoned ordnance and conducted interviews in Dafniya, Misrata, Sirte, Tripoli, and Zintan.
Through these interviews, we identified the major risks that abandoned weapons pose for civilians in Libya, including the storage of stockpiles in populated areas, the harvesting of materials from abandoned weapons for sale or personal use, the display of weapons as mementos of war, and curiosity among the population about contaminated sites and munitions—all of which can easily lead to death or injury. Clearance of munitions by untrained civilians is also a danger.
During my time in Libya, I’ve gathered anecdotes and stories about the impact of abandoned weapons on civilians. Some of the stories are disturbing: one local risk educator, Abdul Hammed El-Ahjoby, told me that “kids here will correct you if you call a weapon by the wrong name.”
Other stories are tragic. Abduladim Amar, a local man from Mizda, Libya, described to my colleague at Human Rights Watch an explosion that killed 22-year-old Mustafa Abdulrahim Muhammad. “The guys were collecting metal,” Amar explained. “Mustafa was with his brother, and he was hitting a Grad rocket to disassemble it to get valuable parts out. By mistake he hit the warhead of one of the Grads and it went off. His body was in pieces.”
In a report just released based on our investigations, we detail the risks abandoned weapons pose to civilians in Libya and find them severe. However, these risks can be significantly mitigated with proper stockpile management, clearance of munitions, risk education and victim assistance programs, and international support to supplement national efforts.
The report, released by the International Human Rights Clinic in partnership with CIVIC and the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress (CAP), offers an in-depth look at the progress and challenges involved in dealing with abandoned weapons. Its main finding is that the problem of abandoned weapons in Libya requires immediate action from the Libyan government, with support from the international community.
Certainly, Libya has come a long way since the end of the conflict here, but for the country to continue on its natural path toward peace and stability, the threat of abandoned weapons must be addressed, and soon.
To read the full report on abandoned weapons in Libya: http://civicworldwide.org/component/content/article/620
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