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Libya: detainees and the dead must be respected

27-10-2011 Interview

Following the recent fighting, particularly in Sirte, Georges Comninos, who heads the ICRC delegation in Libya, gives an update on the immediate humanitarian priorities and on problems that have recently been the subject of debate, in particular the public display of detainees and the dead.

What will the ICRC's priorities be in the coming days?

Many people are still being arrested. Obtaining access to people newly detained, in particular those captured following the recent fighting in Sirte and Bani Walid, is a priority. In the framework of a constructive dialogue with the transitional authorities, we have visited 6,000 detainees in Tripoli, Misrata and other cities nearby over the past two months. So we have reason to be optimistic about obtaining access to people recently arrested. That being said, in order to be able to check on the treatment they are receiving and on the conditions in which they are being held, the visits will have to take place without delay.

ICRC delegates have returned to Sirte several times over the past few days. The fighting was extremely fierce, as can be seen by the large-scale destruction. The city is almost deserted; only a small number of families are starting to return.

At least 200 corpses have so far been found in Sirte. The staff of the National Commission for the Missing, a doctor from Ibn Sina Hospital and civilian volunteers are currently involved in the retrieval and temporary burial of unidentified bodies. The ICRC provided them with advice in order to facilitate the process of having the deceased identified by members of their families.

In the light of information obtained in Sirte, we are also going to intensify our dialogue with the authorities concerned on the conduct of recent hostilities and on compliance with other rules of international humanitarian law.

In cooperation with Libyan Red Crescent volunteers, we will be pressing ahead in the coming days with the delivery of aid to tens of thousands of people displaced from Sirte and Bani Walid. Unexploded munitions in those cities constitute a danger and a further obstacle to the return of the people who fled. It will therefore also be necessary to raise people's awareness of the danger posed by these explosive remnants of war.

The public display of detainees and of mortal remains has triggered a great deal of reaction and debate in recent days. What is the ICRC's view of these issues?

Over the past few days, people with their hands tied have been put on display on vehicles, interrogations of detainees have been filmed by local media, and mortal remains have been exposed to public curiosity...

Our view of these issues is based on the applicable rules of international humanitarian law, for which we endeavour to ensure respect.

In each individual case, the parties concerned must refrain from subjecting persons in their power to treatment incompatible with respect for their honour and dignity – in particular, to humiliating and degrading treatment. They must treat them humanely, without any adverse distinction. International humanitarian law also contains rules concerning respect for the dead, such as the obligation to search for, collect and evacuate the dead without adverse distinction, to prevent the dead from being despoiled or mutilated, and to bury the dead with respect.

These rules concerning respect for persons deprived of their freedom and for mortal remains also apply in connection with their display to the general public via the media.

There have recently been numerous allegations of summary executions in places where fighting has taken place, particularly in Sirte. What do you have to say on this topic?

We will not cease to point out that international humanitarian law prohibits at any time, and in any place whatsoever, violence to the life and person of anyone no longer taking an active part in hostilities. Violations of this prohibition by any party involved in the conflict are grave breaches of international humanitarian law which, once established, must be punished.

On issues like this, the ICRC gives priority to bilateral and confidential dialogue with the parties.


Photos

 

© ICRC

Sirte, Libya. Destroyed buildings along one of the main streets. 

Sirte, Libya. Destroyed buildings along one of the main streets.
© Reuters / Y. Boudlal

South-west of Sirte, Libya. ICRC delegates inspect a site where dead bodies were found, note the coordinates of the location and talk to the forces on the ground about how to properly handle the bodies. 

South-west of Sirte, Libya. ICRC delegates inspect a site where dead bodies were found, note the coordinates of the location and talk to the forces on the ground about how to properly handle the bodies.
© ICRC / D. Fakhr

Misrata. Interior view of a building where people are being detained. 

Misrata. Interior view of a building where people are being detained.
© Reuters / T. Al-Sudani

Sirte. An unexploded mortar bomb, one of many that are endangering the people of Libya as they return to their homes. 

Sirte. An unexploded mortar bomb, one of many that are endangering the people of Libya as they return to their homes.
© Reuters / Y. Boudlal