Libya: humanitarian challenges six months on

12-08-2011 Interview

The hostilities are taking their toll on civilians, detainees and the wounded. As the conflict continues, the international sanctions are also having a humanitarian impact on the Libyan population. Boris Michel, the ICRC's head of operations for North and West Africa, explains.

What are the main humanitarian problems you are seeing on the ground?

Fighting is still going on in many areas, notably in the Western Mountains and around Misrata and Brega. Tens of thousands of people from these areas are displaced inside Libya or have taken refuge in Tunisia and Egypt. Some are returning to their home areas, when and where conditions allow, while others are fleeing. Many family members are separated from one another. Thousands of people have been detained or are unaccounted for in connection with the conflict.

Medical services are struggling to meet the needs of war-wounded and other patients. The delivery of health care is frequently hindered by the security situation or by the departure of health-care personnel. In addition, when there is a lull in the fighting, or the fighting in a certain area has ended, people face severe danger from the unexploded ordnance that is scattered across many areas.

Increasingly we hear that international sanctions are having an impact on the Libyan people. What can the ICRC say about that?

The UN Security Council imposed financial and other sanctions on Libya more than five months ago. Several States and international organizations have also applied sanctions on the country. The sanctions are not incompatible with international humanitarian law. They provide for exemption mechanisms for humanitarian aid and certain essential items such as medical supplies, but these exemptions need to be better applied in practice.

Despite the exemptions, we have seen that shortages do occur in the health-care sector and in other vital services.

There are significant shortages of vaccines, medicines and other medical items in hospitals and health-care centres. Libya is highly dependent on the import of medical supplies, 95 per cent of which were imported into the country before the crisis. Owing to the effects of financial sanctions (such as the departure of foreign companies and staff), the import of these supplies has been severely curtailed. We fear that, in a few more weeks, most medicines and other medical items will be in seriously short supply.

These shortages could accelerate the spread of diseases such as measles, particularly in the south-west, where an epidemic has broken out in recent weeks, and could lead to much higher death rates among Libyans. This is especially true among those suffering from chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes or from kidney failure, the treatment of which depends on the availability of drugs.

Apart from the health-care system, where else are sanctions having a humanitarian impact?

Pumps, motors, generators and spare parts needed to maintain, repair and rebuild the water network are in short supply. Chemicals needed to treat water are also hard to come by.

If these supplies are not made available soon, the Libyan population could face a sharp deterioration in hygiene and an increase in disease due to water shortages. In most parts of the country, including in the capital, there have already been temporary interruptions in water and power supplies over the past several weeks.

What is the ICRC doing to mitigate the humanitarian impact of the sanctions?

Our priority is to respond as rapidly as possible to the most critical humanitarian problems we see. For example, after obtaining the required clearances, we airlifted 40,000 doses of vaccine against measles to Sabha, in the south-western part of the country. The vaccine will be used in an ongoing immunization programme in the area. Also, the ICRC will be donating much-needed supplies for blood testing to the blood bank in Tripoli.

Having said that, emergency assistance alone is not enough. That is why we are sharing our concerns with those who can do something to improve the situation, asking them to put in practice, monitor or review the humanitarian exemptions to the sanctions. In particular, we are alerting them to the need to ease restrictions on the import of medical supplies.

For our part, we will continue to monitor the humanitarian situation and, if necessary, share our findings – including in the area of food security, which is also a concern.

What are the main challenges you face in the field in Libya?

There are many challenges. Obtaining access to conflict victims remains difficult in a number of areas because of the ongoing fighting or lack of security. As a result, it is often difficult to fully assess the humanitarian situation and provide a suitable response in the right place and at the right time. Obtaining access to all persons detained in connection with the conflict also remains a priority.

The security of humanitarian personnel is another major concern. As a direct consequence of the conflict, five volunteers of the Libyan Red Crescent – our main partner in the country – have been killed since March, and several others have been injured. Such incidents are very distressing, especially as they reflect a lack of consideration for the red crescent emblem and – more generally – obstruct the delivery of aid by health-care and other humanitarian workers.

Although the ICRC is well accepted, it is still not well enough known in Libya. This can be a cause of delays in obtaining authorizations and, as the conflict grinds on and becomes increasingly polarized, can also lead to expectations that are not compatible with the neutral and independent status of the ICRC's humanitarian activities.

We are doing our utmost to meet these challenges by broadening our presence, striving to take action rapidly and appropriately to meet needs and by explaining our role and constraints to an ever expanding network of people in the field. We have a permanent presence in Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata and are planning to open an office in the Western Mountains. We now have 156 staff, including 46 expatriates, working in Libya.


For further information, please contact:
Dibeh Fakhr, ICRC Benghazi, tel: +870 772 390 124
Robin Waudo, ICRC Tripoli, tel: +881 622 435 156 or +218 913 066 198
Steven Anderson, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 79 536 92 50 or +41 22 730 20 11



Boris Michel, ICRC's head of operations for North and West Africa

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