We Need to Talk About Libya

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Teresa Durran

There were many more casualties resulting from the Twin Tower attacks than the 2,974 people who died in New York that day on 9/11. As well as those poor souls, there have been countless thousands killed in the resulting war on terror carried out in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, and the fall out still continues, with victims continuing to be created in the wake of the chaos inflicted across the Middle East.

The latest iteration of this appeared in reports which came via CNN, who have recently published an investigation they have been carrying out in Libya following reports about slave auctions. Incredible as this is to believe in 2017, the evidence they have amassed looks pretty convincing. There are still thousands of people trying to reach the Mediterranean who cross Libya’s borders each year. This has contributed to the wave of boats trying to cross the Med, which is of itself a tragic tale of greed, need, prejudice and misery; figures complied on 24/10/17 show that more than 18,800 people had been intercepted so far this year, with over 111,000 successfully reaching Italy, the vast majority of whom travelled from Libya.

However, latterly Libyan coastguards (and militias) have been attempting to address this, and crossings have therefore dropped sharply since the summer. Nonetheless, migrants and refugees still continue to travel to Libya, which has led to a surplus of would-be passengers. People smuggling has become big business in the country, so the people behind it have done what any good capitalist would and diversified. If you believe people smuggling represents a good opportunity to make a profit, why would you baulk at extending this to slavery? What would be the difference to you between herding hundreds of people in a boat and sending them to an uncertain fate, and parading them as goods for sale at an auction?

Although the 1926 Slavery Convention was ratified by Libya in 1957, slave auctions have resurfaced there partially because of the instability caused by the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. He was undoubtedly a brutal dictator, but his overthrow highlighted the dangers of creating a power vacuum, and over half a decade later, Libya is no closer to being stable. Although there were no shortage of Western countries willing to get involved in air strikes under the auspices of NATO in 2011, there doesn’t seem to be a similar impulse to help deal with the fall out. As a result, Libya has effectively two governments operating out of Tobruk and Tripoli, a shattered economy and its own internal refugee problem. Small wonder that there seems to be little resource or will around in the country to deal with slave auctions.

CNN casting an international spotlight on this may bring about change; certainly, several countries seem to have been galvanized into action. One headline reads ‘Burkina Faso recalls ambassador to Libya over ‘slave markets’ report’ while another says ‘France pushes U.N. to impose sanctions over Libya migrant crisis’. However, Donald Trump’s war of words with CNN has proved a gift to the Libyan media; as he had repeatedly denounced the network as peddlers of ‘fake news’, the Libyan broadcaster Libya 218 has used trump’s tweets on the subject to doubt the veracity of the slave auction story, saying;

“Here the possibility arises that the channel has published the report of slavery in Libya to secure an as yet hidden political objective.”

What a mess. An ill thought out ‘war on terror’ initiated by the US post 9/11 brought, as widely predicted, greater instability to an already frighteningly unstable part of the world. The knock-on effect of this enabled NATO intervention in the Libyan civil war and the instability resulting from that and other nearby conflicts created the conditions for the slave auctions. And now their reporting may well be hobbled by the current US president, who is ignorant of, and entirely careless about, the effect of his words abroad. While he rides up and down in his golden elevator and continues his privileged life by other, more lucrative means, the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free will just have to continue to yearn.