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How floods in Libya have exposed the country’s human rights issues

As Storm Daniel tore through Eastern Libya, it reiterated the true threat of climate change. However, the many unavoidable deaths call into question the political and human rights issues that have been affecting the country for decades.

After causing extensive flooding in Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey, Storm Daniel moved towards the coast of Libya.

It caused two dams to burst in Derna, a port city in eastern Libya, resulting in unprecedented floods that killed thousands, swept away neighbourhoods, and left almost 10,000 people missing.

However, most of these deaths could have been avoided if early warning and emergency management systems were in working order, according to the United Nations.

‘We didn’t need the UN to tell us,’ says Ayat Mneina. ‘The dams needed maintenence.’

Ayat is a Libyan researcher and writer. She founded ShababLibya (the Libyan Youth Movement) in 2011, a social media platform that counteracted the Libyan government’s media blackout by reporting the Libyan uprising using a network of sources on the ground.

Within the last decade, Libya went from being ruled by a regime for over 40 years to a series of transitional and illegal governments. This has led to a divide in the country, where two governing bodies are vying for power.

The House of Representatives governing the disaster-hit east refuses to dissolve.

While another government in Tripoli is internationally recognised, it hasn’t been democratically elected. According to Ayat, it has dragged its feet on calling for elections or getting the country ready for elections and neglected the people of Libya since they’ve had power.

The various factions that have developed over the years have brokered a status quo between themselves that ensures they stay in power. Amidst this, its people are caught between a number of various authorities.

Every disaster or crisis that strikes the country continues to expose the divide between those that govern and those who live in the country because it is simply their home.

‘This flood is no exception,’ says Ayat. ‘It has all of these hallmark characteristics of this government that bears little ownership of responsibility to the people.

‘They’re doing what every other government before has done, which is neglect everything that should be within their purview. They neglect infrastructure, neglect healthcare, and neglect education.’

Ayat says the dams in Derna were ‘historically known’ to be unkempt and in need of maintenance. An academic at Omar Al-Mukhtar University in Libya published a report last year stating the damns required frequent maintenance and predicted that the Derna area had a high risk for flooding.

On top of that, the head of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said casualties could have been avoided if the country had a functional weather service to issue warnings.

Ayat was told by her in-laws living in Benghazi that they were meant to stay out of the way if something happened, in order to let emergency vehicles through. Meanwhile, people in Dernha were taking videos of the rising water levels in the valley and were also told to stay indoors.

There was an assumption that the water would come from the sea and hit further west, but they didn’t anticipate it coming from the mountains and the dam breaking.

‘It’s not just water. It’s water, mud, and rocks. People didn’t stand a chance and that’s the crux here, governments essentially left everybody in its path,’ says Ayat. ‘And to think that some maintenance could have prevented this, it’s mindboggling.’

‘It’s a crime and there needs to be accountability.’

What is causing the struggle for power?

In 2011, during the Libyan civil war, a NATO-backed uprising overthrew the then-ruler of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi.

Since then, the country has been in a state of tension, lacking a strong central government with post-revolution violence. A second civil war and post-civil war fighting restarted in August of this year.

‘This is the beginning of another long saga in this post-revolution history that we’re all kind of grappling with,’ says Ayat. ‘[Libya] is a country that’s constantly caught up in the next crisis, conflict essentially.’

‘We have the regional conflicts here, a civil war that’s been protracted for more than a decade, then we had COVID, then we had all these other events. It just keeps piling up.’

According to Ayat, Libya’s previous ruler held the country with an iron grip, eliminating all political opposition and restricting the lives of Libyans.

He continued to profit for decades, ignoring the widespread corruption, taking bribes from wealthy corporations and transferring investments into private accounts rather than towards public expenditures.

After that, the country was handed over to the next people, doing exactly what their predecessors did.

‘We have zero institutions,’ says Ayat. ‘There are no systems in place to hold anyone to account, we don’t have democracy, we don’t know how that process works.’

She continued, ‘We’re literally set up to be under a regime or to be governed, and so there is no space for that.’

Citizens of Libya took to the streets and protested in 2011, but over the years, they have been worn down, and there are consequences for those who speak out.

From silencing activists and journalists to creating an environment that doesn’t encourage people to speak up, there has been a crackdown on protests and a media blackout in an attempt to brush everything under the rug.

‘We can’t talk about human rights abuses in Libya because there aren’t reports about these things, there aren’t people held accountable,’ says Ayat. ‘It’s a Wild West essentially.’

‘There’s no justice system, and so that’s easy to cover up in front of the world when you’re going to go to these meetings and shake hands.

‘Nobody knows about what’s happening because you’ve basically made sure that there’s no trace,’ Ayat states.

What needs to be done?

Ayat believes international intervention similar to the one that took place in 2011 is necessary.

‘Libya is not going to all of a sudden become this democratic nation that has peace and security, one that knows how to protect human rights, and one that knows how to be transparent and have accountability,’ says Ayat.

She believes there needs to be an inquiry that will not only hold the government to account but also aid in the global conversation about climate change.

‘The largest economies in the world that have been running business as usual for hundreds of years are the main cause of the rising temperatures,’ says Ayat. ‘So, in that vein, it’s their responsibility to protect against this, and instead, it’s being left with these most vulnerable communities to grapple with the realities of climate change.

‘We’ve seen it in earthquakes, we’ve seen it in forest fires, we’ve seen it in floods, and it’s going to continue to happen, and we have the science behind it to help think about what to do here,’ Ayat says.

‘The country has other infrastructure, there are other dams, there are other things that could go wrong, and there is zero preparedness and pressure to prevent more disasters like this in Libya.’

Knowing that many casualties were preventable, Ayat hopes this could build a case against those responsible, even if it must be down low until it becomes super public.

‘There needs to be an ability to take account or assess what’s been happening in terms of just maintaining these things and preventing people from being put in harm’s way unnecessarily,’ says Ayat. ‘You can’t say it enough, but there’s a lot of neglect and corruption happening, and it’s been like that for a long time.

‘We’re hoping that is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.’