The New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement calling the murder of 21 Coptic Egyptians in Libya a “war crime,” on Tuesday morning.
A graphic video was released on Sunday showing the beheading of 21 Egyptians who had been kidnapped by the Islamic State in Libya. HRW said “the murder of civilians by members of a party to an armed conflict is a war crime” under international law.
HRW called on the Libyan authorities to “take immediate steps to bring the perpetrators to justice,” and on the United Nations to “establish a mechanism to investigate and prosecute such crimes.”
The human rights organization also recommended that the United Nations establish an international investigative mechanism or appoint a special rapporteur to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya.
They also cautioned Egypt to take care in carrying out airstrikes against Libya, which were launched early in the morning on Sunday and reportedly targeted the Aljabel Company compound in Derna. Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, said, “ISIS is again horrifying the world by perpetrating war crimes, this time showing no mercy in Libya. But any military engagement with ISIS should take all possible steps to spare civilians lives.”
HRW reported that the compound housed police loyal to the Islamic State, however a source from Derna told HRW that the airstrikes also resulted in six civilian casualties, including three children, their mother Attia al-Shaari, a 68-year-old man and Issam Maayouf, a man in his twenties.
“All parties to the conflicts in Libya, which now includes Egypt, are required to abide by the laws of war. This requires them to take all feasible steps to protect civilians,” HRW asserted, recommending that the UN enact resolution 2174, which threatens perpetrators of serious crimes with sanctions, including travel bans and the freezing of assets.
Whitson said that, “Instead of issuing empty threats, international players should act on their promises to identify and punish the perpetrators of war crimes. Failure to act now will only result in more horrific crimes and more civilian victims.”
Egypt is currently seeking international aid for its operations in Libya. A report by Reuters stated that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a UN resolution on Tuesday, mandating an international coalition to intervene in Libya. The report quoted Sisi stating, “There is no other choice, taking into account the agreement of the Libyan people and government and that they call on us to act.”
The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon released a statement on Tuesday condemning “in the strongest terms” the deaths of the 21 Coptic Egyptians, “deplor[ing] the targeting of people on account of their religious affiliation.” The statement referred to the killings as a “barbaric act” and reiterated that ongoing dialogue with the Libyan state is the way to end the conflict.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, also condemned the killings in a news release on Tuesday. He urged the people of Libya to oppose extremism, saying, “the brutal murder of these men, and the ghastly attempt to justify and glorify it in a video, should be roundly condemned by everyone, particularly by the people of Libya, who should resist the urgings of takfiri groups.”
Hussein referred to other incidents in which Coptic Christians were targeted in Libya, including those whose bodies were discovered in the Libyan city of Sirte in December.
Like HRW, Hussein also called on the Egyptian military to respect the distinction between military and civilian objectives during their air raids. He urged all parties in Libya to work towards “meaningful dialogue,” saying this would be the only way to resolve the conflict.