Monday, March 11, 2024

Six months after catastrophic floods in Derna killed at least 4,352 people, left thousands missing and displaced nearly 45,000 people, Libya’s authorities have shied away from investigating the responsibility of powerful military and political actors in the catastrophic death toll and did not ensure that all those affected were granted equal access to compensation, said Amnesty International today.

A new report, “In seconds everything changed”: Justice and redress elusive for Derna flood survivors, highlights the fact that both the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), in de facto control of disaster-hit areas, failed to issue adequate warnings and take other key risk mitigation measures ahead of Storm Daniel, which triggered the collapse of two dams upstream from Derna.

It also examines how the two rival authorities mismanaged the response including by failing to investigate the responsibility of those in positions of power to protect people’s right to life, health and other human rights, as part of the criminal investigations into the Derna catastrophe. While they provided financial compensation to thousands affected, the process was marred by delays and the discriminatory exclusion of refugees, migrants and some Libyan Derna residents displaced to western Libya.  


“Six months on from the floods, the Libyan authorities have yet to fully investigate whether powerful military and political figures failed to protect people’s right to life, health and other human rights leading to such profound loss and devastation,” said Bassam Al Kantar, Amnesty International’s Libya Researcher.

“Accountability and guarantees Libyans will not see a repeat of this tragedy are all the more pressing given the increasing likelihood of global heating resulting in further climate-induced disasters, exacerbated by Libya’s ageing and poorly maintained infrastructure, fragmentation of political institutions, and the power wielded by unaccountable militias and armed groups.”

Since the disaster, LAAF and affiliated armed groups have also cracked down on people for criticizing the Libyan authorities’ lack of preparedness and crisis response, with at least one person still arbitrarily detained.

The report is based on accounts from 65 individuals affected by the floods or involved in the crisis response, as well as a review of official statements and documents, and reports by relevant governmental bodies and UN agencies. 

We walked out and saw corpses, the extent of the devastation, and people carrying their relatives’ bodies in shrouds on their shoulders. I heard the screams of mothers and children.

Khadija, a 20-year-old woman from Derna

Amnesty International shared its findings and recommendations with the Tripoli-based Public Prosecutor’s office, the Chief-of-Staff of LAAF, and the Acting Prime Minister of the eastern-based Government National Stability (GNS), which is allied to LAAF, asking for their response. The response by the Public Prosecutor has been reflected in the organization’s analysis. No responses were received from the other officials in time for publication.

Mismanagement of the crisis

Conflicting instructions, inadequate warnings and the imposition of curfews on some of the worst affected areas by de facto authorities in eastern Libya preceding Storm Daniel contributed to the heavy death toll according to experts. While some Derna residents were advised to evacuate, heavily affected areas like Wadi Derna were overlooked. Ten minutes after the dams burst at 2:50am on 11 September 2023, the Ministry of Water Resources announced the ageing dams were at capacity, urging downstream residents to evacuate, but by then, it was too late. The World Meteorological Organization assessed that the devastating loss of life in Derna could have been avoided with proper warnings and evacuations.

13,000 individuals

Khadija, a 20-year-old woman from Derna, who was at home with her family in the Wadi al-Warsh neighbourhood when the floods happened described the terrifying ordeal to Amnesty International:

“We walked out and saw corpses, the extent of the destruction, and people carrying their relatives’ bodies in shrouds on their shoulders. I heard the screams of mothers and children. I searched for my family members, but I could not find anyone. After a week, I learned that the people who lived in the same area had all died. In our street, where 31 people lived, only four survived.”

No trace of her father and twin sister could be found.

Six months on, thousands remain missing and survivors continue to grapple with the anguish of not knowing the burial places of their missing loved ones, especially after local authorities and volunteers rushed to bury thousands of bodies in mass graves without proper identification.

Authorities also did not introduce specific measures to facilitate the provision of death certificates for those missing in the floods, needed to access widows’ pensions and other state aid, with women who lost their husbands most affected. 

Amnesty International’s investigation also reveals the failure by both the GNU and de facto authorities in eastern Libya to ensure timely and equitable access to relief and financial compensation for those affected by the devastating floods in Derna.

In the absence of meaningful prospects for accountability at the domestic level, the international community must stand with survivors and families of victims by supporting efforts to establish an international mechanism.

Bassam Al Kantar, Amnesty International

Despite the distribution of financial compensation to some 13,000 affected individuals, some families displaced to western Libya as well as refugees and migrants were excluded. Delays and fear of reprisals from the LAAF also deterred others from seeking aid, particularly those perceived to oppose the eastern authorities.

Despite estimates of thousands affected, authorities failed to address the specific needs and circumstances of refugees and migrants after the floods, including in failing to facilitate their evacuations from disaster-hit areas and returns to their countries of origin or provide information to families of those dead or missing. Several GNS decrees introducing support measures for those affected – such as for children who lost their parents and the waiving of fees to replace official documents – only apply to Libyans.

Brutal tactics to stifle dissent

In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, the LAAF accelerated its well-honed use of brutal tactics to stifle dissent and restrict independent civil society and media. The LAAF and affiliated armed groups arbitrarily arrested at least nine people who publicly criticized the authorities’ mismanagement of the crisis or joined protests on 18 September 2023 calling for accountability.


For instance, the LAAF-affiliated Internal Security Agency (ISA) arbitrarily arrested Libyan activist Al-Numan al-Jazwi, 46, in Derna on 16 September 2023, while he was filming aid distribution efforts. He remains arbitrarily detained without charge or trial and denied access to his family and lawyer.

“The Libyan authorities, and those with de facto control of eastern Libya, must refrain from targeting or discriminating against anyone based on their political or other opinions, migration status or displacement in western Libya or lack of documentation. They must immediately release all those arbitrarily detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and put an end to reprisals against those critical of their response to the disaster,” said Bassam Al Kantar.

Justice remains elusive

Libya’s Public Prosecutor’s office confirmed to Amnesty International that it has initiated criminal investigations against 16 current or former officials including the head and two members of the Derna Municipal Council as well as officials responsible for water management, dam infrastructure and Derna’s reconstruction.  Their trial is ongoing on charges of dereliction or refusal to perform their official duties, with 14 held in pre-trial detention.

Despite these prosecutions, higher-ranking officials and commanders, and members of powerful armed groups, have not been investigated, let alone prosecuted, raising fears that they will evade justice. 

Criminal investigations into the Derna disaster have taken place amidst a prevailing climate of impunity for crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations in Libya. Rather than holding powerful commanders and members of militias and armed groups reasonably suspected of such crimes accountable, successive governments have integrated them into state institutions and rewarded them with praise, salaries and positions of power.

“In the absence of meaningful prospects for accountability at the domestic level, the international community must stand with survivors and families of victims by supporting efforts to establish an international mechanism with a monitoring and investigative component and a mandate to investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses by all parties in Libya, including the facts and circumstances surrounding the loss of life and destruction in the context of Storm Daniel,” said Bassam Al Kantar.


Libya is fragmented between two entities competing for legitimacy, governance and territorial control. GNU controls Tripoli and most of western Libya, while LAAF is in control of most of eastern and southern Libya and is allied to the GNS. Each entity is backed by militias and/or armed groups, operating with varying degrees of independence and frequently having their own command-and-control structures. Thus, state institutions are also split, with separate ministers in eastern and western Libya

Tags: Libya, Human Rights, Freedom of expression.