February 22, 2011 / 5:02 PM / 9 years ago

Libya attacks may be crimes against humanity: U.N.

GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. high commissioner for human rights called on Tuesday for an international investigation into attacks on anti-government protesters in Libya, saying they could amount to crimes against humanity.

In a statement, Navi Pillay called for rights violations to stop immediately and denounced “the reported use of machineguns, snipers and military planes against demonstrators.”

“Widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity,” said Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge.

Separately, independent U.N. human rights investigators issued a joint statement condemning violations in Libya, including the use of live ammunition to crush dissent, arrests of lawyers, activists and journalists, and the cutting off of phone lines and the Internet.

“By engaging in a massacre of its own people, the government of Libya is guilty of committing gross violations of human rights which could amount to crimes against humanity,” said Christof Heyns, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

Juan Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture, denounced the “heavy-handed, illegitimate” use of force against protestors and said Libyan authorities must realize perpetrators could be prosecuted under international criminal justice.

Pillay supported the holding of an emergency U.N. Human Rights Council session on Libya, as demanded by many human rights groups, but the decision was up to its 47 member states, Frej Fenniche, chief of the Middle East and North Africa section, told a news briefing in Geneva.

Forces of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have cracked down on demonstrators, with fighting spreading to the capital Tripoli after erupting in Libya’s oil-producing east last week. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said Libyan forces fired on civilians from warplanes and helicopters.

“The callousness with which Libyan authorities and their hired guns are reportedly shooting live rounds of ammunition at peaceful protestors is unconscionable. I am extremely worried that lives are being lost even as I speak,” Pillay said.

Her office has no presence in Libya but was ready to support investigations and promote civil, political and economic rights in the North African country.

The Libyan people were “tired of corruption,” unemployment and of having their rights ignored, said Pillay.

Through contacts with rights groups, Pillay’s office has drawn up a list of victims indicating about 250 people have been killed and hundreds injured during a week’s violence.

“However, it seems that based on the situation on the ground and what we heard from many sources, that the number is higher than that,” Fenniche said.

“Many human rights defenders and journalists have been arrested. We don’t know if they are alive or not.”

Editing by Andrew Dobbie and Laura MacInnis

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