As Tripoli enters the sixth week of a civil war, the third since the 40-year Gaddafi dictatorship crumbled in 2011, Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to seize the capital by force has already resulted in more than 400 deaths, 1,500 wounded, and 50,000 internally displaced people. One day before the offensive was launched, Dr. Moncef Kartas, a member of UN Panel of Experts investigating violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya, was arrested by Tunisian authorities. Today he is still detained: the Tunisian Interior Ministry declared he and his fixer are suspected of “espionage for the benefit of foreign parties.”
Post-2011 Libya is widely known as a land of forged documents and doctored versions of the truth. While ongoing conflict makes counting the dead as difficult as it is necessary, other forms of monitoring—including the political economy of the ongoing military offensive—emerge as equally important now that it has become clear that Haftar’s blitzkrieg failed, and friction becomes key.
It is no secret that Haftar and his self-styled “Libyan Arab Armed Forces” receive military and political support from several foreign backers. A coalition of Arab countries, including most notably the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have supplied Haftar with sophisticated and heavy weaponry, in explicit violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1970/2011 imposing an open-ended arms embargo to and from Libya. At the same time, some members of the UN Security Council have also provided subtler (and more difficult to ascertain) forms of support to Haftar, including France, Russia and more recently (so far only rhetorically) the United States. Given the ongoing display of weaponry, monitoring and reporting arms embargo violations is of strategic significance.
In this context, it is disconcerting that Tunisian authorities have kept Kartas in detention for more than a month on unsubstantiated charges. Since its establishment in 2011, the UN Panel of Experts supports the work of UN Security Council and the UN-led peace-making—and can therefore be seen as the cornerstone of international law in Libya.
In 2017, the Panel documented smuggling of oil and human trafficking in Zawiyah, Zuwarah and Sabratah, led, among others, by members of the Libyan coast guard and militia leaders supporting the internationally recognized Tripoli government. On this basis the UN Security Council eventually adopted targeted sanctions in June 2018.
In its latest September 2018 report, the Panel documented embargo breaches by Haftar, as well as his traveling to Tunis to meet high state officials as well as the Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi. The Panel was preparing its interim report, carrying out important investigative work on arms trafficking. Several researchers, including Wolfram Lacher from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, note that the timing of Kartas’ arrest—right on the eve of the resumption of hostilities—is particularly worrisome.
Kartas is far from unknown to Tunisian authorities. Himself a dual citizen of both Tunisia and Germany, he worked and published widely on issues of conflict transformation and armed violence reduction, leading a multi-year project for the Swiss-based Small Arms Survey that focused on understanding and mitigating armed violence in North Africa, during which he regularly briefed senior officials in the Tunisian defence, interior and foreign ministries. In recognition of his expertise, in 2016 he was appointed by the UN Secretary General as one the six members of UN Panel of Experts on Libya, tasked with investigating breaches of the arms embargo, an issue that directly serves the interests of Tunisia’s national security.
On March 26, Kartas traveled from Germany to Tunisia on a regular mission for the Panel of Experts. On arrival at the Tunis Carthage airport in the early evening of March 26, he presented both his Tunisian passport and UN Travel Document at the border as required under Tunisian law, and he was instantly detained by plainclothes security forces.
Because of his work for the UN, Kartas enjoys immunity as an ‘Expert on Mission’ under the UN Convention on the Privileges and Immunities (1946), and Tunisia is a party to this Convention. Notwithstanding, Kartas is now reportedly being investigated for allegedly possessing and disclosing intelligence concerning national security to foreign governments, a crime that could be punished with the death penalty under Tunisian law. In spite of these very serious charges, no evidence has been provided to substantiate the allegations. This is an unprecedented violation not only of Kartas’ fundamental rights, but also of the mission and dignity of the United Nations, whose investigative work should be facilitated by all means by states.
Before this episode, Tunisia had taken a neutral stance about war in the Libya, but this evolution represents a worrisome precedent. The Kartas affair is a politically motivated case that shows how fragile the rule of law is in Tunisia’s political transition. After a suicide bombing in Tunis killed 12 presidential guards on Nov. 24, 2015, Tunisian authorities imposed exceptional “state of emergency” measures that, as Human Rights Watch has underlined, curtail human rights and have resulted in arbitrary controls on citizens’ freedom of movement and freedom of speech, house arrests and suspension of civil society activism. Meanwhile, as Amnesty International points out, Tunisia’s National Preventive Mechanism—the National Body for the Prevention of Torture, which was established in 2013 as part of Tunisia’s obligations as a party to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture—continued to be hampered by a lack of cooperation from the Ministry of the Interior and inadequate financial support from the government.
Kartas’ unjustified arrest represents a troubling case of UN diplomatic immunity violation, as highlighted by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who immediately urged Tunisian authorities to release him. At the same time, a transnational community of (ex) colleagues, collaborators and friends of Kartas is mobilized in his support, appealing to media and civil society organizations. Kartas’ arbitrary detention has made the headlines of influential media in Europe (including The Guardian, Le Monde, France24, Suddeutsche Zeitung) and the Arab world (Al-Jazeera).
A petition requesting Tunisian authorities to immediately release Kartas 107 signatures in a few days among internationally reputed weapons experts, academics, UN officers and North African researchers, eventually making its way into the Tunisian media, too. More signatures are joining the petition as we write.
We have met Kartas during our fieldwork and while attending conferences on the reduction of arms circulation. We can testify to his availability, commitment and professionalism. We have decided with no hesitation to sign and circulate the petition, and we are determined to make every effort to help ensure the full respect of his rights. This is not only a matter of personal solidarity. Kartas’ fate is of primary concern for all those who care about peace, democracy and fundamental rights in North Africa, and for all those who do research in this region. Kartas should be immediately released.