06/22/2012 04:19 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Libyan militias continue to challenge rebuilding after Gadhafi: Baird

OTTAWA - Canada believes Libya's new leaders continue to face "significant challenges" disarming dangerous militias, an assertion supported by recent human-rights reports and continuing violence on the ground.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird raised the "importance of militia disarmament and integration for democratic development" with Libya's education minister on a recent visit to Ottawa, spokesman Rick Roth told The Canadian Press in an emailed response to questions.

Since the death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in October, hundreds of Libyans have been killed in internal fighting. One recent outbreak of tribal violence left more than 100 dead and hundreds injured — a decline that could impact Libya's July 7 election of a new national assembly.

Baird used his trip to Tripoli last fall to announce $10 million to support a major priority for Canada: helping disarm the various Libyan rebel forces that overthrew Gadhafi.

"The interim government in Libya continues to make strong efforts to reintegrate militia fighters into society, having announced a plan to provide police, military and vocational training to tens of thousands of former fighters, although significant challenges remain," said Roth.

Canada remains committed to ending "grave violations against children in situations of conflict," Roth added.

A pair of recent human-rights reports suggest it may have been premature for the Harper government to stage a large Parliament Hill celebration last November — an $800,0000 event that included a massive air force fly-over — lauding Canada's successful participation in the NATO mission to oust Gadhafi.

The recently released UN report on children in conflict zones noted the continued existence of the armed groups as a threat to children in Libya. The report garnered headlines over its scathing assessment of the abuse of children in the Syrian conflict. But for the first time, Libya was added to a list of problem countries noted in the yearly survey.

"At the end of 2011, the continued presence of armed brigades and sporadic clashes between these brigades posed a challenge to the Libyan authorities," it concluded on Libya.

"In this context, children remained vulnerable to association with these brigades, displacement and exposure to remnants of war and the widespread presence of small arms and light weapons."

It also laid out the detailed and disturbing reality faced by Libyan children in the months since Gadhafi was killed, and dating back to the start of the February 2011 uprising against him.

The report says that the continuing fighting made it difficult to systematically document abuses against children. It says at least 182 children were killed and 243 were maimed throughout the country.

The report says there was "strong evidence" that Gadhafi's former forces trained children to fight alongside adults. And it also says there is cause for concern that the National Transitional Council, the country's current interim leaders, may have also forced young boys to fight.

"The current Government of Libya is working with the office of my Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict to address the issue of children remaining associated with some brigades," says the report.

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch blamed uncontrolled militias for the continuing illegal detention and torture of thousands.

"The power of local militias, which in most towns and cities are stronger than the army and police, has complicated the rebuilding of Libya's justice system. Unknown assailants apparently linked to militias have threatened police, prosecutors, and judges," concluded the New York-based watchdog.

Roth said Canada is continuing post-Gadhafi support of Libya in several areas, including the treatment of war-wounded veterans, removal and destruction of weapons stockpiles and explosives, and supporting the participation of women and youth in the political process.

"The promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the rights of children, remains a priority for our government and we continue to work hard to advance this issue," said Roth.

"We remain committed to ending the use of girls and boys in armed conflict and to helping ensure that war-affected children around the world are protected."