Libyan lawyers and human rights: a nascent movement facing a challenge

Libyans are seeking to reclaim their society and the decisions they make today on how to provide justice for past violations and deal with corrupt former-regime officials will define the new system that is being developed. The involvement of international actors may be a double-edged sword.
Lutz Oette
22 November 2011

Facing up to the legacy of human rights violations in Libya is a daunting challenge. Emerging from an enforced time warp, the Libyan population is today confronted with the wreckage of a regime that was based on a barely comprehensible ideology, repression and sheer force. The recent atrocities are a particularly grim episode in a long history etched into the collective memory of Libyans over the last forty-two years.

With the focus in the west on Gaddafi’s image as terrorist or madman, or both, there has been little sense or understanding of what life has been like in Libya in all these years. In Libya itself, individuals and groups are now beginning to talk openly about their experiences. This entails having to come to terms with the multiple sufferings and deprivations endured. It also means grappling with the more fundamental question of what these have done to the political and social fabric of the country.

Libya, both its current government and society at large, is at an important crossroads where the past, present and future interlink: how it provides justice for past violations and how it respects the rights of those who currently find themselves on the wrong side will be crucial for the broader task of rebuilding a system in which human rights are better protected.

Many Libyans are keenly aware of the importance of getting this process right. From the moment it became possible, several initiatives sprang up in Benghazi, Misrata, Tripoli and elsewhere to document human rights crimes and to develop local justice initiatives. There are also official committees tasked with monitoring detention conditions and human rights. 

Organizations such as Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) are helping build a network of human rights defenders. Their commitment was evident during a recent meeting in which LFJL brought together lawyers from across the country. Many of these lawyers – several of whom have personally suffered torture – have maintained a genuine belief in the rule of law. Little attention has been paid to their important work on the ground.

For all the inevitable shortcomings of a nascent human rights movement, it provides the much needed impetus to rebuild a credible legal system.

For now, the lawyers involved are looking for ways of how best to work together to deal with the many pressing problems, not least what to do with members of their own profession who failed to live up to expected standards under the previous regime. This raises vexed questions both about the responsibility of judges, prosecutors and others, and due process for those accused of wrongdoing (including determining what constituted ‘wrongdoing’ in the circumstances).

These issues have already prompted reflections about the role of the legal profession in the previous regime, which was ultimately based on contempt for the law. They have also triggered intense debates on how to proceed in practice, including in the context of reforming local bar associations and the judiciary. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that the process and outcome of this endeavour will serve as an important test for the ability of the legal profession to set new standards.

These efforts are but one part of the precious process taking place today in which Libyans are seeking to reclaim their society. It is already clear that this process will neither necessarily be smooth nor take place in isolation. There is a need for outside expertise and capacity building, including in questions of human rights protection. Indeed, many Libyans may welcome such an engagement. However, the involvement of international actors is a double-edged sword if experiences in other countries in conflict or post-conflict situations are anything to go by.

Undoubtedly, international institutions, such as the United Nations or the International Criminal Court, international NGOs and donors take a keen interest in questions of human rights and justice in Libya. They are already engaged in various capacities and the United Nations in particular has played a valuable role in seeking to ensure protection of human rights throughout the conflict. Yet it is important that they give the fledgling Libyan human rights movement and civil society the space and time needed to develop and to address the issues facing them.

There is a risk that international actors – even if only unwittingly – import their own priorities and change the local dynamics. The potential pitfalls are many, such as conflicting objectives, taking an approach that does not reflect the primary concerns of local actors at the time, introducing an element of ‘human rights’ bureaucracy or business, or undermining local networks through recruitment policies.

Libya is at a unique juncture where pain and suffering is mixed with enthusiasm in a situation full of potential and uncertainty. It is too early to tell how the current transition will pan out. International actors have an important role sharing experiences and seeking to uphold international standards. However, it is equally critical that they tread carefully when engaging in Libya, particularly in an area as painful and sensitive as human rights.

After a history of false hopes and lost opportunities, it is now crucial to support Libyans who take a lead in discussing how best to respond to violations and develop a system that stands the test of time for the right reasons.

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