Libya: emerging movement of Human Rights Defenders faces huge challenges and needs support with understanding

November 22, 2011

Lutz Oette, from the NGO ‘REDRESS’, published on 22 November 2011 an interesting analysis in openDemocracy, in which he describes the enormous challenges faced by the small number of human rights lawyers in Libya. 

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. 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. It is too early to tell how the current transition in Libya 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.

 In my view the author quite rightly points out that international institutions, such as the United Nations or the International Criminal Court, NGOs and donors will undoubtedly take a keen interest in questions of human rights and justice in Libya. …” 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.”

This is very much in line with my views on NGOs in transition countries as published in the book and China and NGOs, “The international human rights movement: not perfect, but a lot better than many governments think”  Ashgate, ISBN: 978-1-4094-1959-4: “Repression is, in some ways, the binding and mobilising element in a weak civil society. Afterwards, the challenge becomes to find common ground that is based more solidly on human rights philosophy and has a forward-looking element [….] International NGOs – especially those with links to a variety of domestic NGOs – may be helpful in building consensus. What is also subsequently required from NGOs is constructive participation in debating, designing and implementing a host of new regulations, processes and mechanisms, including those relating to democratic governance and the ratification of international human rights standards.  International NGOs can bring expertise, funding and pressure, but have to take care that they do not overwhelm the local NGOs.[….] The creation of democratic governance institutions also requires a human rights ‘culture’. Many people in transition countries will not fully understand the human rights discourse.[ ….The] domestic NGOs are often small and weak in the early phases of transition and international NGOs can help with quick access to relevant information, sharing experiences, staff training, visibility and access to donors. However, again, the risk is that this privileges certain NGOs relative to their national counterparts and the ‘foreign’ resources may hamper the feeling of ownership.

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. For the full text see:

Libyan lawyers and human rights: a nascent movement facing a challenge | openDemocracy.

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