Libya Middle East North Africa Politics & Diplomacy
Event Recap October 13, 2021

Event recap: Accountability and justice in Libya—voices from the ground

By Hezha Barzani

Following a decade of civil war, many Libyans still await adequate reparations after suffering gross human rights violations, war crimes, and other atrocities. On September 28, the Atlantic Council’s North Africa Initiative hosted an event exploring the challenges of promoting transitional justice in Libya and how to pursue accountability for crimes committed in the civil war that began in 2011.

Karim Mezran, director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, welcomed the audience and speakers, while Uzra Zeya, Under-Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the US State Department, provided the opening remarks. The panelists were Said Benarbia, director of Middle East and North Africa Programme at the International Commission of Jurists, and Marwa Mohamed, head of advocacy at Lawyers for Justice in Libya. Tarek Megerisi, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, moderated the event.

Remarks from Under-Secretary Uzra Zeya

  • Zeya described how decades of authoritarian rule and instability have left Libyan society in desperate need of a stable system that can uncover the truths of the past and provide justice, reparation, and rule of law reform.
  • Highlighting the importance of establishing a stable and legal institutional framework for transitional justice, Zeya emphasized how this will be critical for Libyan society to move forward.
  • Discussing the upcoming Libyan presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for December, Zeya showcased optimism, describing how these elections hold the promise of a new era of peace, stability, and democracy for Libya. Going off this, Zeya reaffirmed the United States’ call to all parties in Libya to make the necessary compromises to ensure that free and fair elections take place as scheduled.
  • To ensure accountability and justice, the government must continue to take bold steps to address crimes. She described the need to document killings and other abuses uncovered in mass graves, as it is “essential” to document history.
  • Regarding reforms, Zeya described the need for a strengthened legal framework to ensure a fair and effective criminal justice system that will protect the rights of victims.
  • Zeya said that the US would continue to advocate for human rights, account for missing persons, and provide services to their families. She urged those with authority to establish witness protection programs and do what is necessary to curtail attacks against justice system actors, human rights defenders, victims, and witnesses.
  • Finally, Zeya called on all Libyan leaders to support the renewal of the United Nations’ (UN) Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya, saying it is vital to identify those responsible for abuses on all sides of the conflict.

The current state of transitional justice and accountability in Libya

  • Benarbia discussed the current framework for law and transitional justice in Libya. He noted that it fails to provide jurisdiction over serious crimes under international law, including enforced disappearances, rape, other forms of sexual violence, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. He further described how the framework is not sufficiently clear and that its investigative powers are too weak to serve its purpose.
  • From the international perspective, Benarbia said that international support for the transitional justice process and accountability in Libya had been limited.
  • When discussing the politicization of transitional justice, Benarbia claimed that history has repeatedly demonstrated that overlooking accountability in “the interest of peace” has compromised both justice and peace. Mohamed also touched on this topic, addressing how the current implementation of amnesties remains unsustainable because they are too broad in scope and fail to account for the rights of the victims. This approach has failed Libya.
  • According to Mohamed, transitional justice in Libya has always been geared towards granting amnesties, which places the full burden on the victims to forgive and move on. Thus, this method does not take a victim-centric approach and fails to offer victims the truth, justice, and accountability they deserve—ultimately failing the transitional justice process.
  • Mohamed talked about how the 2020 UN roadmap for Libya—which laid out the potential for a political solution to the conflict—allowed for a large consultative process with Libyan civil society for the first time. This added diverse and comprehensive voices to the process, ensuring that transitional justice would prioritize victims.
  • Mohamed highlighted how civil society documented the ongoing human rights violations, preserving evidence and projecting the situation when no one else was watching. She explained that their presence was instrumental in reaching a victim-based approach that included “right to truth” and reparation to the victims.

Recommended reforms

  • Benarbia recommended that authorities should amend or repeal and replace Law No. 29 of 2013 on transitional justice in Libya, as considerations must be given to ensure that the transitional justice process and mechanisms are grounded in three elements: the righteous roots, the right to remedy and operation, and accountability for crimes under international law.
  • Urging the importance of vetting, Benarbia emphasized the need to ensure that the integration of officials and members of armed groups into Libya’s military and security forces is conducted through proper and adequate vetting processes. He further reiterated the need for a robust vetting system by discussing how Libya must ensure that those who have committed human rights abuses in the past are not given positions of power.
  • When asked about how the international community can help, Mohamed gave two suggestions: putting pressure to repeal Decree 268, which prohibits local organizations from receiving funding without permission, and ensuring a vetting process on all levels—both of which the international community can assist with.
  • Regarding the upcoming elections, Mohamed urged Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Unity in Tripoli to immediately start enabling an environment where civil society can assist with the elections, emphasizing civil society’s vital role in this process.
  • Benarbia asserted the need for a mechanism to ensure that Libyan courts are impartial and can ensure justice within a respected framework. Mohamed had slightly different views, as she adamantly advocated for a special hybrid court that sees the presence of international actors, such as the International Criminal Court. Mohamed cited how 90 percent of individuals her organization interviewed reinforced the need for a hybrid court system due to a lack of faith in a full-Libyan court.

Hezha Barzani is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Image: Mourners pray near the coffins of people who were exhumed from a mass grave, according to officials from Libya's internationally recognized government, before they are re-buried in Tarhouna city, Libya November 13, 2020. REUTERS/Hazem Ahmed