By Mary Fitzgerald

When Libyans took to the streets in early 2011 demanding change, one of their key demands was justice.

Four decades of Gaddafi’s experiment in dictatorship had resulted in a judicial apparatus hobbled by cronyism and corruption and distrusted by many including dissidents long subjected to state repression.

The spark for the protests I witnessed in Benghazi in February 2011 was the long search for justice for the families of victims of the single worst atrocity of Gaddafi’s Libya, the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996.

Many key figures participating in those demonstrations that later tipped into an armed uprising against the Gaddafi regime had a legal background. Several were lawyers or judges.

They were adamant they wanted a different Libya, one that included a justice system anchored in the rule of law and respect for human rights.

The National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s first post-Gaddafi authority, pledged to build that brave new Libya. 

Eight years after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, Libyans are no closer to achieving that goal.

In the absence of judicial reform and any meaningful transitional justice framework, post-Gaddafi Libya has been marked by cycles of conflict often rooted in revenge or driven by a sense of victor’s justice.

Added to the layers of grievance stemming from abuses committed during the 42 years of Gaddafi’s rule are those related to what happened during 2011 uprising and since.

Looking back, some Libyans point to what they now consider to have been early warning signs –

(a) the manner of Gaddafi’s death at the hands of rebel forces when many Libyans wanted to see him stand trial;

(b) the way the people of Tawergha were driven from their homes in an act of revenge by victorious rebels; and

(c) the zealousness of revolutionaries determined to purge state institutions of anything – or anyone – too closely associated with the Gaddafi era.

It wasn’t long before many of those who fought to oust Gaddafi were being accused of repeating history as they committed many of the same crimes and violations that had characterised his regime.

Libya has been plunged into civil conflict twice since Gaddafi’s ousting.

The most recent war triggered by Khalifa Haftar’s April 4 offensive on Tripoli is, in part, a continuation of the conflict that erupted in May 2014 and ultimately split the country between rival governments and institutions.

The political and security vacuum that resulted has not only fed many of Libya’s existing ills, it has also created fresh challenges. Forces loosely aligned with the competing authorities operate in a climate of impunity further exacerbated by a judicial system that suffers from partial collapse.

Armed groups on all sides of the conflict have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure, and have unlawfully killed, tortured, disappeared and forcefully displaced thousands.

The latest war has brought with it worryingly new levels of violence, with the rival factions – assisted by their foreign backers – increasingly relying on air strikes.

This summer alone has seen two of Libya’s deadliest incidents since 2011: an air strike on a migrant detention centre in July killed at least 53 people while another aerial attack in the southern town of Murzuq in August claimed the lives of more than 40 people. 

Hundreds of thousands of migrants, including children under 18 years, have passed through Libya planning either to seek work there or take the smugglers’ boats across the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching Europe.

Many are subjected to abuses and violations, including torture and sexual violence, by traffickers but also the armed groups that oversee detention facilities or are tasked with policing Libya’s coast line.

In a country where the prospect of any semblance of accountability seems increasingly remote, it is both Libyans and migrants who bear the consequences. 

In the early days of post-Gaddafi Libya, when so much seemed possible despite the challenges of unpicking what 42 years of idiosyncratic dictatorship had left behind, the country witnessed a flourishing of civil society.

Now, civil society activists have been targeted to such an extent that many voices that once clamoured for accountability are muted or silent, with many deciding the price of speaking out is too high.

Others forced into exile watch the unravelling of their country from afar.

Many Libyans cannot fail to notice that justice and accountability are not priorities for the international community – itself deeply divided on Libya – when it comes to efforts to end hostilities and return to a political process.

The failure of the International Criminal Court to bring to trial any of the Libyans it has served with arrest warrants since 2011 further diminishes any hopes for accountability.

But when much of what ails Libya is tied up in a dense knot of grievance, the question of justice cannot be ignored or sidelined forever. 


Presented to ‘Libya and International Justice Symposium


Mary Fitzgerald is an independent researcher specializing in Libya. She has worked on Libya since February 2011 and lived there in 2014. She is a contributing author to The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath published by Hurst/OUP.




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