The one-year anniversary of the first protests in Libya was marked on 17 February 2012. Spurred on by the arrest of a human rights campaigner and emboldened by protests sweeping the Arab world, citizens in the eastern Libyan town of Benghazi hit the streets in a “Day of Rage” exactly one year ago in protest of the now-deceased Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
Like Tunisia and Egypt before it, protests spread like wildfire across Libya, with Benghazi becoming the de facto stronghold of the opposition to the Gaddafi regime. As they spread, the crackdown by the Gaddafi regime became more ruthless.
The Libyan leader broadcasted his clear intent to commit further widespread human rights violations in a 22 February 2011 speech, calling on his supporters to attack the protesting “cockroaches”, and urging them to “cleanse Libya house by house” until they surrendered.
The international community responded in an unprecedented manner with a range of measures within the framework of the Responsibility to Protect, imposing sweeping diplomatic and other non-coercive measures at the national, regional, and international levels.
Civil society was quick to label Libya an RtoP situation, with a number of organizations calling for decisive action to prevent atrocities against civilians.
Individual states enacted sanctions, asset freezes, and travel bans. Regional organizations such as the League of Arab States (LAS), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the African Union appealed for restraint, with the European Union enacting sweeping sanctions.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) imposed an arms embargo, travel ban, and assets freeze, while also referring the situation to the International Criminal Court through the unanimous adoption of UNSC Resolution 1970. The UN General Assembly suspended Libya from the Human Rights Council, after the Geneva-based body requested such an action be taken.
With sweeping non-coercive measures failing to bring an end to the crackdown, on 17 March 2011, exactly one month after the first protest erupted, the UNSC passed Resolution 1973, which authorized “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. A Coalition of international states, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), moved to quickly enforce the mandate on 19 March 2011.
The decision was another benchmark for RtoP, as it was the first time the Council had mandated the use of force to protect civilians from one or more of the four crimes under the norm’s framework.
Seven months later, after a protracted civil war with devastating consequences for civilians and combatants, Gaddafi was captured and killed on 20 October 2011 by rebel forces, with assistance from NATO airpower. The dictator’s shocking demise spurred the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International to raise suspicions that a war crime was committed.
It was a violent end to the old Libya, and a turbulent beginning to the new era.
Insecurity, Lawlessness Prevail
As Libyans celebrated an end to the Gaddafi era, Mahmoud Jibril, the former leader of Libya’s now-provisionally-ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), hailed Gaddafi’s death as an end to “all the evils” in his country.
One year on however, evil has not vanished from Libya. Instead, insecurity and lawlessness prevail, and a number of high-profile civil society organizations have documented allegations of widespread human rights violations by Libya’s revolutionaries.
According to a 16 February report by Amnesty International (AI), hundreds of armed and “out of control” militias threaten Libya’s transition in the post-Gaddafi era, which the provisional NTC has been unable to rein in.
Running street battles often break out between the militias, terrifying and threatening civilians. Revenge attacks and discrimination against known or suspected Gaddafi supporters, as documented by ICRtoP member Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a 22 January report, are commonplace. Clashes between rival militias have erupted in the southeast, and despite NTC forces intervening, have continued. The violence is fueled by easy access to weapons stockpiles, some of which have slipped across Libya’s borders into neighbouring countries.
Impunity also reigns. These “out of control” militias, along with some NTC-affiliated military and security entities, have allegedly engaged in ill-treatment, torture, and killings of detainees. Lacking an effective judicial system, these alleged crimes have largely gone unpunished in the new Libya.
Detention in these conditions persists for thousands, mostly in centres that are controlled by militias independent of the ruling NTC. A 16 February report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) indicated that 8,500 detainees remain in custody in over 60 separate places of detention, most of which are under the control of different authorities.
Detention centres in Misrata were appalling enough to cause Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to suspend their work in the prisons on 26 January. In a press release, MSF stated that officials from Misrata-based militias that ran the detention centres frequently subjected detainees to torture and denied them medical care. Furthermore, members of MSF staff were repeatedly brought detainees in the middle of an interrogation to be given medical care so that they could be questioned further.
At a UNSC briefing on 25 January, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated that the lack of central oversight “creates an environment conducive to torture and ill-treatment”, and urged the detention centres to be brought under the control of the Ministry of Justice.However, while the NTC has reportedly assumed custody of more detainees, the reports of AI, HRW, and MSF highlight the continued risk of torture and other human rights violations in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Despite this, there are glimmers of progress. The citizens of Misrata held Libya’s first real exercise in democracy in 42 years by going to the polls on 20 February to elect a new City Council. The NTC has also vowed for elections in June, along with drafting a new constitution, although no date has been set. These gains are threatened by the fact that Libya’s revolution cities, like Misrata, are outpacing the NTC with reforms and forming nearly autonomous city-states.
Reports emerging from Libya in the first months of 2012 are certainly troubling. The struggle to establish security in the new Libya after an eight-month civil war has been compounded by an equally difficult struggle to ensure that human rights are protected, the rule of law is built and respected, and reconciliation is pursued.
Moving forward, the country’s authorities, along with partners at the international, regional, and national levels, must work together to ensure both peace and justice as Libya rebuilds. Such a challenge may prove as a great a test for RtoP as its implementation in response to the crackdown nearly one year ago; however only then will the responsibility to protect truly be upheld in the post-Gaddafi era.