In a few short years, Libya had transformed itself from a pariah state to an active member of the international community – even becoming a member of the UN Human Rights Council in 2012. In sharp contrast, the pace of reform at domestic levels remained slow and serious human rights violations continued. Colonel al-Gaddafi remained firmly in control as he had for over four decades.
At the beginning of February 2011, Libyan writer and political commentator Jamal al-Hajji was arrested shortly after he made a call on the internet for demonstrations to be held in support of greater freedoms in Libya. He urged Libyans to be inspired by the recent mass protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.
A wave of arrests and enforced disappearances of Libyans and non-Libyans began in eastern Libya in mid-February, starting with the detentions of Libyan writers and pro-democracy advocates who had supported and spread calls for peaceful anti-government demonstrations.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in Benghazi following the arrests of Fathi Terbel and Fraj Esharani, both members of the Abu Salim families’ organising committee set up by relatives of victims of a prison massacre in 1996, and three other activists. They were leading calls for a major demonstration on 17 February in support of calls for far-reaching political reforms. More than a dozen people were reportedly injured after the protestors later clashed with supporters of the Libyan leader col. Gaddafi. Security forces used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters.
In the following days, the crackdown turned bloody as live ammunition was used on protesters in several cities. Over 100 people were killed, including protesters who posed no threat. Hospital sources said most of the victims had been shot in the head, chest or neck, suggesting that the security forces intended to kill them. Medical staff also reported coming under direct attack while trying to assist the wounded in and around the town of Misratah.
Hundreds of thousands, including many migrant workers, fled the country. Thousands more became caught at border crossings in difficult conditions.
Armed conflict and international intervention
By early March the international community had intervened as the deepening crisis shifted to an internal conflict. The international Criminal Court announced that it was investigating Colonel al-Gaddafi for alleged crimes against humanity. Following the imposition of an UN arms embargo and other sanctions, a no fly zone was also established. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized member states to take all necessary measures short of a foreign occupation force to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in Libya.
The eight month conflict that followed was rife with war crimes and gross human rights violations, including indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture. As he grew increasingly isolated, opposition froces captured and killed Colonel al-Gaddafi and established territorial control over the whole of the country. On October, 23, 2011, the National Transitional Council announced the liberation of Libya. A month later a new government was formed. In November, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the ICC-indicted son of the ousted Libyan leader, was captured.
The NTC, in its “vision for a democratic Libya”, promised to respect all international human rights and international humanitarian law. It issued a Constitutional Declaration enshrining these and other principles, including respect for fundamental freedoms, non-discrimination for all citizens – including on grounds of gender, race and language – and the rights to a fair trial and to seek asylum. NTC leaders also promised to amend all repressive legislation and abolish the parallel legal system of special courts – hallmarks of the al-Gaddafi regime. Libyans are now enjoying greater freedom of expression and a mushrooming of civil society organizations, political groups and media outlets.
The new government continues to face the daunting task of restoring order, securing weapons stockpiles and implementing a process of disarmament. Internal security remains a serious concern, with heavily armed militias operating independently and with their own agendas, including reprisals against those believed to be supporters of the al-Gaddafi regime.
In August 2012, armed militiamen detained seven Iranian Red Crescent members on a road in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. The following month, at least four people including the US Ambassador to Libya, J Christopher Stephens, were killed in an attack on the US consulate compound in Benghazi.
One of most challenging tasks facing the new government is to address the legacy of impunity, entrenched for four decades, and to provide a remedy and reparations to the many victims of human rights violations and their families. The NTC has promised to investigate abuses committed by all sides to the conflict, including the alleged extrajudicial execution of Colonel al-Gaddafi and members of his family, and to bring those responsible to justice. However, effective mechanisms must now be established to adequately investigate all crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations. Evidence, such as archives and mass graves, needs to be secured and preserved – particularly in light of the stealing and burning of documents and ad hoc exhumations that took place after Tripoli fell to the NTC. Screening members of the judiciary to remove judges involved in arbitrary detention, unfair trials and other serious violations and ensuring the independence of the judiciary is essential to ending the cycle of abuse. If victims trust that the judiciary can safeguard their rights, they won’t feel the need to take the law into their own hands and seek revenge.
In the interim, cooperation with the International Criminal Court remains a challenge as arguments continue over jurisdiction. In June 2012, four ICC staff members were detained and held for three weeks in the remote western town of Zintan after they met Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi – the detained son of former ruler Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi.. Not only did it deny them their liberty and stop them from performing their functions, but it also undermined Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi's right to an effective defence and delayed the ICC's decision on the Libyan authorities’ recent application to bring him to trial in Libyan courts.
In September 2012, Mauritania extradited Abdullah al-Senussi, military intelligence chief for Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, to Libya instead of the ICC despite an outstanding indictment.
New leadership must protect human rights
National elections took place in July 2012. Amnesty International continues to call on Libya’s political leadership – including elected members of the General National Congress – to take immediate steps to end ongoing human rights abuses and establish the rule of law.
Thousands of detainees accused of fighting for or supporting al-Gaddafi’s government remain detained without charge or trial – some for more than a year.
Armed militias still abduct individuals and hold them in unofficial places of detention. Torture and other ill-treatment are rampant, leading to dozens of deaths. Tens of thousands of people have been driven out of their homes and continue to be scattered across the country.
These abuses are taking place amid a climate of fear where human rights activists, lawyers and journalists are reluctant to speak out publicly. Their fears are justified, as several have faced threats, arrest and even physical violence.