The historic elections that took place in Libya on July 7 saw tremendously high voter turnout (nearly 65 percent) and few violent incidents, despite the massive challenges to security throughout the country. The election will create a 200-member parliament to replace the National Transitional Council, an unelected body that served as the voice of the revolution and subsequently as an interim governing council during Libya’s transitional phase toward elections. The parliament will need to choose a president and a prime minister and draft a constitution shortly after it becomes operational. Preliminary findings indicate that Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance is likely to win, but official results have yet to be announced.
President Barack Obama congratulated the Libyan people on “another milestone in their extraordinary transition to democracy,” and the top U.N. representative in Tripoli, Ian Martin, noted that the election provided Libyans with the “opportunity to choose their own representatives freely in a credible election, fulfilling one of their revolution’s main goals.”
At the same time, however, pro-federalist groups—backers of the revolution who felt disillusioned by the National Transitional Council’s move to centralize power in Tripoli and underrepresent them in the run up to the elections—continued to feel marginalized and called for a boycott of the elections. Militia violence also broke out near election polls in Benghazi, reflecting some of the historical resentment, regional competition for power, and potential for instability that will test the newly elected body.
While the world waits for the final outcome of Libya’s first elections since the fall of Moammar Qaddafi, the task of setting security and stability priorities for the new government needs to happen now. We outline areas that need immediate attention below, including security sector reform, compensating victims of revolutionary violence, and protecting minorities.
Reform the security sector
The revolution may be finished, and NATO may have gone home, but throughout the country attacks against civilians continue. Libya’s newly elected government should make explicit commitments to ensure protection for its own citizens going forward. Critical to this effort is a clearly defined, well-funded, and comprehensive approach to security sector reform.
The approach so far has been ad hoc at best, leaving Libya plagued by the proliferation of weapons and militias. Estimates of militia members remain in the hundreds of thousands—many of them young, armed men both out of work and unwilling to disarm.
Amnesty International recently exposed the National Transitional Council’s reluctance to address the many violations committed by militias in a scathing new report, noting that, “Efforts … to bring militias under official bodies have not been accompanied by systematic vetting to ensure that those who have ordered, committed or acquiesced to human rights abuses are neither rewarded nor given positions where they can repeat similar crimes.”
Going forward, the new government must prioritize a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program. Such an initiative can help address the security and economic needs of fighters by either absorbing them into a reformed security apparatus or providing them alternative livelihood opportunities.
The government, working closely with the international community, must also ensure that rebuilding a national army and police force is done with core civilian protection objectives in mind, including vetting potential members for human rights red flags; training them on protection principles and tactics, proper codes of conduct, and adequate nonlethal resources; and implementing accountability mechanisms for bad behavior.
For most Libyans, security forces conjure up a vision of an aggressive, repressive institution. The new Libyan forces must understand that their role is to protect and support—not ignore or prey on—Libya’s citizens.
An essential component of security sector reform also includes overhauling the justice system to ensure the government is able to fairly and swiftly prosecute detainees held within state prisons and transfer detainees currently held in makeshift militia administrated facilities that exist outside the state’s purview. Many of these detainees have been held in detention facilities for more than a year without charges and should immediately be placed in the state’s custody to have their cases assessed.
At the same time, the justice ministry should adopt a rights-based approach that emphasizes the constructive role the police, courts, and legal system play in helping build good governance and the rule of law. For a start, the ministry can unequivocally reject all forms of abuse, embrace the complimentary role of civil society, and amend the amnesty law passed by the National Transitional Council that in essence codified impunity for rebels committing human rights violations in the name of the revolution.
Finally, as the courts get up and running, appropriate protection for prosecutors and witnesses involved in sensitive political trials will be essential.
Address civilian harm and lack of assistance to victims
All sides inflicted civilian harm in the revolution, and victims have received little, if any, recognition and help for their losses. Though there is a lack of accurate data on civilians since warring parties failed to keep this information, some estimates note thousands of civilians were killed and wounded, and faced damage to property.
In its May report, Human Rights Watch noted 72 civilian deaths caused by NATO and documented eight incidents across Libya in which NATO airstrikes killed civilians without clear evidence of military activity in these citizens’ vicinity. NATO took great strides to minimize “collateral damage,” but its decision not to conduct any investigations into civilian harm is unfortunate, particularly given the alliance’s history of making such investigations in other operating theaters.
The new Libyan government should therefore call on NATO to open an investigation into these incidents and, based on its findings, provide compensation to the victims. While some Libyan civilians are reluctant to make such a request to NATO, the new government could easily overcome such concerns by stressing responsibility for any harm to its people.
Similarly, the Libyan government itself should make good on its commitment to provide assistance to the families of civilians caught in the crossfire during the revolution, just as they do to the families of martyrs. Regardless of which side they supported during the revolution, such efforts can play an important role in helping encourage reconciliation—and the new government has an obligation under human rights law to compensate victims.
By taking these steps the new government could dignify the families who were victims of the revolution and, in some cases, diffuse lingering hostility in the post-Qaddafi era.
Ensure minority rights
Throughout the country, Qaddafi loyalists, dark-skinned Libyans, and sub-Saharan Africans are largely discriminated against, falling victim to reprisal attacks during the post-Qaddafi era without any means of protection or access to redress mechanisms.
Mesheshiya and Tawergha inhabitants, who live in the northern part of Libya, are also suffering from forced displacement in camps due to violent activities by local militias in Zintan and Misrata—cities adjacent to these communities’ towns—respectively.
The Mesheshiyas are largely seen as Qaddafi loyalists for not joining the revolution and are suffering from reprisal attacks by Zintani brigades, while Tawerghans—dark-skinned Libyans—are accused of committing war crimes during the revolution. As a result, Misratan brigades are exacting collective punishment on the entire Tawergha community.
As the new government gets up and running, they should provide these minority communities with compensation for housing and initiate national reconciliation efforts that could help reverse the current narratives, prevent future attacks, and ultimately enable these communities to return home.
Sub-Saharan Africans in Libya fall into two main categories: migrant workers, who make up around 20 percent of Libya’s 6.5 million inhabitants, and asylum seekers, who have fled their conflict-ridden countries. Due to widespread beliefs that Qaddafi used sub-Saharan African mercenaries to fight the rebels, most Libyans treat all sub-Saharans as guilty by association. With no screening process in place, the previous Libyan government held Africans indefinitely in detention camps, where they suffered abusive treatment. Such treatment only served to fuel negative perceptions, deepen existing rifts, and ratchet up the potential for instability.
To address their plight, the newly elected government should establish a legal framework that protects the rights of migrant workers while initiating antidiscrimination public awareness campaigns that highlight the crucial role that sub-Saharan Africans can play in the economic recovery of Libya.
Unlike the National Transitional Council—an unelected body whose fragility was underscored by its inability to rein in the growing number of undisciplined militias—the newly elected national parliament has an important opportunity to do better. Although it is likely to be equally as weak in the early stages, it can—and must—focus on the many challenges Libya currently faces at the same time that it drafts a constitution. A myopic focus will move the country backward, not forward.
Sarah Margon is the Associate Director for Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding at the Center for American Progress. Nathalie Bekdache is a consultant based in Libya, where she researches civilian protection issues for a joint project run by CAP and the Campaign for Innocent Victims In Conflict.