In 2011, Libyans took to the streets to overthrow the Muammar Gaddafi regime after 42 years of dictatorship. In the midst of the commotion, various communities organized to demand greater rights, justice and equality. For the first time, a more democratic future seemed at hand.
Ten years later, the opening of civic space is threatened, and not only by the numerous militias and armed groups in Libya. In a disturbingly authoritarian turn, subsequent Libyan authorities have used Gaddafi-era laws and new repressive measures, apparently aimed at making it impossible for civil society organizations (CSOs) to operate freely.
For the national elections scheduled for December 24, 2021 to be free and fair and the result accepted, the newly formed interim Government of National Unity (GNU) must live up to its name, reverse these measures and allow all Libyans participate freely in the democratic process.
One of the most positive legacies of the 2011 uprising was the birth of a vibrant civil society movement. Across the country, people from all walks of life raised their voices to voice complaints that went unaddressed for decades and demanded accountability for the many brutal crimes committed under Gaddafi.
However, the sense of hope was short-lived as divisions deepened and conflict erupted. Lawyers, journalists, activists, human rights defenders, parliamentarians and others have been harassed, attacked, forcibly disappeared and killed with impunity. Recently, calls for accountability have focused on the lawless militias that have ruled in the wake of Gaddafi.
Despite the dangers, many Libyans have taken great risks to advocate for change. Rather than meet the challenge, in 2019 the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) issued Decree 286, which introduced draconian restrictions on CSOs with sinister echoes of the Gaddafi-era crackdown. Rather than reverse these measures, the current Government of National Unity (GNU) seems willing to continue this disturbing trend by preparing to issue a new decree impose more restrictions.
Decree 286 regulates the work and activities of the Government Civil Society Commission (CCS) and requires CSOs to re-register. However, it does not specify the reasons why the registration can be rejected, leaving the process open to arbitrariness and abuse. The draft decree currently being considered by the GNU would create a new CCS, but it does not establish how it will work or what its composition would be.
Some CSOs that have tried to re-register have faced significant bureaucratic hurdles. When they have tried to challenge them, the CCS has threatened some with arrest, explaining that they were trying to “filter and liquidate troubled CSOs.” In other words, independent non-governmental organizations that denounce human rights violations committed by the government and affiliated militias.
Among other things, Decree 286 and the new draft decree also require CSOs to obtain prior approval from the CCS to raise funds, open a bank account, or participate in public events, and CSOs that register must request permission to collaborate. with international organizations in any form. Such restrictions are a clear violation of international law, standards and best practices aimed at protecting freedom of association.
In addition to burdensome bureaucracy, Decree 286 and the new draft decree prohibit CSOs from participating in “political activities” without defining what this means, or any activity that the CCS believes exceeds the limits of an organization’s statutory objectives. . Such vague and oppressive provisions create dangerous opportunities to target activists with politically motivated restrictions.
While Decree 286 and the new draft decree itself do not contain explicit sanctions, violations are punishable under the criminal code and Gaddafi-era legislation. Minor infractions can result in excessively severe penalties, including the closure of CSOs, criminal penalties such as incarceration or freezing of assets, and can even result in life imprisonment or the death penalty. In addition to violating Libya’s obligations under international law and standards to allow CSOs to operate without interference, these decrees risk having a chilling effect on freedom of expression and open debate in the public interest.
Official rhetoric has added to the feeling that the authorities view civil society with suspicion. In 2018, the country’s top religious authority, state-affiliated Dar al-Iftaa, issued a religious advisory opinion calling foreign organizations that carry out advocacy in Libya as spies “with foreign agendas”, which they are damaging the national security and interests of the United States. Libyan people. Such narratives have created a hostile environment for CSOs and their staff, especially those working on human rights and the rule of law.
In healthy democracies, civil society plays a critical role in holding authorities to account, balancing minority rights with majority interests, and empowering local communities. With the elections fast approaching, the interim executive authorities must urgently address seven key priorities, including supporting civil society to defend the rights of all Libyans and encourage broad participation in the political process.
This would increase the likelihood that elections will be free, fair and peaceful, and allow a future government to build legitimacy through a pluralistic platform based on human rights and equality.
The civil society movement that flourished in 2011 was already paralyzed by the armed conflict before Decree 286 was introduced. Without a rapid change of course, Decree 286 and the new draft decree are likely to be another nail in the ground. coffin of Libyan civil society, seriously jeopardizing the country’s hard-won democratic gains just when they are needed most. That is why Lawyers for Justice in Libya has launched a campaign calling on the GNU to immediately revoke Decree 286 and refrain from issuing the new draft decree.
To fulfill its mandate to lead Libya towards reconciliation and fulfill its international human rights obligations, the GNU must act now to remove the repressive measures imposed by the GNA. To build a better future, you must not go back to the past.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.