In 2011, Libyans took to the streets to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi after 42 years of dictatorship. Amid the upheaval, diverse communities organised to demand greater rights, justice and equality. For the first time, a more democratic future seemed within reach.
Ten years on, the opening of civic space is under threat, and not just from Libya’s numerous militias and armed groups. In a disturbingly authoritarian turn, subsequent Libyan authorities have used Gaddafi-era laws and new repressive measures, seemingly aimed at making it impossible for civil society organisations (CSOs) to operate freely.
If national elections scheduled for December 24 2021 are to be free and fair and the outcome accepted, the newly formed interim Government of National Unity (GNU) must live up to its name, roll back these measures and allow all Libyans to 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, individuals from all walks of life raised their voices to air grievances left unaddressed for decades and demanded accountability for the many brutal crimes committed under Gaddafi.
The sense of hope, however, was short-lived, as divisions deepened and conflict erupted. Lawyers, journalists, activists, human rights defenders, members of parliament and others have been harassed, attacked, forcibly disappeared and murdered with impunity. Recently, calls for accountability have focussed on the lawless militias that have ruled in Gaddafi’s wake.
Despite the dangers, many Libyans have taken great risks to advocate for change. Rather than rising to the challenge, in 2019 the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) issued Decree 286, introducing draconian restrictions on CSOs with sinister echoes of Gaddafi-era repression. Rather than roll back these measures, the current Government of National Unity (GNU) looks set to continue this disturbing trend by preparing to issue a new decree imposing further restrictions.
Decree 286 regulates the work and activities of governmental Commission of Civil Society (CCS) and requires CSOs to re-register. However, it does not specify the grounds on which 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 does not state how it will work or what its composition would be.
Some CSOs that have tried to re-register have faced significant bureaucratic obstacles. When they have tried to challenge them, the CCS has threatened some with arrest, explaining that they were trying to “filter and liquidate problematic CSOs.” In other words, independent non-governmental organisations speaking out against 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 seek permission to engage with international organisations in any form. Such restrictions are in clear violation of international law, standards and best practices aimed at protecting freedom of association.
In addition to onerous red tape, Decree 286 and the new draft decree prohibit CSOs from engaging in “political activity” without defining what this means, or any activities which the CCS believes exceed the bounds of an organisation’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 themselves do not contain explicit penalties, violations are punishable under the penal code and Gaddafi-era legislation. Minor breaches can lead to excessively harsh penalties, including the closure of CSOs, criminal sanctions such as imprisonment or asset freezes, and could even result in life imprisonment or the death penalty. As well as violating Libya’s obligations under international law and standards to enable CSOs to operate without interference, these decrees risk a chilling effect on freedom of expression and open debate in the public interest.
Official rhetoric has added to the sense that the authorities view civil society with suspicion. In 2018, the highest religious authority in the country, the state-affiliated Dar al-Iftaa, issued an advisory religious opinion calling foreign organisations which conduct advocacy in Libya spies “with foreign agendas”, which are harming national security and the interests of the 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 vital role in holding the authorities accountable, balancing minority rights against majoritarian interests and strengthening local communities. With 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 the elections will be free, fair and peaceful, and enable a future government to build legitimacy through a pluralist platform based on human rights and equality.
The civil society movement that bloomed in 2011 was already becoming paralysed by the armed conflict before Decree 286 was introduced. Without a swift change of course, Decree 286 and the new draft decree are likely to be another nail in the coffin of Libyan civil society, putting the country’s hard-won democratic gains at serious risk 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 fulfil its mandate of moving Libya towards reconciliation and meet its international human rights obligations, the GNU must act now to scrap the repressive measures that the GNA imposed. To build a better future, there must be no return to the past.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.