20120314-On-Ground-Libya-usip-staff-TOB.jpg

There was a palpable sense of empowerment and elation from every Libyan I met during my trip there in January, during which I made stops in Benghazi, Tripoli, Zawia and Misrata. At the same time, I observed many in Libya who are feeling the effects of trauma brought on by 42 years of Qaddafi’s rule and the events that brought him down.

I met a gentleman in Zawiyah who had been on the frontlines of protests every day. The revolution, he said, had lifted the veil of collective fear that pervaded the lives of all Libyans. I asked him if he was scared to protest in the town square while snipers took aim at the crowd. His answer was simple: "No." He went on to add that he didn’t care if he died during the revolution because his only two choices were freedom or death. He refused to live in fear for a moment longer.

But one does not protest within firing range of snipers on a daily basis and come away unscathed. While Libyans are still relishing the feelings of excitement of the revolution, many are also experiencing shock and disbelief. It’s as if the revolution happened so violently and too quickly to process. For a significant portion of the population, the actions of the Qaddafi regime during the revolution have left an indelible and painful mark. For them, what they are experiencing is trauma brought on by the horrific events they experienced or witnessed during the revolution. Clinically, their condition would be labeled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

During my trip, I began to understand the source of this trauma. I had the opportunity to stand on the site of the protests and subsequent destruction in Zawia and Misrata, and visit memorials and museums housing pictures of hundreds of people who died -- martyrs -- including young children. I saw photographs of the egregious torture inflicted on civilians by the regime. I also looked at the gaping holes in the homes of ordinary people left by missiles fired indiscriminately.

I spoke with Dr. Essam Gheriani, a psychologist from Benghazi, who described effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and its impact on the rule of law. "Would you want a prison guard with PTSD, in a constant state of 'fight or flight' to be charged with safeguarding the rights of prisoners? What about a police officer intervening in a public order issue, when an underlying PTSD issue may make him or her more prone to escalate force more quickly?" he asked. Later in the trip, I learned that two former rebels who had fought on the frontline during the revolution had committed murders in Misurata. The linkages between PTSD and crime are well established in other contexts, particularly with regard to crimes like domestic violence

There have been media reports in recent weeks of clashes between different groups of revolutionaries. While those clashes occur for different reasons, it did make me wonder how PTSD among former fighters might have contributed to these tensions, and how the disorder could cause an escalation to violence. International rule of law assistance has been deeply criticized from within and outside its community of practice for its failure to have a real impact on post-conflict societies.

As we engage with national stakeholders in the planning and execution of momentous changes to the rule of law sector in Libya, we need to think not only about how trauma impacts crime and violence, but also how it affects the simple ability to build rule of law capacity where it never existed before. This is not just relevant for Libya but for other countries as they undergo similar transitions. It is clear that the answers lie beyond the technical world of law.

Dr. Gheriani said it most succinctly: "Trauma locks a person. And a person who is locked by trauma cannot move forward and cannot engage in constructive change. Certainly, efforts to promote the rule of law will be greatly hindered by a traumatized society". This leads me to conclude that in helping nations that have experienced such horrific violence and brutality transition toward a society based on the rule of law, perhaps the first step forward lies in addressing those issues that are holding them back. USIP’s Rule of Law Center will hold a public event May 14to to address trauma issues and build societal resilience in the aftermath of conflict.

During this event, panelists will examine the phenomenon of trauma and its impacts through the lens of rule of law. Panelists will address how important it is to consider trauma as part of efforts to promote justice, security and the rule of law. And perhaps most important, panelists will share new, innovative approaches to building resilience to the kind of trauma that may be hindering our ability to build rule of law capacity in so many societies emerging from conflict.

Related Publications

Libya: Amid Hope for Peace, Regional Rifts Still Pose Hurdles

Libya: Amid Hope for Peace, Regional Rifts Still Pose Hurdles

Friday, February 26, 2021

By: Simona Ross; Stefan Wolff

Libyans and the United Nations advanced their current effort to end almost a decade of instability and war this month when a U.N.-backed forum nominated an interim government to prepare nationwide elections by the end of 2021. The new transitional government brings hope that this process—the third major U.N. peace effort in Libya—might lead to stability. Still, achieving lasting peace will require that the process address the main underlying driver of conflict: the divisions among Libya’s three main regions, notably over how to organize the government. It also will need the United States and other countries to support the transitional government and hold Libya’s contesting sides accountable.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes; Democracy & Governance

Libya 10 Years After Revolution: To Forgive or Forget

Libya 10 Years After Revolution: To Forgive or Forget

Thursday, February 18, 2021

By: Esra Elbakoush; Nate Wilson

This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the uprising that overthrew the four-decade dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi. In the intervening decade, Libya has been mired in conflict and political gridlock, exacerbated by competing power centers and longstanding tribal hostilities. What’s more, a host of foreign powers have entered the fray, looking to pursue their own interests rather than build a peaceful Libya. While there is momentum toward peace in recent months, Libyans will have to decide for themselves how to arrive at reconciliation and build a roadmap to get to a sustainable peace. But what does that look like?

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes; Reconciliation

The Current Situation in Libya

The Current Situation in Libya

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Eight years after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya continues to struggle to end its violent conflict and build state institutions. External actors have exacerbated Libya’s problems by funneling money and weapons to proxies that have put personal interests above those of the Libyan people.

Type: Fact Sheet

Libya: Peace Talks Advance, But Will Need Local Support

Libya: Peace Talks Advance, But Will Need Local Support

Thursday, November 19, 2020

By: Nate Wilson

Libyans have taken an uncertain step toward ending nearly a decade of civil war, agreeing in U.N.-mediated talks to hold national elections in December 2021. The discussions, in the neighboring capital, Tunis, fell short of yielding a transitional government to oversee the elections and the establishment of a new constitution. The talks are shortly to resume. From Tunis, USIP’s Nate Wilson notes that the step is positive for a country that began 2020 with a surge in warfare and the involvement of foreign forces. Making this peace effort effective will require restraining that foreign involvement, he says, and will need to ground the talks in grassroots support.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

View All Publications