Every time I hear about one more in a rash of targeted killings of influential figures across Libya, I’m disheartened by the thought that much of the instability and chaos plaguing the North African country is neither unexpected nor unique to Libya.

Collected munitions and memorabilia such as a war-martyr poster outside the Martyr's Museum in Misurata, Libya, January 2012.
Collected munitions and memorabilia such as a war-martyr poster outside the Martyr's Museum in Misurata, Libya, January 2012. Colette Rausch/USIP

Nearly every war-torn country returning from conflict faces similar challenges and setbacks.  Even more disturbing is that much of the mayhem is deliberate and can be attributed to the same profile of bad actors and motives, regardless of conflict or continent.

In 2006, I was a contributing author and the editor of Combating Serious Crimes in Postconflict Societies: A Handbook for Policymakers and Practitioners, which was made available online at no cost. In it, more than 40 seasoned practitioners--judges and generals, prosecutors and human rights activists, scholars and government officials from across the world--explore in detail the causes and motivations behind much of the instability that inevitably follows conflict.

Libya, a country I have come to know and love and whose people I greatly admire, showcases the challenges that must be overcome as war-torn nations strive for normalcy and a return to (or an embrace of for the first time) rule of law and good governance. As of Aug. 8, for example, more than 50 people have been assassinated in a wave of political killings in the cities of Benghazi and Derna in eastern Libya, according to Human Rights Watch.

In January 2012 and May 2012, I traveled to many of the Libyan town centers that bore the brunt of the fighting during the bloody civil war that led to the ouster of long-time dictator Muammar Gadhafi in October 2011. USIP held workshops on rule of law in Benghazi, Tripoli, Misrata, and Zawiya.  Our team worked to convey the many challenges, pitfalls and opportunities Libyans will likely face as they endeavor to build from scratch a system of governance that reflects the will of the people, based on a fair and equitable application of the rule of law.

Although it is different in every country, there are always certain dynamics of human nature that are entirely predictable.  When a country like Libya endures such widespread and dramatic change and wholesale revamping of its institutions and structure of governance, a power vacuum initially develops, and uncertainty is exploited by disparate groups with questionable motivations.

That grim reality is one of the most difficult to convey to conflict-affected populations, who are often euphoric after having overcome tremendous challenges and sacrificing so dearly to achieve their lofty and admirable goals.

After all, it is during the rebirth of a nation when those groups who pushed and fought for reform are the most optimistic, political groups are still unified in having triumphed together against a common foe, and the bad actors and traditional spoilers, meanwhile, find themselves disorganized, scared, scarred, flat-footed and licking their wounds.

Sadly, time is on the side of the spoilers.

Once-unified coalitions often begin to unravel as their attention turns to consolidating their gains.  In Libya, for example, where various tribes and militias fought side by side to make victory possible, convincing them now to lay down their arms and rejoin society is a tall order, demanding enormous amounts of trust in the country’s fledgling new government.  It also requires that, for the common good, they cede some of the power that they now hold.

In addition to competing political factions maneuvering to ensure dominance in the new system, corruption and crime (including organized crime and political violence) undermine the establishment of law and order.  In Libya today, many of the most prominent assassinations are alleged to have been politically motivated, but not all.   Drug traffickers have begun battling for access to Libya’s strategic ports and shipping lanes, often to gain access to markets in Europe and generating waves of crime, including targeted killings.

Yet Libya is being asked to not only develop institutions from the ground up, including security structures, but to also create a new social contract in which citizens are no longer passive recipients of what the government is offering but instead an integral part of the solution.

I once traveled to a militia-run prison, where the warden explained that he was a successful businessman before the revolution.  After the revolution, he decided that, given everything he had been through and the violence he had experienced, he couldn’t pick up where he had left off. Instead, he chose to remain the warden of the prison run by the militia he commanded. Yet he had no training on how one runs a prison consistent with international human rights standards, and he has faced criticism for not yet living up to these standards. A country that has never known a culture of “lawfulness” cannot be expected to achieve it overnight.

This paradox perfectly illustrates one of the most important points both the international community and societies emerging from conflict should heed: Countries emerging from the shadows of a repressive government face the burden of transforming institutions that had been designed solely to protect the state and political elite into structures that represent the society at large and ensure equal protections under the rule of law.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke this week by telephone with newly appointed Libyan Minister of Defense Abdullah al-Thani and reiterated the American government’s support for the country’s transition. “The two leaders discussed how the United States military can assist training for Libyan security forces and strengthening regional security through stability and rule of law,” according to a statement from Pentagon Press Secretary George Little. It’s one element of a range of technical assistance that experts convening at The Atlantic Council last week said Libya would need to stabilize and advance its newfound democracy. USIP’s rule-of-law assistance to Libya includes frequent workshops for Libyan civic activists, government officials and military officers there and during exchange or training visits to the U.S.

For transitional countries like Libya, an entirely new, sometimes alien, form of government must be stood up from the ashes of conflict. The new system is freighted with the public – and international – expectation that, rather than meting out violence and human rights abuses, it will deliver accountability, transparency, and justice.

All of this requires equal amounts of determination and patience from all the parties involved. One factor that can tilt the scales in favor of rule of law is being fully aware of the playbook, motivation, and tactics of those who would obstruct it.   

Colette Rausch is director of rule-of-law programs at USIP.

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