It was Oct. 1, and we were midway through an 11-day visit to Libya. Our intent was to nurture the development of rule of law by guiding civic and business leaders, government officials, militia fighters, police, judges, young people and even artists through Justice and Security Dialogues. The process empowers communities to create a forum where they can bridge differences and make progress establishing security and justice among all those involved.

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Photo credit: Colette Rausch

And then the U.S. government shut down.

In Libya, representing the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent, nonpartisan organization funded by Congress, we couldn’t – and wouldn’t – take sides. But the questions started coming: how can the United States government, often seen as a template for democracy, shut down and stop its work? Even with all the chaos, violence, and lack of full central government control, we were told, the Libyan government had not ceased its work.

We were also faced with explaining the premise of the dialogues -- that communities need to meet and discuss issues to build a peaceful, democratic society -- all while our own government appeared to be taking the opposite route. Negotiations in the U.S. Congress, one of the most-admired deliberative institutions in the world, had broken down so severely that federal budget authority lapsed, forcing many government offices to shut their doors and furlough some 800,000 workers.

With the implicit hit to our credibility as facilitators and supportive partners, we felt we had to take a step back and reinvest in building trust.

First, some background. USIP and its Rule of Law program have been engaged in Libya since soon after the ouster of Libya’s longtime dictator, Muammar Gadhafi, in 2011. The program engages in a variety of work, including research, workshops, and the dialogues, to help Libya address the many security issues that hamper its emergence from violent revolution and its transition to an entirely new system based on the rule of law.

USIP specialists have criss-crossed much of Libya traveling to the cities hit hardest by the revolution, to remote corners ignored for decades by Gaddafi, and to the various borders with Libya’s neighbors, assessing the country’s prisons, researching intricate challenges of justice and security and offering other expertise wherever we are welcome.  Our colleagues have braved firefights and a car bombing and we put ourselves at risk for the cause of peace as a matter of necessity.  Developing contacts, trust and engagement in such an unstable environment is a long, arduous and sometimes dangerous process that requires no small measure of finesse, diplomacy, risk-taking and determination on both sides. 

So it’s not hard to imagine the puzzlement and frustration of our Libyan colleagues when they learned that other USIP counterparts who had been furloughed back in Washington were prohibited by law from replying to e-mail or otherwise engaging in an official capacity while our government was shut down.  The two of us had been exempted for the work we were doing in the field. By being there, we were able to explain the unanswered e-mails and maintain the constant contact and relationship-building required to make peacebuilding work.

In perhaps a reverse irony, our own government’s challenges ultimately provided us a valuable point of entry for our discussions around Justice and Security Dialogues in Libya.

In one dialogue, a town elder walked us through a document that he and others in his shura council had developed with considerable thought and deliberation.  But as he presented it, others in the room began to fidget and show signs of unease.  The confidence displayed by the presenter was in sharp contrast to some of the others around the table.  So we asked the speaker to pause as we asked the others about their discomfort.

“We have not seen this document before,” said one of the youths at the table.  The elder insisted everyone had been consulted and that he had addressed everybody’s needs.
But then another participant said that he also had not been consulted. 

What we were experiencing was a microcosm of difficulties facing societies and countries the world over.  No matter how well-drafted a law or even a constitution may be, at the end of the day, whether people will follow it often depends on whether they feel “ownership.”   Until then, it is just words on paper.  We have seen many occasions where groups criticize their country’s existing constitution, but what they are really saying is they don’t feel it reflects their own ideas and aspirations. 

In this group, while everyone agreed that the document was thorough and well thought-out, the process used to develop it was not fully transparent, nor did the process involve all different groups in the community. The elders, meanwhile, felt it was their traditional role to provide such guidance. Moreover, many in the room felt they had been waiting for security for over two years, and opening up the process would delay any potential progress. In the end, people saw the need to include the other elements of their society to ensure buy-in and ownership. They would need to find a way to balance this without having to start anew.

Through dialogue, this small group of elders, youth, police, artists, business professionals and others experienced the challenges and benefits of the kind of inclusive process that makes a democracy work. We couldn’t help but think it was a lesson far too often overlooked back home.

Colette Rausch is USIP’s associate vice president for governance, law and society. Christina Murtaugh is a USIP program officer for rule of law.

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