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?

Buildings in ruins in the historic center of Benghazi, Libya, Jan 20, 2020, after years of conflict to drive out the Islamic State group and fighting between warring factions. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Buildings in ruins in the historic center of Benghazi, Libya, Jan 20, 2020, after years of conflict to drive out the Islamic State group and fighting between warring factions. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

Should Libyans employ a transitional justice process, with support from the international community, focusing on adjudicating the past through measures like truth commissions? Or should they aim for a stable environment where there is less emphasis on accountability or truth-telling, and more on mercy and moving forward? These aims are, of course, not mutually exclusive. However, it does bring up questions of the steps needed, in which order, and the ultimate vision for pursuing both transitional justice and stability, which are interdependent processes. 

Qaddafi’s 42-year reign covered up existing differences between groups and regions while creating a whole new set of hierarchies and grievances, including the human rights violations that sparked the revolution itself. So, the challenge is not just to address the last 10 years of civil war, but decades of animosity and grudges.

An Opening for Peace?

Three years after Qaddafi was a deposed, a 2014 election led to two competing centers of power, the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli in the west and a separate eastern-based parliament in Tobruk affiliated with the forces of Khalifa Haftar. Meanwhile the country’s South, known as Fezzan, has remained as marginalized as it was during Qaddafi’s reign. Haftars’ Libyan Arab Armed Forces launched an assault to capture Tripoli in April 2019 that led to further involvement from foreign powers already involved in the civil war.

By October 2020, negotiators from the warring sides signed a cease-fire. And in February of this year, a deal to form an interim unity government to replace the competing authorities was struck. Libya is now at a critical political juncture with major powers, represented by the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, focused on holding national elections on December 24 of this year. The new Government of National Unity (GNU), which emerged from the U.N.-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, plans to oversee this transitional period and focus on unifying split government institutions, preparing and holding elections, and distributing oil revenue transparently and fairly, among other things. Yet after 10 years of civil war, Libyans remain pessimistic, as the historical realities of conflict in their country often remain ignored by the international community.

Libyans Must Decide on Coexistence or ‘Thick’ Reconciliation—or Both

Since 2011, the international community has arrived with creative but pre-made solutions that do not fit the Libyan context. A relevant example was the push for parliamentary elections in June 2014 even as the country saw sporadic fighting, resulting in low turnout. The U.N. also supported development of Libya’s national defense even as the regional rivalries and local tensions escalated. Essentially, the international community and Libyans alike ignored 42 years of dictatorship, assuming post-2011 tension was a result of the revolution that divided the country into pro- and anti-Qaddafi sides. This assumption has contributed to delays in dealing with any issues related to transitional justice and reconciliation, as root causes of conflict were papered over.

On a recent episode of the USIP-supported radio show “Youth Platforms,” a brief conversation between the host and one of the guests highlighted the negative impact that the word “reconciliation” had on the community and how it feels forced. People are more comfortable participating in trust-building activities that are not branded this way, and this is not unique to Libya’s South. The guest, Khadija Issa, who is the head of a local organization in Sebha, the South’s capital, spoke about the work she and a group of other women did back in 2016 targeting youth from Tebu and Tuareg, two key minority groups largely concentrated in Fezzan. She managed to bring together youth from among internally displaced persons  who left the city of Ubari as a result of the war between the two tribes. One of the outcomes of the forum was an agreement to reduce violence and to refrain from channeling the ongoing tension in Ubari. Issa said it was achieved because the group avoided the term “reconciliation.”

The host of “Youth Platforms,” Amira Nuri, agreed with Issa that on multiple occasions she received pushback from youth while talking about reconciliation saying that it adds pressure that makes people uncomfortable. They are expected to “make concessions and commitments that they may not be ready for despite their openness to deal with the other party.”

This gets at the heart of the choices of how Libyans have to decide for themselves how to pursue reconciliation and whether it will be “thin” or “thick.” As the International Center for Transitional Justice describes it, “[‘thin’ reconciliation] is based on coexistence with little or no trust, respect and shared values, [while ‘thick’ reconciliation] is based on the restoration of dignity, reversing structural causes of marginalization and discrimination, and restoring victims to their position as rights bearers and citizens.” While it is not a question of one or the other, meeting people where they are and sequencing are critical to getting it right.

Libyans must decide how to move forward as the country faces the prospect of navigating an extremely fragile political transition with pressure, often from international parties, to implement transitional justice processes. Transitional justice goals are daunting in the best of circumstances, and Libya’s current situation—and history—adds layers of complexity to achieving non-recurrence of crimes, truth-telling, holding perpetrators accountable, providing reparations for victims, and government reform. It may not be the time to remember and adjudicate this painful history.

Despite being ignored or misunderstood, this history still impacts Libya’s conflict dynamics today as latent conflict is passed from generation to generation. Tribal and traditional dispute resolution models in Libya generally seek to arrive at thin reconciliation, forgetting—or at least not dealing with directly—the grievances stemming from history. In these agreements, it is easy to overlook root causes of conflict. If anything, many of the conflicts emerging in Libya after 2011 proved that despite the passage of years, many of the outstanding conflicts, even historical ones, will explode one day. Regarding transitional justice, the international community has not been clear about the ultimate goal and how and what kind of reconciliation will be achieved. Due to the lack of clarity about the transitional justice goals and concurrent political processes, Libyans have necessarily tended to revert to violence to achieve their goals.

What Can the International Community Do?

When the U.N. first established its mission in Libya back in 2011, it had a light footprint, aiming to empower national ownership of peacebuilding in the post-Qaddafi era even though the international community was heavily involved in overthrowing Qaddafi. But the country was ill-equipped for a swift transition to democracy after four decades of dictatorship. The 2014 elections and the violence and division that emerged after put this on full display.

So how can the international community today help facilitate walking this balance between transitional justice and accountability and Libya’s fragile peace process? One way is to convene grassroots dialogues to collaborate on solving local problems. Such dialogues can demonstrate how people can work together to overcome obstacles and lay the groundwork for working on root causes of conflict. While the GNU may be a step in the right direction, a top-down process is critical but not enough. Bottom-up, collaborative problem-solving dialogues can be important means for building long-term confidence. Concurrently, the international community can host a national dialogue to discuss Libyan identity and other critical issues that are vital to achieving thick reconciliation. This can also identify potential problems related to a transitional justice process, and solutions to overcome them.

The international community will also need to discuss among the various stakeholders what its real goals are in Libya and, more specifically, how to balance transitional justice goals with stability—including political, military, social, and economic. Without a clear understanding of the interplay between the two and the tradeoffs associated with different choices, there is a real risk of undermining goals related to both. But ultimately it is up to Libyans to decide—not the international community and powers that have interfered in Libya’s conflict—about their goals and how to achieve them in their country.

The international community has responsibilities toward Libya, including acting on the pending warrants against Libyan figures like Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi and others alleged of committing crimes against humanity. Addressing such cases will encourage the state to similarly act on many of the thorny and pending issues at the heart of transitional justice in Libya. The international community will have to humbly work to support Libyans to clarify a vision that balances stability with a thick reconciliation, one where actors’ roles are clarified, and steps are coordinated to achieve this vision. Without this, the state will remain weak and society will either achieve mere thin reconciliation or fall back into violent conflict.

For years it has seemed to Libyans as though the international community was rushing them to reach stability and peace by encouraging them to turn a blind eye to some of the difficult issues that would complicate thick reconciliation in the long term. This came with a flood of new terms and concepts imported into Libyan society, as well as policies that can often be difficult for state institutions, which Qaddafi hollowed out during his reign, to understand and implement. Foreign powers will have to answer for any harm done to Libya, and this might be part of their appraisal of the value of a transitional justice process, or lack thereof. In the end, reconciling will come down to Libyans’ negotiating among themselves supported by well-intentioned members of the international community, not an imposed process.

Esra Elbakoush is a senior project officer for Libya at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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