The Middle East Channel

Libya's human rights problem

Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) warmly accepted the international community's military and political support for dislodging the Qaddafi government, and vowed to build a new state that would respect human rights. But it seems to be veering off course. Not only is it rejecting international human rights monitoring and the ICC's jurisdiction, but more troubling still, it has passed some shockingly bad laws, mimicking Qaddafi laws criminalizing political dissent and granting blanket immunity to any crimes committed in "support" of the revolution.

The NTC has a lot on its hands, and building a new administration from the ground up is no small feat. Its biggest challenge has been asserting authority over the armed groups in most towns, villages and city neighborhoods who are responsible for most abuses in post-Qaddafi Libya. The militias hold about 5,000 of the country's roughly 8,000 detainees. Some have been held for up to a year, outside Libyan law, without any charge or judicial process. Numerous cases of torture and even deaths in custody have been documented.

In Misrata, militias have terrorized the people of nearby Tawergha for their perceived loyalty to the Qaddafi government. Misrata militias have arrested Tawerghans, tortured and killed some in custody, and blocked about 30,000 people from returning home. In March, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Libya described these abuses as "serious violations, including war crimes" and, incredibly, crimes against humanity -- and urged ongoing monitoring by the U.N. Human Rights Council.

But when the council met to consider the report, Libyan government representatives in Geneva adamantly rejected any proposed language in a resolution (named "Assistance to Libya in the Field of Human Rights") that would urge the government to address the abuses the Commission of Inquiry documented -- by releasing those arbitrarily detained and ensuring fair trials, for example, or allowing U.N. monitoring. The Libyans were delighted to accept "technical assistance," though.

The United States and several European Union states vetoed these proposals as well, eager to prove the Libya military intervention a success, and effectively turned a blind eye to the country's current serious human rights problems. The Friends of Libya relied on the international Responsibility to Protect to justify intervening in Qaddafi's crimes against humanity, but now ignore it when those committing the crimes are the militias they supported last year.

Libya's NTC had a similar about-face in its apparently short-lived commitment to international justice. When fighting a civil war last year, it applauded the U.N. Security Council's referral of Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC), welcomed the arrest warrants for Qaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and his intelligence chief Abdullah Sanussi, and pledged full cooperation. But it seems that Libya's new rulers have no more use for the court.

The government has yet to hand over Saif al-Islam and appealed a recent decision by the ICC judges asking Libya to surrender him. Instead it seeks to persuade the ICC that, although a Zintan militia has held Saif al-Islam without judicial review since his capture in November 2011, the NTC will give him a fair trial. It has also insisted that Mauritania hand over the captured Sanussi for trial in Libya. If the government refuses to comply with the ICC's order, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that the NTC merely used the ICC as a political tool against Qaddafi, rather than as a tool of justice for the citizens of a nation long deprived of independent courts.

It is also hard to avoid the conclusion that while the NTC has talked a good game about human rights, it's commitment to free expression and dissent is in doubt. Almost a year ago, the NTC passed a "constitutional covenant" pledging to respect human rights treaties, freedom of expression, and political pluralism. But it has proceeded to pass laws that have no appreciation for what these ideas actually mean.

In a crude cut-and-paste of Qaddafi's penal code, this month the NTC passed Law 37, criminalizing "insults against the people of Libya or its institutions" and criticism of the 2011 revolution or glorification of its deposed leader. (Article 195 of the Qaddafi code in turn criminalized criticizing his 1969 revolution). In a similar vein, the NTC's regulations ban any candidate who may have opposed the recent revolution or "glorified" Qaddafi.

And despite a stated commitment to establishing respect for law and an end to impunity, the NTC has instead delivered Law 38, granting blanket immunity for criminals, if they committed crimes for the good of the revolution, and barring suits against them. Effectively, this means that there will never be any investigation or prosecution of militia members who apparently executed dozens of detained pro-Qaddafi forces and supporters, and drove out entire communities perceived as loyal to him. These are hardly reassuring developments for the rule of law in the new Libya.

Some Western officials say that Libya's transitional authorities need a break after four decades of Qaddafi and months of harsh conflict. Many Libyan officials echo this claim, calling for "space" and "understanding." But it is exactly things like human rights monitoring and pressure to respect international legal obligations that will help Libya's transition. Giving Libya a pass during the transition is a recipe for more problems down the road.

Sarah Leah Whitson is Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.


The Middle East Channel

Israelis and Palestinians strike prison deal ahead of “Nakba” protests

An estimated 1,600 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have agreed to end a hunger strike that has lasted nearly a month in a deal brokered by Egypt and assisted by Jordan after Israel promised better conditions. Three Palestinian men began the hunger strike on February 28, refusing food for 77 days, and were joined by almost one third of the Palestinian prisoners in one of the longest and largest hunger strikes. The attorney for two of the men who have been fasting the longest and are reported to be nearing death, Bilal Diab and Taer Halahleh, has said the two will continue their strike. Israel has agreed to allow family visits for around 400 prisoners from Gaza for the first time since 2006 and about 20 prisoners who have been held in solitary confinement have been returned to the general prison population. Israeli officials, have not committed to halting the practice of detention without levying formal charges or holding trials, called "administrative detentions." However, it appears that the prison sentences for those currently held without charge will not have their sentences extended. In exchange, the Palestinian prisoners have committed to "completely halt terrorist activity inside Israeli prisons." Both the Israelis and Palestinians were eager to negotiate an end to the hunger strike to diffuse tensions prior to the "Nakba," or catastrophe, celebrated by Israelis as the anniversary of their 1948 declaration of independence and commemorated by Palestinians with protests. 


The militant group in Syria, Al-Nusra Front, has denied responsibility for two suicide car bombs last Thursday that targeted a security complex and killed at least 55 people. The group released a statement on jihadist forums after a video had been posted claiming the organization had committed the attacks in response to regime bombings of residential areas. Al-Nusra Front said, "this video as well as the statement appearing in it are fabricated and...full of errors." Meanwhile, the Syrian government has announced the results of last week's parliamentary elections which they reported had a 51 percent voter turnout. The opposition boycotted the election they called a "farce." According to the Guardian, the results were difficult to interpret. The Syrian National Council has reelected Burhan Ghalioun of the opposition group in exile. Ghalioun has the backing of the Gulf States and France, but has been criticized for his inability to unify the opposition.


  • After three days of intense clashes in Tripoli, the Lebanese armed forces put a stop to the fighting, which has been attributed by some as spillover from the Syria conflict.
  • Air strikes in the southern Yemeni province of Abyan killed 42 people including suspected al Qaeda militants and civilians.
  • Iran hanged Majid Jamili Fashi who was accused of being an Israeli Mossad agent convicted for killing a suspected Iranian nuclear scientist.
  • Human Rights Watch reported that a secret prison and alleged torture site that was ordered to be closed over a year ago is still operating in Iraq.

Arguments and Analysis

‘An unsettling situation' (Bill Van Esveld,

"What should Europe do about Israel's construction of settlements and destruction of Palestinians' homes and other property on the West Bank? When the Foreign Affairs Council discusses this issue on Monday (14 May), its priority should be to replace the current, incoherent approach with a strategy based on clear principles. Europe provides millions of euros in humanitarian aid to Palestinians harmed by Israel's settlement policies. These same policies have hindered aid efforts: the Israeli military has destroyed European-funded projects, and imposes planning restrictions that have reduced European donors to assisting Palestinians rendered homeless."

‘Syria's Muslim Brotherhood is gaining influence over anti-Assas revolt' (Liz Sly, Washington Post)

"After three decades of persecution that virtually eradicated its presence, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has resurrected itself to become the dominant group in the fragmented opposition movement pursuing a 14-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Exiled Brotherhood members and their supporters hold the biggest number of seats in the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group. They control its relief committee, which distributes aid and money to Syrians participating in the revolt. The Brotherhood is also moving on its own to send funding and weapons to the rebels, who continued to skirmish Saturday with Syrian troops despite a month-old U.N.-brokered cease-fire."

‘Building Libya's new media ‘from a void'" (D. Parvaz, Al Jazeera English)

"Going from being a country with a highly controlled press to one that has free, independent and functioning media in roughly a year is a tall order. This is true even for Libyans, who, last year, did what seemed impossible, and freed their nation from Muammar Gaddafi's iron grip. But Gaddafi's four-decade rule has left its scars everywhere, including the nation's newsrooms, which, for so long, acted as nothing more than the propaganda machine of the "Brother-Leader". Despite the initial revolutionary surge of entrepreneurial journalists, finally free to report on the horrors of the Gaddafi era, what remains is a struggle to understand the type of media a budding democracy needs - and what it takes to build it."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

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