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In 2011, Libyans took to the streets to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi’s regime after 42 years of dictatorship. Amid the turmoil, various communities organized to demand greater rights, justice and equality. For the first time, a more democratic future seemed within reach.
Ten years later, the opening of public space is under threat, and not just from the numerous Libyan militias and armed groups. In a disturbingly authoritarian turn, subsequent Libyan authorities have used Gaddafi-era laws and new repressive measures, seemingly aimed at making it impossible for civil society organizations (CSOs) to operate freely.
If the national elections scheduled for December 24, 2021 are to be free and fair and the result accepted, the newly formed Interim Government of National Unity (GNU) must live up to its name, reverse these measures and allow all Libyans to participate freely. to participate in the democratic process.
One of the most positive legacies of the 2011 uprising was the birth of a vibrant citizen movement. Across the country, individuals from all walks of life raised their voices to air their grievances that had gone unsolved for decades and demanded responsibility for the many brutal crimes committed under Gaddafi.
The sense of hope was short-lived, however, as divisions deepened and conflict erupted. Lawyers, journalists, activists, human rights defenders, MPs and others have been harassed, assaulted, forcibly disappeared and murdered with impunity. Of late, the call for accountability has been directed at the lawless militias that have ruled in Gaddafi’s wake.
Despite the dangers, many Libyans have taken great risks to advocate for change. Rather than rise to the challenge, the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) issued Decree 286 in 2019, introducing draconian restrictions on civil society organizations with sinister echoes of Gaddafi-era repression. Rather than roll back these measures, the current government of national unity (GNU) appears to be continuing this worrying trend by preparing to issue a new decree impose further restrictions.
Decree 286 regulates the work and activities of the Government Civil Society Commission (CCS) and requires civil society organizations to re-register. However, it does not specify the grounds on which registration can be refused, leaving the process open to arbitrariness and abuse. The draft decree currently under study by the GNU would create a new CCS, but does not specify how it will work or what its composition would be.
Some CSOs that have attempted to re-register have faced significant bureaucratic hurdles. When they tried to challenge them, the CCS threatened some with arrest, explaining that they were trying to “filter and liquidate problematic CSOs”. In other words, independent non-governmental organizations that speak out against human rights violations by the government and affiliated militias.
Among other things, Decree 286 and the new draft decree also require civil society organizations to obtain prior approval from the CCS to raise funds, open a bank account or participate in public events, and civil society organizations registering must request permission to participate in any form to get in touch with international organizations . Such restrictions are a clear violation of international law, standards and best practices aimed at protecting the freedom of association.
In addition to heavy red tape, Decree 286 and the new draft Decree prohibit civil society organizations from engaging in “political activities” without defining what this means, or activities that, according to the CCS, exceed the limits of an organization’s statutory objectives. Such vague and oppressive provisions create dangerous opportunities to attack activists with politically motivated disabilities.
While Decree 286 and the new draft decree itself do not contain explicit sanctions, violations are punishable under the Penal Code and Gaddafi-era legislation. Minor violations can lead to extremely severe penalties, including the closure of civil society organizations, criminal penalties such as imprisonment or asset freezing, and can even lead to life imprisonment or the death penalty. These decrees not only violate Libya’s obligations under international law and standards to enable civil society organizations to operate without interference, but also risk a chilling effect on freedom of expression and open debate in the public interest.
Official rhetoric has contributed to a feeling that authorities view civil society with suspicion. In 2018, the country’s top religious authority, state-affiliated Dar al-Iftaa, issued a religious advisory that called foreign organizations advocating advocacy in Libya spies “with foreign agendas,” protecting national security and interests. of the Libyan people. Such stories have created a hostile environment for civil society organizations and their staff, especially those concerned with human rights and the rule of law.
In healthy democracies, civil society plays a vital role in holding authorities to account, balancing minority rights against the interests of the majority and strengthening local communities. With elections fast approaching, the interim executive authorities urgently need to deal with seven main priorities, including supporting civil society to defend the rights of all Libyans and encouraging broad participation in the political process.
This would increase the likelihood that the elections will be free, fair and peaceful, and allow a future government to build legitimacy through a pluralistic platform based on human rights and equality.
The civil movement that flourished in 2011 was paralyzed by the armed conflict before Decree 286 was introduced. Without a swift change of course, Decree 286 and the new draft decree are likely to be another nail in the coffin of Libyan civil society, seriously jeopardizing the country’s hard-won democratic gains just when they are most needed. That is why Lawyers for Justice in Libya has: launched a campaign call on the GNU to immediately repeal Decree 286 and refrain from issuing the new draft decree.
To fulfill its mandate to move Libya towards reconciliation and to fulfill its international human rights obligations, the GNU must act now to abolish the repressive measures imposed by the GNA. To build a better future, there must be no return to the past.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.
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