Libya’s interim government must end civil society crackdown

In 2011, Libyans took to the streets to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi after 42 years of dictatorship. Amid the upheaval, diverse communities organised to demand greater rights, justice and equality. For the first time, a more democratic future seemed within reach.Ten years on, the opening of civic space is under threat, and not just from Libya’s numerous 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 organisations (CSOs) to operate freely.If national elections scheduled for December 24 2021 are to be free and fair and the outcome accepted, the newly formed interim Government of National Unity (GNU) must live up to its name, roll back these measures and allow all Libyans to participate freely in the democratic process.One of the most positive legacies of the 2011 uprising was the birth of a vibrant civil society movement. Across the country, individuals from all walks of life raised their voices to air grievances left unaddressed for decades and demanded accountability for the many brutal crimes committed under Gaddafi.The sense of hope, however, was short-lived, as divisions deepened and conflict erupted. Lawyers, journalists, activists, human rights defenders, members of parliament and others have been harassed, attacked, forcibly disappeared and murdered with impunity. Recently, calls for accountability have focussed on 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 rising to the challenge, in 2019 the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) issued Decree 286, introducing draconian restrictions on CSOs with sinister echoes of Gaddafi-era repression. Rather than roll back these measures, the current Government of National Unity (GNU) looks set to continue this disturbing trend by preparing to issue a new decree imposing further restrictions.

Decree 286 regulates the work and activities of governmental Commission of Civil Society (CCS) and requires CSOs to re-register. However, it does not specify the grounds on which registration can be rejected, leaving the process open to arbitrariness and abuse. The draft decree currently being considered by the GNU would create a new CCS but does not state how it will work or what its composition would be.Some CSOs that have tried to re-register have faced significant bureaucratic obstacles. When they have tried to challenge them, the CCS has threatened some with arrest, explaining that they were trying to “filter and liquidate problematic CSOs.” In other words, independent non-governmental organisations speaking out against human rights violations committed by the government and affiliated militias

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