Human Rights in Libya: An Interview with a Libyan Activist Navigating Political Unrest

Note: PolicyMic Contributing Writer Dalia Malek conducted this exclusive interview with a Libyan lawyer and human rights activist in Tunis, Tunisia. The lawyer has asked that her identity, as well as that of her organization, remain anonymous for the sake of the safety of her and her colleagues’ families in Libya.

With Gaddafi’s armed forces still relentless, both his opposition and civilians caught in the cross fire face human rights violations and casualties as the crisis continues in Libya. Meanwhile, a group of Libyan lawyers have come together as human rights activists to form an organization responding to the situation on the ground. One of their members tells PolicyMic about the sensitive work of human rights activists in this context of severe unrest, working around the challenges of self-censorship, and the international response to the Libyan crisis. 

Dalia Malek (DM): How have you decided to respond to the situation in Libya, and what do you hope to achieve with this organization?

Interviewee (I): Mainly we’re helping people on the ground, collecting evidence, and answering questions about human rights issues or international humanitarian law issues that come up from the fact that we have an armed conflict. There is the short-term hope of bringing perpetrators of the events of 15 February to justice. And in the longer term, bringing perpetrators of abuses throughout the regime’s history to justice in order to build a more just country which appreciates the rule of law through assisting with legal and constitutional reform.

DM: What are the greatest challenges directly affecting your work?

I: Immediately, there are challenges that the most vicious atrocities are being committed in areas where we can’t access people on the ground because of security risks. Our goal is that we don’t want to put people in danger … it’s very disempowering because you want to help but you can’t always pick up the phone and talk to someone because you might put that person in danger.

DM: What about the fact that you and your colleagues sometimes feel the need to remain anonymous about your work—how do you do that while also letting those you assist know about your organization?

I: It’s something that as Libyans we’re used to. You learn at an early age how to code your language and censor it. It’s motivational in a way because we all hope for a day where we don’t have to worry about our families at home, or that trying to do the right thing gets you in trouble. It’s a small way of trying to get reform so that people can speak and not fear for their lives or their families’ lives. Practically, it means that we should not speak to people who are in danger zones or in liberated areas. We ensure that we use communications that are not as easy to monitor. We shouldn’t in any way underestimate the dangers on the ground.

Ben Ghazi is mainly the one place that feels like it’s definitely free. Other areas go back and forth between the pro-Gaddafi and anti-Gaddafi forces. You don’t want to create a situation where a person feels he can speak freely and then is persecuted because the town has been taken.

DM: How would you compare the role of activists like yourself in Libya prior to the uprising with the current situation? Is there a difference?

I: I don’t think there were activists in Libya before (laughs). None of us were activists before this. We were all lawyers doing private practice, doing work outside Libya. We came together and started this work as a reaction to what is happening in Libya. I’m the only person in our organization who was a human rights practitioner. I didn’t think I would be able to work in Libya. I’d either have to work for the benefits of Libyans outside Libya or for the benefits of non-Libyans inside Libya.

DM: What should human rights activists in the region be doing now that we have seen various revolutions and uprisings take starkly different turns?

I: Governments are getting more ruthless because each one learns from the previous one. Every movement needs to be more collaborative or structured than the previous one in order to understand the States that are getting more prepared for them. Everyone was surprised by Tunisia and shocked by Egypt. As a result you got a very violent reaction in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. Human rights activists need to anticipate the States and be armed — not with force, but be able to record violations early on. I think you need to have strong organization and critical mass behind the movements so you can withstand the might of these long-standing states.

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