Language of Rights Episode 22April 21, 2022

22: Part 1 – A high stakes struggle to secure rights and justice for Libya

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

With the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, four decades of tyranny came to an end and Libya experienced an all too brief period of optimism – its own Arab Spring. But the hopes were overwritten by a lawless and violent competition for power and resources, egged on by foreign actors keen to access the country’s mineral wealth.  If you were an advocate of justice and human rights in a democratic state of laws, where did that leave you? How could you advance your vision in such conditions? Human rights lawyer Elham Saudi was eventually forced into exile by hostile militias but she tells host Akwe Amosu how she and the rest of civil society are keeping the flame alive, albeit at great personal cost.  And in the Coda, Guatemalan activist Gabriel Wer shares a haunting poem by Argentinian poet Juan Gelman on keeping faith with the country and culture that made you, even if you have to leave.

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The Interview

‘I had to leave because of severe threats to my life and my family’

Civil society, says Elham Saudi, is the only sector trying to hold those with power in Libya to account and they don’t like it:  “So whether it’s through legal threats, or shutdowns, or controls on your funding, people trolling you systematically online to force you from the public space, or shooting you in the middle of the street, it all sends a clear message.”  Yet, she says, grassroots attitudes to justice and accountability are more thoughtful and determined now than a decade ago.

The Coda

Keeping faith with your country – from exile

For the human rights defender forced to leave their home country to get away from threats of violence or detention, there is a strange life ahead – of dislocation and adaption to a new culture, while remaining umbilically connected to their place of origin. Guatemalan activist Gabriel Wer shares a poem by celebrated Argentinian poet Juan Gelman who lived much of his life in exile.

Transcript

Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity

AA: I’m Akwe Amosu…with Episode 22 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used by human rights activists around the world… And today’s question: how do you build a regime of rights in a country that’s barely emerging from decades of dictatorship?    A Libyan human rights lawyer tells us how she is tackling the task…  And in the Coda, a Guatemalan activist reflects on a repeating pattern of exile across Latin America.

AA: Human Rights lawyer Elham Saudi leads an organization called Lawyers for Justice in Libya – LFJL -and has been working to realise justice and respect for human rights in her country for over a decade. After 40 years of Muammar Gaddafi’s iron rule, with war lords and their militias in a high-stakes competition for power and only a weak provisional government in charge, the abuse of rights in Libya is rife.  LFJL monitors and documents that abuse in the hope of eventual accountability… but it also advocates for a just transition to democratic government and rule of law so that civil society and human rights can flourish. Which is how Elham came to agree to participate in the UN-convened “Libya Political Dialogue Forum” which is charged with delivering a durable political agreement on which a stable future can be built.  And why she recently addressed the UN Security Council on obstacles to a just peace. The scale of the challenge in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi was enormous… I wanted to find out how rights advocates even knew where to start.

AA: Welcome. Elham

Elham Saudi: Hi, it’s nice to be here.

AA: So I want to come onto your own experience as a human rights defender in a moment. But first, before we do that, could we start by just getting located? Libya lived under dictatorship for decades and then has had this past decade of lawlessness and uncertain government. Do we have any idea what Libyans think human rights are, what their expectations are? Do they care about rights?

ES: I’m so happy you started with this because I think a lot of what human rights defenders are accused of is that we presume we know everything. So when we started in 2011, very promptly after that in 2012, we did a long consultation with over 3,000 people going across the country, speaking to them about what they expected of this new era, what they wanted in their constitution, what their perception of justice was and what their asks and demands were. And that framed our work for quite a long time. And we did that exercise again last year, it was less, uh, dramatic because in the first one we went in a bus and toured from town to town and so it was an emotional experience for all involved. This time was a little bit different because we obviously had to adjust it to the reality of war and conflict, but also to COVID and so it was remote. So we didn’t quite get the beautiful side of seeing the country and being reminded of how beautiful this place is that we’re all fighting for. But we still had very detailed conversations, very deliberate conversations. We ensured that we mapped the demographic super clearly to make sure we got those who might agree with us, but also those who might disagree with us so we deliberately interviewed people that still believe in the previous regime to get what their perceptions of justice are, as well as those who were in the revolution, if you like, or the uprising and those impacted by it, victims and others, including migrants. And so I feel we got a much fuller cross section of society to tell us what they want. And so I feel a bit more confident now when I reflect on “what Libyans want.”

AA: And is it a foolish endeavor to ask you to summarize in any meaningful way what you heard? What are the big headlines that you took away from that exercise?

ES: It’s not foolish – it’s optimistic, but I’ll try!   I think there’s three things I would highlight. One is that the understanding of what justice is has become far more nuanced. In 2012, when we were speaking to people, there was a lot of, um, a concept of justice is about holding the previous regime to account criminally, more than anything else. Now, people understand that justice is a more fuller concept. So they were talking to us still about criminal responsibility, but also about reparations, about dealing with the past, about understanding the truth, about being victim-led – all these concepts which seem niche to lawyers. It was so humbling and refreshing to see that actually they come instinctively to those who’ve survived for 10 years of, of a lot of conflict and violence, that their sense of justice is much more holistic than just a criminal process. The second thing was that people also understand the concept of reconciliation differently. There used to be a lot of pressure on people, you know, to forgive and forget. And a lot of the emphasis on reconciliation is on the victim forgiving as opposed to the perpetrator repenting. And I think what we understood now is people are like, no, that, you know, “the pressure shouldn’t be on me to forgive. I need to see a step coming from the perpetrator before I’m required to do that. And so I think again, it’s become a more rich definition of those things.  The third one is, actually, a lot hasn’t changed since 2012.  People still are demanding their rights. They still feel those are fundamental, they’re not negotiable and that they really want a permanent proper reconciliation that fixes the country. And they want to sense that all of this happens within a structure, not an arbitrary individual project. And so I think, to us, it was a really refreshing exercise because we saw that some things stayed constant which are important, and that’s the fundamental desire for a peaceful, rights-abiding country. But also that the journey for that isn’t about compromise from the part of the victims. It’s about coming together in a really full, proper process that achieves a more sustainable peace.

AA: I mean, on the one hand, it’s deeply reassuring to hear that despite everything they’ve been through, this is a population that’s still strongly in touch with, and can articulate what it wants, what kind of a world it wants to live in. On the other hand, if you want a right enforced, someone has to have the power to do that: you need an entity or an institution, a government that will accept responsibility. You need courts that will order that something, a right, is respected and, and you need officials who can deliver that right? You need people who carry arms not to interfere. And as I think about that list, I think, you know, for Libya right now to deliver a regime of rights is incredibly difficult without a strong single government, a strong constitution and rule of law, monopoly of violence, all the things that a competent state ought to have. So it’s just, it’s hard hearing you say “this is what people want,” in an environment that doesn’t look as though it’s capable of delivering it.

ES:  That’s true. But I would say – I would frame it slightly differently. I don’t think that it’s despite this conflict that people demand these rights still; it’s because of this conflict that people have understood why their rights are so much more important. And so I feel that the journey has progressed in the side of the demand. You’re correct to say that the supply side of the equation doesn’t exist, but I think that is more surmountable on some level, because if you’ve got a population that’s increasingly becoming more aware, more demanding and effectively understanding that ‘accountability’ is the lower case ‘a’ accountability, which covers everything from how you vote to hold your state responsible, to every element of it and not just sort of the criminal justice accountability, then you’re creating the base to demand. And that’s a good thing. I’m not suggesting that we have a state that can respond yet, but I try to always look at the positive side of things, right? And so for me, I’m like, okay, we don’t have a state that functions. We don’t have a state that’s interested in these – if anything, they’re interested in depriving us of these things. The international community that’s heavily involved in Libya has become a key component of enshrining this culture of impunity and culture of absolute lack of responsibility. We have a judiciary that has been intimidated and, targeted and violated to the extent that they’ve retreated, understandably, to protect themselves and to protect their integrity. And so what we’ve seen is a judiciary that’s not doing anything on these files, as opposed to doing the wrong things, which is also, you know, a positive if you want to look for it. But we also have seen a civil society that is desperate to understand how they can overcome that. And I’m talking about the local civil society more than ourselves, even, they see the flaws now.  I think the important part of any situation is seeing what’s wrong with it. I think that’s one of the positives of where we are now. In 2012, we were all romanticizing this change. And I think now we can deal with it practically, dispel the kind of romantic, idealistic, emotional side, and just be proactive in how we do it. And if you want to be really optimistic, you could say, well, in the long term, we have the privilege of creating a new country. And I think that’s kind of what motivates deeply a lot of us is if we just stick this out, then we will be able to build a good constitution. We’ll be able to build a new framework that respects these things.

AA: And so I think that’s, what’s going to be so interesting is to hear you talk about how that process, that set of interlocking steps need to take place. Could we start by just getting a sense of what civil society can be doing on the ground right now? What is actually possible in terms of civil society work, human rights work on the ground, in this period?

ES:  I think that’s an important question. So I think it’s important to take a moment to say that actually pre-2011, there wasn’t really a civil society in Libya because it was effectively, and for all intents and purposes, actually a capital offense, and so there was no civil society other than stuff that was supported by the government, funded by the government to promote the government. So we’re still in a very nascent stage of our civil society. What we’ve seen in the last few years is a severe crackdown on civil society in Libya, especially civil society that does this kind of work. So there’s been a deliberate shutdown – in terms of new legislation, new regulations to curtail the work of civil society. So a big part of it is actually building civil society that can work in this environment.  And what we’ve seen is a mass exodus of Libyan civil society from there. You know, I was based in Libya from 2011 to 2014 and then had to leave myself, uh, because of, of very severe threats to my life, to my family, uh, that I had to leave for safety. Uh, but we’ve seen civil society targeted physically with, with quite a number assassinated. We’ve seen people who’ve been kidnapped, who’ve been disappeared, who’ve had allegations put to them that are false, who’ve had their offices shut, all sorts of measures to suppress them. So we do have, we had a mass exodus from the country. But we’ve also figured out a way to say, okay, you have this growing diaspora of civil society; what can we do that’s loud because we’re relatively safe, versus how can those on the ground work in a, under-the-radar, safe way to ensure that the conversation on how we build ourselves and the work goes on. And so there’s several ways you can do that. We have partners who will collect and document violations, uh, and discreetly upload them to a digital archive. And then we would use that information to pursue the legal cases or the legal claims or the louder advocacy. And part of our responsibility as those who have the distance is to say, “be careful,” because I think there is this over-willingness to do things. And what we don’t want is that to come at the price of people’s lives or people’s wellbeing.

AA: And is the threat to them coming from multiple different directions, different armed groups, for different reasons, one’s a religious complaint, one’s a political complaint against them or is it, is there a sort of general consensus among those with power of whatever kind, they don’t want these civilians active on justice and human rights issues?

ES: But let’s take a step back. In my mind, I always say this, and I say this to our partners a lot. There isn’t a country in the world that actively really want civil society to hold it accountable. It’s just in other countries, this has been forced on the government structure, on the state structure because the systems exist in place, the laws exist, the framework exists where they have to tolerate civil society, but it’s not like there is anyone who really wants to be held accountable in any state for what they do. So I think it’s an understandable dilemma you’re going to have as a civil society, especially in the human rights sector, that you’re going to have wherever you work, is just that it’s a little bit harder to shut you down in certain countries than others, but we’ve seen, I mean, I live in the UK, you live in the US, we’ve seen the measures that both states have gone to, to shut down civil society that is critical of them. And so I think it’s important not to almost fetishize this thing, that this only happens in certain communities. This is a worldwide problem. It’s more pronounced, obviously, in Libya where there isn’t that infrastructure that makes it unacceptable to do this. So the threat comes from all areas because effectively with a judiciary that’s been disabled, and a media that’s highly politicized and very much involved in the conflict, civil society really is the only sector of society that is trying to hold those in power to account. And so they don’t want that. And so whether it’s through legal threats through the civil society commission, or shutdowns, or, you know, controls on your funding and all those legalistic approaches, or whether it’s people trolling you very deliberately systematically online to force you to pull away from the public space, or its people point blank shooting you in the middle of the street, which has happened to activists in Libya – all of that exists as a threat, as well as obviously militias who will kidnap you and disappear you for a period of time. And that sends a clear message to others. And so the whole spectrum exists to shut you down and it all comes from the same premise of not wanting to be held accountable and wanting to be able to work with utter impunity and to get rid of this nuisance, which is civil society actors trying to document these violations or shed some light on what’s happening.

AA: Can you take us back to those early years of the decade when you were there on the ground? What were you doing that provoked this hostile response and how did you come to leave?

ES: I was a woman – I mean, that’s the short of it!  So  2011 – 2013 was the heyday of this era where everyone really believed or appeared to believe in the uprising, civil society was respected, civil society was celebrated, human rights defenders were seen as a key player. Diaspora were seen as a key player because they brought their know-how back to the country, or they were involved in getting the international community involved in the situation in Libya. And so it was this kind of era of tolerance and acceptance and celebration of how diverse we were as a country and what our potential really was. The problem with a country with, um, such vast spaces physically, with such a small population, with significant resources is it becomes very easy to become very greedy. And so the, the power struggle started quickly. As soon as we had the sort of first round of elections, and there were clear winners and clear losers, the seeds were starting to be put in place for the conflict to become an armed one again. The work we were doing was centered a lot on the constitution at the time and how we would build one, we were talking to people a lot about their rights, uh, about the role of the government, what kind of government they wanted.   In 2013, 2014, the tension started to grow and civil society as a whole was targeted, but there was a specific moment where the 20 most active women were identified in a list in a Facebook page with significant followers, including significant violent followers. And actually it was posted by one of the main militias at the time, stating that these are the 20 women that were causing trouble and should be killed. And within a few weeks, three of them were, or, or three of us were, on that list. And the rest of us had to either leave the country, leave the sector or leave the public space altogether. And that’s what happened, unfortunately.

AA: And you didn’t feel at that point, having left the country, that you’d had enough, you wanted to carry on being engaged with the rights struggle in Libya?

ES: To be honest, Akwe, that didn’t even cross my mind. because I still feel bad for leaving. It’s an exercise of a privilege that I have, which is being a dual national and having a home in London. I recognize that that’s a privilege and it felt so unsatisfying to have to exercise that privilege to protect myself. And I still think about that regularly, in the sense that I couldn’t leave and do nothing. If this privilege is going to protect me, then I should use it to help my partners and my colleagues who don’t have that privilege. Right? So it almost – in fact, leaving, leaving Libya, didn’t make me feel like, oh, I’ve had enough, I need to turn my back on it, now I’ve done my bit. It made me feel that, gosh, I feel really awkward about this, almost that I need, I need to invest more to make sure that I compensate for this privilege, somehow. I don’t know if that’s coming across clearly, because I’ve never really articulated that before, but it is something that makes me very aware of where I sit in this equation and it increases my sense of duty, not lessens it.

AA: And so how from outside, in exile, can you move this task, this work forward?  How do you think about the contribution you can make from the outside?

ES: Well, in some ways it’s not the outside, because so much of what happens in Libya is influenced, is directed from outside it. And so it took me a long time to come up with this “Zen” realization that I could have as much impact outside because, actually, the peace process, the political process is led by the UN. The conflict is very much led by singular states who are supporting different actors in contravention of the UN’s own rules and the UN’s sanctions and, uh, embargoes that they’ve put in place on Libya. So a lot of the action happens on the ground, but much of the decision-making and the influence is happening outside Libya and in a way I have access to that, in a way that I wouldn’t.  At the very least the international actors are complicit in all the violations that are happening in Libya, at the very most, they are the cause of them. It is my role here to take the information that I have from the ground and for us, as LFJL, to look at it and to name and to be clear about who those actors are. And I think that is something that we still have room to get better at, but yeah, the Libyan conflict is phenomenally internationalized.

AA: Can I ask you what this is like for you as an individual? I mean, you’ve talked about being an optimist, you’ve talked about the sense of obligation you feel because of the privilege you’ve got and, and the chance it’s afforded you to be more safe, but people coming to bear witness are subject to harassment and receive threats. Can you say something about what it’s like for you?

ES: So I’m physically safe because I’m not in Libya, but the thing that I still think is underestimated is the power and the impact on an individual of continuous, unrelenting, clearly systematic and planned online harassment and online abuse. I’ve left Facebook altogether because it was just too much. You know, the daily tens and tens of messages that will do everything from commenting on my appearance to direct threats to my life, to threats to my family. But also there’s an element to it that I think is really worth highlighting, that the online element is so vicious but it’s also incredibly gendered. So, you know, I will be criticized for the content of what I say, but also for my appearance which men will never get in that way – of how you’re dressed,  of your hair, of how you look, where I should be, and I shouldn’t be at the Security Council, I should be in the kitchen and… you know, the amount of photos of pots and pans and, you know, ‘who’s doing the dishes now that you’re in New York?’ kind of thing. It’s so continuous and it’s so unforgiving. And you sort of leave the platform but then it always finds you because people will screenshot it – “have you seen this? Are you OK?” and I’m like, “no, I haven’t seen this, but thanks, you know, no thanks for sharing!”  But what’s also shocking is, now you also get it through WhatsApp and so it’s on your phone, even if you leave everything else. Um, one of the most horrible campaigns I suffered was during the LPDF where I would get within like three minutes in the middle of the night, 20 messages on my WhatsApp from 20 different numbers in 20 different countries that say the exact same message. And the idea there is obviously to, to make it clear that I’m not safe wherever I am.  And it gets to you in a very full way and actually at LFJL we’ve been doing quite a lot of work on online violence against women because  so many women have suffered from it in Libya and the threats are very real; a few of the people who have been assassinated in the last couple of years were first directly threatened with that online. And we’re trying to make the case at LFJL that online violence against women at this magnitude, in this kind of systematic a way, has the mental impact on you the same way as torture would. And that therefore it could amount to torture, legally, and therefore it would be a crime, you know, a serious international crime. I think it’s easy to comfort yourself:  “It’s fine. I’m okay, I’m in London.” But you know, I’d have to be living in a cave and never look at anything online to feel genuinely like I’m fine.  Something that makes you change, that made me change a lot how I assess risk, is when I became a mother.  When I was, you know, single and merry and whatever, I was much more flippant about what risk was. When I got a husband, my husband is very supportive of my work. And so I could still sort of deal with it in a jokey way by saying to him: “OK, if I get kidnapped, please use this picture of me when you do the ‘Je suis whatever’ or  ‘I am Elham’ campaign. I really hate that they always use bad photos of me when they go after me!”  So I, you know, I chose the photo. I gave it to him. He thought that was super dark. Uh, but for me it was quite liberating to take control of that narrative somehow and that was the only way I could.  It was a really good picture so I hope he has better occasion to use it at some point! But then, you know, a few years ago another element was introduced, which is that I, I became a mother. And I think that was probably the single element that changed my risk assessments more than anything else, because I now have a duty of care to a new person who relies on me so much. Uh, and she’s an inspiration and, she’s also the reason I do all of this because I know that we won’t see the Libya we want in our lifetime, but I’m hoping she’ll see it in hers. And that’s kind of my motivation. And she’s just a wonderful soul. And if Libya’s future includes people like her, then we’re, we’re good. We’re good, we’re solid.

AA: Okay. Thank you, Elham.

ES:  It’s my pleasure.

AA: Elham Saudi, director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya – I spoke to her on the line from London. And we’ll be releasing a second chunk of my conversation with Elham focused specifically on the efforts to broker a political future for Libya – and the primary target of her criticism may surprise you. Look out for Episode 22 part 2. And as always, you can find a transcript of our interviews on our website, strengthandsolidarity.org.  And by the way, Elham co-hosts a fantastic podcast called Libya Matters -details, again, on this episode’s web page.

 

Our Coda this time continues the theme of exile. As usual, we’re asking a human rights defender to give us some insight into their work – what makes it difficult, or possible, or inspiring.  Gabriel Wer is the Director of Instituto Vinti Cinco Ah, an organization that grew out of the social justice movement, Justicia Ya and works to advance democracy and just living conditions for the citizens of Guatemala.  He wanted to share with us a poem by Juan Gelman called “de los deberes del exilio” – On the duties of exile.

no olvidar el exilio/

combatir a la lengua que combate al exilio!

no olvidar el exilio/o sea la tierra

o sea la patria o lechita o pañuelo

donde vibrábamos/donde niñábamos/

no olvidar las razones del exilio/

la dictadura military/los errores

que cometimos por vos/contra vos/

tierra de la que somos y nos eras

a nuestros pies/como alba tendida/

y vos/corazoncito que mirás

cualquier mañana como olvido/

no te olvides de olvidar el olvido

Gabriel Wer: This poem tries to list the duties of exile… first, don’t forget about exile, exile means, don’t forget your land, the land that you are from, where you vibrated, where you felt like a child, don’t forget that place.  And you should not forget the reasons why you’re in exile as well, because you committed yourself to that place where you’re from. And even though you might have committed sins against that place, or you’ve done something wrong, or you’ve done something right, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t forget about it, because forgetting is oblivion.

GW: I lived abroad for many years in my twenties. I was away, I was living in Spain, and well in Europe, and I left because I just felt so, hopeless in Guatemala., I said, nothing’s gonna change here. what am I doing here? And I had the opportunity to leave and I, I just said, I have to take it. I don’t care if it means working many hours a day, or it means like leaving my family behind, I have to leave. But then being away taught me that, that where you were born, where you were raised matters, whether you like it or not, whether you want it or not, it matters. You’re deeply connected to the land, where you were born and raised. And that brought me back to Guatemala actually.

GW:  Juan Gelman had to live in exile most of his life. and so through his words, he just sort of shares this experience of having to, to live somewhere else, but always being connected to your own land and to your land’s dreams and problems and issues. It must be a strange feeling because you are suddenly forced to walk a path that’s different for what you envisioned for yourself. And sometimes you have to do that all by yourself, leaving family, friends, and, and the life you knew behind. You feel a sense of relief you just want to sleep and recover and you just have this sense of, of, “I’m safe now., I’m away of all those things that were happening over there. And both things can be very tricky as well, because you can either want to disconnect from what’s going on in your home country, or you feel more compelled to do something about it now that you have a fresh perspective on things and that you feel safe, it gives you, in a way it sort of almost empowers you a little bit more.

GW:  In Guatemala, in the seventies and eighties, many people had to leave for political reasons because we were in the middle of a war and they managed to create these networks of support outside of the country to make sure that people knew what was going on, to find resources for the people that stayed behind and needed aid and humanitarian help and anything that they could get to. And nowadays with technology, I think that’s much easier because you can stay, on top of things, you know what’s going on, you can chat with someone at any time. So it creates this new circle of support, outside the country.

GW: Now, many years later, I’m away again. But I also found that doing something for my country doesn’t mean that I have to necessarily live in it, and what we have to find is what works best with our aspirations, our capacities, our community, our chosen way of living with the cause we’re fighting for, because you cannot support a cause and forget about yourself, because then you’re not helping at all.

GW:  You see what’s going on in your country, you see how people are still, through adversity, trying to make change happen, trying to sort of live in a democracy, in a real democracy. It’s impossible to walk away and not look back. You see that a lot of people are hurting still. It’s what the poem really speaks to me – you cannot walk away and not look back. Even if you want to, you cannot. 

 

De los deberes del exilio:

-Juan Gelman

 

no olvidar el exilio/

combatir a la lengua que combate al exilio!

no olvidar el exilio/o sea la tierra

o sea la patria o lechita o pañuelo

donde vibrábamos/donde niñábamos/

no olvidar las razones del exilio/

la dictadura military/los errores

que cometimos por vos/contra vos/

tierra de la que somos y nos eras

a nuestros pies/como alba tendida/

y vos/corazoncito que mirás

cualquier mañana como olvido/

no te olvides de olvidar el olvido

 

AA: Thank you, Gabriel Wer, for those heartfelt reflections…  We haven’t found an English translation of Argentinian poet Juan Gelman’s poem, de los deberes del exilio, but you’ll find the Spanish version on our website.

AA: That’s it for episode 22 of Strength and Solidarity… part 1 that is… a reminder that we’ll be releasing a second part of Elham Saudi’s interview in a couple days time on the struggle to secure a democratic peace for Libya. Thanks for listening… if you’re new to the podcast, check out a rich range of topics in our past shows – all easily accessible on our website, again, that’s strengthandsolidarity.org…  Is there a human rights strategy or tactic that you’d like to hear discussed?  Write and tell us – the address is pod@strengthandsolidarity.org.  For now, thanks to Erika Guevara and Cate Brown for production help, and to our awesome producer, Peter Coccoma.  See you next time.