Solidarity Episode 22 - Part 2April 25, 2022

22. Part 2 – 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 for change 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.  Libyan human rights lawyer Elham Saudi has worked throughout the past decade with her organization, Lawyers for Justice in Libya, to document human rights abuse, and advocate accountability – work that drew violent threats and eventually forced her into exile in 2014.  Initially uncertain how to continue contributing, she came to realize that Libya’s future was being shaped, in large part, outside the country and that there was still plenty of work for her to do towards securing rights and rule of law for her country.  In the first part of her interview, Elham described the efforts of civil society, the resulting backlash, and what it has been like – particularly for her as a woman- to take a high profile role in the struggle for justice. In this second part, she breaks down the UN-led international process intended to being elections and a stable future to Libya – and she’s not pulling her punches.

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The Interview

‘The international community has become a key actor in enshrining impunity’

Elham Saudi has had a ringside seat for observing Libya’s international mediation process, as a civil society representative in the Libya Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), one of three parallel UN-convened efforts to restore a stable democracy.  While others might assume that the primary obstacle to progress would be competition among Libyan players, for Elham, a big slice of blame should go to the UN and to powerful members of the UN Security Council.


Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity.

AA: I’m Akwe Amosu…bringing you the second part of our Episode 22 on how human rights advocates are trying to steer Libya towards a democratic future in which human rights are respected.  As you’ll know, if you heard Part 1, I’ve been talking to Elham Saudi who leads Lawyers for Justice in Libya about her decade of work to challenge impunity and secure accountability in a country where the provisional government is weak and warlords and militias dominate the political space. The United Nations is convening efforts to broker an agreement between political actors and make way for elections… and given that Elham’s focus is on justice and human rights, not politics, I was interested in her decision to join that process – the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum or LPDF – so I asked her how that came about.

Elham Saudi: The LPDF is the process that is mandated by the UN Security Council and is led by the UN support mission in Libya to facilitate a political deal. The LPDF is the political track, and then there’s an economic one and a security one. And the LPDF was meant to oversee this transition in Libya to a peace and finding a resolution to the conflict and that – it’s not a natural place for human rights activists to find themselves. And so I feel like I have to put out that disclaimer, that this is not something I particularly sought, nor felt comfortable in at any point. As civil society and as human rights activists, we always advocate that this should be a human rights-based approach, that there should be human rights activists at the table; that civil society should not be outside the room. And for once they listened. But I was also frustrated that their solution was that I was the one that got the invitation to represent that demographic. And so it was a really awkward day when that happened, because I took it back to my team and I’m like, well, will this impact our work? Will this impact our ability to be critical of the LPDF which we will need to be, cuz it, it won’t be how we want it to be for sure… Does it put question marks over our credibility? Does it put question marks over our independence? All these integral bits of being a respected civil society organization. And it was a lot of soul searching and a lot of thinking before we agreed that I had to go in there with clear parameters of where it was my place to comment and where it wasn’t, but that we shouldn’t be declining a seat at the table when we’ve demanded that for so long. And the reason I explain that is because it, it is not a natural place to be in – There needs to be a conscious decision as to what play, what part you want to play and how you ensure you don’t get dragged into what will be a literally a political deal. And I went in thinking, you know, the 74 others are not necessarily people I would ever want to be around the table with. Some of them represent actors that I found horrible, uh, despicable characters, people who are responsible for war crimes, they’re responsible for this conflict. They were representing those people. But actually, I owe an apology to those 74 because most of them have come into the room with the intention of finding a resolution and work cooperatively, at least with me to a certain degree. My biggest disappointment was that the facilitators, the moderators, the mediators – whatever you want to call them-, the UN entity were the ones who in my mind were the biggest obstacles to a human rights-based approach. And so how I kind of interacted in that room, I, I remember on the very first day, we all had to introduce ourselves and obviously most of them are beyond the need for introduction. But to me, they’re like, who the hell is this person? And obviously I got the criticism there of not being on the ground; of not knowing what’s going on; and all this stuff that would be thrown at you as a diaspora. And I remember I just introduced myself by saying, “I’m Elham Saudi. I am not a politician. I do not represent any political entity. In fact, I hope Libya’s future doesn’t include any of you. And I’m not interested in the outcome. I’m interested in the process because as a, a rule of law person, if the process is correct, and the process is human rights-led and rule of law based, then the outcome will have to be satisfactory, whether I like it or not. And so I’m not interested in who wins. I just want to make sure that we have a proper procedure that makes sure that they go to the right hoops to win. It didn’t make me many friends cuz I was like, you know, I really, really hope that we have an outcome that doesn’t involve any of you… And so whenever any question came up in the political process, I would look at that question from, “Well, are the steps being taken correct?” as opposed to saying, “This is what we want to get to and let’s reverse engineer,” which is what politicians tend to do, right? This is the outcome we want to get to now, how do we get to it?

AA: I mean, I think some people may be surprised to hear that you consider that the UN personnel in the room were the least supportive or least helpful in moving forward a human rights-based approach. Can you say something about what you thought was going wrong there?

ES: I think the UN – I can only comment into their interaction in Libya – has been very led by a perceived notion of political expediency – “We need to get this deal done. What is the most practical way we can do it? Uh, how can we appease the spoilers so that we have a peace? And how do we ensure that there is no more fighting?”  And their perception of that is, you provide carrots constantly to the spoilers to do that. Whereas what I would consider a correct approach, or one that is based on upholding the rule of law or promoting human rights, is to be able to put accountability measures on people who are allowed to become involved in a peace process or having vetting standards or, uh, not rewarding the spoilers, but perhaps excluding them from the process. I’ll give a really simple example cuz at the moment I can hear myself and it sounds super generalistic and generic. So I’ll give a really simple example: One of the tasks we had as part of the LPDF was to appoint an interim government. So we were going to have candidates come forward and we, as the 75 would appoint this government that would take us to the next election. And we were discussing the vetting criteria, and in every conversation we have, the UN starts by giving us, a draft document that we then update. But you would assume, if it was an institution that was working on the basis of mainstreaming human rights or looking for a human rights-based approach, that they, in their base document, would have included some key provisions that are human rights-based. So for example, in a vetting criteria, I would’ve assumed in a country that’s coming out of war that you might have something where you vet out those implicated in war crimes, for example. However, the criteria that showed up I think were – it was a while ago now, but they were very simplistic – age, nationality, religion, and where they were born or who their partner or where their partner was from or something like that. There was absolutely nothing on their records in the conflict, or, you know, what they’ve done in the last 10 years. And when I tabled that to the UN personnel, I was told, “Well, you can’t do that in an electoral process because, would happen at the ballot box. People would eliminate the people that were criminals at the ballot box.” I’m like, well, first of all, this isn’t an electoral process. This is 75 people that are selecting; we’re not electing these people. Second of all, no-one’s entitled to run for president when it’s in this kind of format. And third of all, how can we vet them if most of the people here represent these actors? And so there needs to be a process which forces these people to vet them out. And because this wasn’t in the original draft, you’re starting at below zero in a negotiation to trying to get this wording in. And the wording we end up with, which is really unsatisfying, is something like ‘people who have not been convicted in a final conviction in human rights, et cetera, et cetera’ – in Libya, there hasn’t been a single trial, let alone a conviction. And, and then we have the temporary government selected, which includes someone who is implicated in massive corruption and two individuals who are implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity are the final two in the selection process. And we, we ‘win’ by selecting the corrupt person. I abstained in that vote.  Fast forward a year later, when we’re trying to prepare for an election for the presidency in Libya, which was meant to happen in December last year and the vetting criteria looked very similar to those from the LPDF because obviously we’ve set a precedent in this UN-led process. And now we end up with having the four runners in the presidential elections being Gaddafi’s son, who is wanted by the international criminal court; Khalifa Haftar, who leads the biggest militia in Libya – calls itself the army, but it is a militia and is implicated in many crimes; one of the other people’s the Minister of the Interior previously, who oversees a lot of the detention centers where there’s been crimes; and a person who’s currently the head of the government who’s implicated in corruption. And that is entirely because we didn’t set the right precedent for what vetting looks like for a country coming out of conflict. There’s many, many more examples. And if people are super fascinated in this topic, we have like an entire episode on it in our podcast about what went wrong with the UN and inside the LPDF. But I think it is really important when you’re an institution of that magnitude coming into a country with this level of chaos you take your sense of responsibility seriously, because not only are you having an influence on the direct process you’re involved in, but you’re setting the standard for what comes that, because if it’s good enough for a UN process, why is it not good enough for our domestic processes?

AA: You made a very impressive, presentation to the Security Council and you set out five priorities around elections, around accountability, fair application of sanctions, and they were, all things that, you could argue, are highly desirable, but it’s hard to see where the leverage comes from in other words, was your hope that the Security Council would look at these flaws, look at the challenges in the process so far and just, get some spine and say, “Okay, this thing’s going off the rails, unless we take charge?” Or was it more of a case of just putting up a big banner saying, “These things are really huge problems, it’s not going to work…”? –  bearing witness if you like –

ES: I don’t think those two are mutually exclusive. The elements that I highlighted were largely elements under the Security Council’s mandate, right? So the electoral process and all things that have been set up, that stem out of the Security Council resolution that put the LPDF and the political process in Libya. And so they are to a degree overseeing this process and therefore they need to take responsibility for the way it’s been handled. The other element is actually the Security Council is not a singular entity in the way we would want it to be.  Each member within the Security Council has its own interests. And what is clear in Libya is that there are some key members within the Security Council who directly are involved in the conflict in Libya. And so, you know as kind, as you are about my statement there was not a resolution on the Libyan situation, as a result of that meeting, because there is an internal argument that’s happening between member states about how they handle Libya. And so one of the biggest failings in Libya, is actually the failing of multilateralism. I think Libya is a decent case study on how multilateralism has just let us down because the interests of each of these individual countries is far more powerful than the desire to work in a multilateral way. And so I think that’s always been our problem with the Security Council is you’ll get statements from the Security Council, you’ll get a resolution from the Security Council, which is purporting to be the 15 states speaking in one voice, but Russia has very different interests in Libya and is supporting key individuals. The UAE, which is now a member of the Security Council is very invested in the Libyan conflict and has supported and funded a lot of it. France has been implicated – another Security Council member – in the conflict in Libya. The US is now trying to take the lead with some of the negotiations. And so all of these countries are very directly involved. And one of the things I was trying to do in the Security Council, which I feel more capable of doing freely here, but I would constantly refer to the role of international actors in breaking the embargo, in committing the violations.  I was talking to members of that Council! The UAE, Russia, France are all implicated in violations in Libya. Certainly a few of them are implicated in breaking the embargo by supplying arms to the people. And if the Security Council is actually going to have any credibility then they need to look at what their own members are doing. If you have an embargo, an arms embargo that’s issued by you and one of your members, or three or four of your members, actively regularly breach that, and you don’t hold them to account by sanctioning them, then what worth does the sanctions have when you sanction Libyan actors only? Because the Libyan actors are empowered by these international actors… And so I think my goal of speaking at the Security Council on a personal level was to put these claims in that room whilst I maintain eye contact with the Russian and UAE ambassadors. And I’ll tell you a little side note – as I was doing that – I wear an Apple watch – I kept getting this warning signal on my phone saying “high heart rate alert”, “high heart rate alert”. And I was just going, this is not helping because it was literally buzzing on my wrist as I was trying to make this really poignant moment of looking straight at the Russians and the UAE and saying, ‘You know, “some” international actors have been implicated in human rights violations and war crimes in Libya’, but I was undermined a little bit by my accessory choice,

AA:  it was just trying to keep you healthy and safe, Elham!

ES: I feel like I want to complain cuz I’m not sure in what situation that makes you feel better and breathe calmer, you know? But for me, it was a personal point that I wanted to go there physically – and I fought to be there physically and not remotely – to be able to deliver this message at the very least –  This is, where my privilege allowed me to be there, because I didn’t need a visa. I could travel on very short notice and I’m like, okay, if I’m gonna go there, then I’m not gonna deliver a mediocre, “here’s what’s happening in the country” speech, which, they know very well. It’s more saying, “you guys have a role in what’s happening in the country and you should be held accountable for it.” And one of the interesting things is that before I went there, I had this training on reprisals from some UN entities to kind of to say, you know, there’s the consequence of reprisal as a civil society actor, you need to think about these things. But I found that really surreal because the whole conversation presumed that the only threat to me in saying what I wanted to say was from the Libyans –  Well, you are outside of Libya, so that’s good and we can ensure your safety. And I say, actually, I, I feel no threat from Libya in the context of the stuff I want to say, unless I go there, nothing’s gonna happen, but you need to think wider because a lot of the threats that are facing civil society are from countries that have the ability to hack you, to track you, to do all these things remotely. And many of the leaders of that are in that room. And you guys are not even thinking about that when you’re preparing civil society to what that means, when you sit in a room with the Russians, the UAE who have some of the best technology for this. And I think those are the things that let you down when you’re dealing with the UN is that they talk about human rights, they talk about civil society, they talk about all of this, but when they come to the practical steps, there is zero proper concern and planning for what could happen as a result of this and what their role really is.


AA: Elham Saudi, director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya.


That wraps up this second part of episode 22 of Strength and Solidarity.  Thanks for listening… You can find the transcript on our website, and some other useful links, including to Elham’s podcast, Libya Matters.  Next time we’ll be in Egypt, hearing from an activist who realizes – in the middle of being interrogated –  that professionalising his organisation had unanticipated benefits.– Odd timing?  Join us to find out more.