For democracy well-wishers, 2004 in Libya was a fairly good year. After decades of stifling oppression, with public executions and missing prisoners, the country saw cracks of light. The great leader of the revolution, Muammar al-Gaddafi, who holds no official position of power, divided the ministry of interior and justice into separate bodies.
The government talked of reforming the penal code and minimizing application of the death penalty. And in January 2005 the government abolished the notorious People’s Court, renowned for unfair political trials, and began to release some political prisoners. The changes were small but, in the Libyan context, a significant sign of hope.
In May 2005 I visited Libya for Human Rights Watch, our first-ever trip to the country known as the Jamahariya – state of the masses. I was surprised to see that, despite the pervasive control and palpable fear, officials, students and professionals engaged in debates on reform. Those closest to power felt the most comfortable to talk, and they mostly discussed how to improve the system rather than how to see it change. But they still reflected critically about their long-isolated country, eager to reestablish international ties.
Two-and-a-half years later, that criticism and the optimism it engendered are much harder to find. The People’s Court is gone but a new State Security Appeals Court took its place, holding sessions inside a prison of the Internal Security Agency. The country still has no free press and no independent organisations. Libyans continue to face arrest and torture for expressing peaceful criticism of the government and its undisputed leader, and in the past 18 months, three of those people have disappeared.
The many promised reforms, such as a new penal code and code of criminal procedure, have not taken place. Human Rights Watch has not been allowed back into the country but Libyans tell me many of the critical debates have slowed or stopped. In one opposition-oriented town, Benghazi, the authorities have for months banned football matches at the stadium—ostensibly because the structure has cracks.
One explanation for the halted reform is confusion in Gaddafi's tent. The Brother Leader, as he is known, is adept at exerting control and balancing the country’s desert clans. But he apparently lacks a road map for reform, especially one that could threaten his grip. The signs are often mixed. One week he supports the so-called reform wing, run by his western-educated son Saif al-Islam, who talks of free media and fighting corruption, and the next he promotes staunch supporters of the status quo.
Gaddafi is also reportedly surrounded by yes-men and sycophants, who instruct visitors “not to upset him.” Although he remains involved in the smallest decisions of daily life, he may be isolated and out of touch.
A more cynical view is that Gaddafi has calculated well, having benefited from global rehabilitation without pressure from foreign governments to truly reform. After taking initial steps, he was visited by foreign leaders from Europe and top officials from the United States. Business contracts flowed.
Relations with Europe stalled from the high profile case of the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, imprisoned for eight years for allegedly infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. But Gaddafi released the heath workers this July, and the welcome train rolled.
Indeed, western governments are driven by two primary concerns: oil and cooperation on counter-terrorism. Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves. It is selling drilling rights, and also upgrading its facilities, buying military hardware and constructing power plants. Europe and the U.S. are eager to take part, and human rights have a nasty way of scuttling lucrative deals.
Governments engaging Libya argue that Gaddafi must be rewarded for renouncing terrorism and WMD. “If we don’t welcome countries that are starting to take the path of respectability, what can we say to those that leave that path,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, after hosting Gaddafi in Paris in December. Indeed, Libya complains that it has not reaped enough benefits for cooperating with the West.
But Sarkozy also signed multi-billion euro deals, including the sale of 21 Airbus planes and a nuclear reactor to desalinate sea water, after the Gaddafi trip. Other governments have done the same. The contract sprint is on, and countries do not want to miss the race.
In this sense, Gaddafi's plan seems clear: governments will come running for business, as well as for the intelligence he shares on Islamist militant groups. They may pay lip service to torture and imprisoned dissidents, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did last week when meeting the Libyan foreign minister in Washington, but not condition their relations on improvements in human rights. The EU is currently devising a framework agreement with Libya, and there is no substantive talk of benchmarks, such as accountability for torture or more independent courts.
How best to encourage reform in Libya is a complex affair. Gaddafi maintains total control. He brooks no unsanctioned dissent. Apart from a regime-change policy, how do governments encourage a new course?
At the end of the day, one fact is clear: Gaddafi is interested first and foremost in protecting and promoting his own power, and perhaps in eventually ensuring a transfer of power to one of his sons. His decision to engage with the west was driven by this calculated goal, fearing he was next after the US invasion of Iraq, and his future decisions will follow that logical course.
He will never undertake radical reform, such as allowing independent media or opposition groups. But acting in concert, the west can condition its relations on small but significant steps, such as abolishing the death penalty, improving the penal code, and strengthening the judicial system, all of which Gaddafi himself has placed on the agenda.
Cultural and educational exchanges for Libyans are also key. Ultimately, while foreign governments have placed drilling rights above human rights, the Libyans must push themselves for the construction of independent institutions and the rule of law.
Fred Abrahams is senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. He spent three weeks in Libya on a fact-finding mission in May 2005 and authored the organization’s first report on the country, Words to Deeds: the Urgent Need for Human Rights Reform