On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that Libya’s Government of National Unity (GNU), headed by Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Dbaiba, and other authorities are cracking down on domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations.
In a report, HRW urged the GNU to “withdraw onerous registration and administration requirements, and ensure that civic groups are free to operate.”
In a circular dated 21 March 2023, the Tripoli-based GNU said that domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations could continue operating only if they “correct their legal status” in line with a draconian 2001 Muammar Gaddafi-era law.
This statement came after months of increasing restrictions on civic group activities, including harassment and at times detention and prosecution of local staff members. As well as obstacles for non-Libyans working in humanitarian, human rights, and other nongovernmental organizations in obtaining entry visas.
“Libyan authorities are crushing civic space using the tired pretext of enforcing regulations,” said Hanan Salah, associate Middle East and North Africa Director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should instead be protecting that space by upholding the right to freedom of association.”
On 8 March, the Law Department of the Supreme Judicial Council issued an edict in response to a request by the Tripoli Commission of Civil Society declaring, “all civil associations and civil society organizations not established based on the provisions of Law 19/2001 on nongovernmental organizations illegal.”
The edict also specified that civic groups established under any other regulations were “null and void.”
In response, on 13 March, the GNU ordered all government institutions to uphold it until further notice. On 21 March, it retracted this statement and gave nongovernmental organizations provisional legal standing until they “correct their legal status,” without providing a clear timeline.
The Gaddafi-era Law 19/2001 on the Reorganization of Nongovernmental Organizations greatly restricts civil society work. It permits registration only for groups with a mandate to work on social, cultural, sports-oriented, charitable, or humanitarian issues, but not other issues including human rights.
The government did not clarify how such organizations can legally operate.
Law 19/2001 also has overly burdensome registration requirements, and empowers authorities to intervene in associations’ leadership, and dissolve organizations without a court order.
The group Frontline Defenders reported in 2015 that only 22 organizations were registered under the law.
Some Libyan legal experts contend that Law 19/2001 was effectively suspended with the adoption of the Libyan Constituent Covenant by the National Transitional Council in 2011. As this guarantees freedom of association, speech, and assembly.
However, legislators have yet to revoke the Penal Code provisions for severe punishments, including the death penalty, for the establishment of “unlawful” associations, which have been in place since the Gaddafi era.
“For years, Libyan authorities and various armed groups around the country have restricted the ability of NGO’s and their staff members to operate,” Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya in its March report found, “attacks against … human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, journalists, and civil society associations have created an atmosphere of fear that has sent persons into self-censorship, hiding or exile.”
It called on Libyan legislators and authorities to ensure the following as a matter of priority:
Adopt a civil society organization law that guarantees the right to freedom of association and expression, consistent with international law and best practices;
Reform Penal Code articles that undermine freedom of association and assembly, redefining criminal acts to exclude the peaceful exercise of the r