Libya has been thrust back into the public consciousness recently due to the exposure of the buying and selling of black African migrant men in the country.
A video surfaced on this issue through a documentary on CNN which gained traction in the media and sparked a significant outcry on social media. A talk organised by the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS, as part of its seminar series on 30th November 2017, coincided with this moment and shed light on the situation in Libya.
Elham Saudi, the invited speaker, is the Director and co-founder of the NGO Lawyers for Justice in Libya. Saudi, who drew on her legal advocacy in Libya, begun by situating Libya historically and located the multiple and complicated factors that characterise this moment. Post–Gaddafi Libya is characterised by a legacy of fragmented infrastructure that is heightened today by difficulties in moving across the country due to the multiplicity of militias, proliferation of arms, lack of accountable governance arrangements, citizen fragmentation, racism and mistrust.
Saudi noted that the sale and purchase of black bodies is not news to Libyans. It is important to understand why certain issues are gaining traction at a specific time, and the impact this has on the silencing and erasure of a network of factors working together (or separately) to create a specific (momentary) upsurge of concern. Africans have migrated to Libya, some with the intention of working and settling in Libya, which was made possible by Gaddafi’s outward facing approach to Africa. Others use it as a transit point on their way to Europe. For various reasons, including the NATO-led intervention in 2010, more migrants opted for Europe as their destination and therefore had to engage with human traffickers and smugglers at different points in the process of migration through Libya. At each point, people are required to pay and if they are unable to do so are required to work to pay their debt off. In domestic Libyan law, there is no such thing as an asylum seeker. One is either an economic migrant or undocumented and could face a mandatory sentence if found to be so. This legal environment has played a part in creating room for exploitation of people similar to those highlighted in the CNN documentary.
Saudi’s presentation highlighted Libya’s historically ambiguous relationship with Africa and the underlying racism that has shaped relations with Black Africans in Libya and elsewhere in the continent. She illustrated this point by drawing on experiences from her own legal advocacy work in Libya which involves bringing cases to the African Commission on People’s and Human Rights and the initial reticence by Libyan activists to engage this institution, constructing as one that was disconnected from their realities. However, Saudi pointed out that the African Commission is an important legal institution that allows NGO’s to bring cases against states and allows for anonymity of litigants. The underestimation of the African Commission and the reluctance to use it by citizens who are considered North Africans, is emblematic of the complicated relationship that Libya has with the continent.
The law as a powerful socio-political tool was a key theme that emerged in the seminar which Saudi unpacked by sharing one of the key projects of Lawyers for Justice in Libya – building a strong constitution. She drew on their challenges with regards to undoing the façade of women’s rights during Gaddafi’s rule and the role of Sharia in attempting to change this process. Despite their difficult yet thorough groundwork done across the country in breaking barriers of legal jargon in communicating the importance of human rights and a constitution, there is imminent danger of this being dismantled by a single clause stating that Sharia will be the overriding rule of law in the country. She brilliantly concluded by stating that their work was to communicate the importance of working together as a community, understanding that law can be interpreted in various ways, as well as ultimately realising that “law is not a protection but a tool”.
By Princess Malebye and Marianne Asfaw