From tragedy can come positive change. The Libyan government has that chance, after violent clashes last week between a militia and residents of Benghazi left 32 people dead.
The government should use the incident to devise a clear plan for security sector-reform and to clamp down on the country’s many illegal armed groups.
The violence began on June 8, when Benghazi residents, angry at abusive militia conduct, protested at the base of one of the city’s largest armed groups, Libya Shield 1. The dispute escalated, witnesses said, after protesters hurled stones. The militia opened fire with high-calibre weapons and anti-aircraft guns. Hospital sources said that only two of the dead came from Libya Shield. The army’s special forces, under government control, eventually intervened and occupied the base, after suffering at least two casualties of its own.
The protest was not the first time Libyans have risen against the militias that formed to fight Moammar Gadhafi and have refused to lay down their arms. After the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, an angry crowd forced the group suspected of staging the attack, Ansar al-Sharia, to abandon its base (though it later returned). In Tripoli and elsewhere, citizens have demanded that the government stop militia abuse.
But last week marked the first time that a militia had fired on demonstrators, and with deadly results. Add these deaths to the other crimes of some militias across Libya, including arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in detention. Thousands of people are held in illegal and sometimes secret prisons. This past Saturday, armed men believed to be from the dispersed Libya Shield launched retaliatory attacks on the army and police that killed six members of the special forces.
The government has walked a thin line. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan at first spoke bluntly about militia abuses and threatened to shut the militias down. But he backtracked and started calling them “revolutionaries” after armed groups besieged two ministries last month.
The government has worked with some of the militias, including Libya Shield, at times giving them funding and official tasks, because government forces remain weak. In many places, the militias are stronger than the army and police.
Some militias have become quasi-official bodies that co-operate with the government and also operate on their own. Some have played constructive roles by policing neighborhoods and keeping peace in tribal disputes.
The government argued that this arrangement was required during Libya’s transition because the state security forces had collapsed. Last week’s violence in Benghazi signals that it is time to change.
To do so requires a coherent government plan. Here foreign governments share the blame, especially those like Canada that took part in the NATO campaign that led to Mr. Gadhafi’s fall (and failed to grasp the dangers of weapons proliferation). Far more emphasis must be placed on DDR – disarmament, demobilization and reintegration – for Libyans to have security with transparency and accountability.
This means a diverse package of training, education and loans so young men who took up arms have incentives to rejoin civilian life. Many of these young men came of age during the uprising, and they need support to play constructive roles.
Governments looking to help should co-ordinate their efforts, together with Libya’s United Nations mission, to provide programmatic support and technical advisers who can help build capacity over time.
Integration of militia members into security forces needs to proceed on an individual basis – after training and vetting – rather than as a group. The danger of integrating intact units with separate command structures is that they can carry out their own agendas, political or criminal, under cover of the state.
An amnesty for militia members who committed serious crimes is the wrong route. Although the authorities lack power to arrest and prosecute all abusive militia members now, it should not shield them from justice because they were “promoting or protecting the revolution,” as one new law tries to do.
A law on transitional justice is also needed to help Libya deal with grave crimes of the past. Anti-Gadhafi fighters rightly see a double standard in prosecuting current crimes when no one has been tried for hanging students in the 1970s, for killing 1,200 people in Abu Salim prison in 1996 or for the war crimes committed by Gadhafi forces during the conflict two years ago.
Ultimately, those who refuse to lay down their arms for political, ideological or criminal reasons will need to be arrested and prosecuted.
None of this will come easy in a fragile state that is reeling from dictatorship and war. But if anything good can come from the latest bloodshed in Benghazi, it’s a renewed Libyan and international focus to build security forces that are trained, accountable and bound by law.
Fred Abrahams is a special adviser at Human Rights Watch who has conducted research in Libya since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @fredabrahams.