Justice and/or Peace in Libya?

Today’s guest blog is written by Sarah Kleinman, the Outreach Director for International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs) for Sense and Sustainability. She is a doctoral student at Oxford University in International Relations, where she is a Rhodes Scholar. She has previously worked as a consultant for The Carter Center in Sudan, as an associate at Global Policy Forum, and as the Executive Director of FACE AIDS

As rebel forces claim to be closing in on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, aggrieved parties are crying out for justice.  Shortly after Tripoli fell last week, Obama administration officials stressed that Libyans should focus on determining the fate of the former dictator, but this week Secretary of State Clinton claimed that bringing Gaddafi to justice must be a lower priority than reducing the risk of Islamic extremism and ensuring a smooth transition to democracy in Libya.  How should the transitional authorities handle the duel necessities of ensuring peace and serving justice in a “new” Libya?

In a post-conflict or post-authoritarian society, there is little consensus among domestic and international actors about which “peacebuilding” goals should be prioritized, and which can be initially tabled.  Some argue that lasting peace cannot be attained until economic development is underway; others contend that macroeconomic stability is impossible in the absence of peace.  Some suggest that peace objectives (e.g. ending and disincentivizing violence, demobilizing and reintegrating warring factions, institutionalizing political parties) must be pursued before justice objectives (e.g. addressing past human right violations, bringing an end to impunity, reforming judicial systems) can be achieved; still others claim that justice is an integral part of the peacebuilding process and must be prioritized from the onset.

The Libyan case brings many of these issues into focus. Countering the claim that transitional justice issues should be tabled in Libya while security and development concerns are tackled, David Tolbert, President of the International Center for Transitional Justice, argues that “justice is as crucial to the future of their country as it is inextricably linked to stability, security, and development” (“Make Justice a Foundation of the New Libya”). In the shadow of Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year dictatorial rule, the transitional authorities must build institutions that can effectively promote human rights—including the rights to truth and justice—of all citizens.  Effective rule of law institutions will be “key to overcoming internal divisions and ensuring a successful transition to a stable society untroubled by its past,” Tolbert argues.

Of course, it is not clear which justice mechanisms best fit the Libyan context, and which authorities have the legal jurisdiction to prosecute in this case.  The umbrella National Transitional Council (NTC) is insisting that Gaddafi should be tried domestically for crimes committed against Libyans; the International Criminal Court (ICC) has claimed jurisdiction over trying Gaddafi and a few high-level officials for alleged crimes against humanity; even the U.S. Congress has expressed interest in bringing charges against Gaddafi for committing attacks that killed U.S. citizens in 1986 and 1988.  Libya may also need more than just criminal trials to fully achieve justice: truth-seeking and truth-telling commissions and reparations for victims may also be necessary.

These decisions are not uncomplicated, and they have serious political and societal ramifications.  But as Tolbert argues, one thing is clear: an approach to building a new Libya that does not address transitional justice issues will fail.  If post-conflict development and peacebuilding projects are to be successful, justice issues must be given priority.