The Woman Who Told Libyans to “Fight Peacefully by Using Your Vote”

Posted on: August 21, 2015, by :

imagesThis op-ed was originally published online on The Huffington Post.

June 26, 2015 – A year ago today, what many saw as Libya’s last chance for a democratic future ended in the kind of tragedy and violence that has marked the country’s recent history.

Many thousands had been expected to vote in the general elections but fears over security saw more than three quarters of registered voters stay at home. Those fears were well founded as armed gangs sought to target the method and means of Libya’s transition to democracy.

That morning, the human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis had rallied her supporters with a message that they must “fight peacefully by using your vote”, assuring them that the militias “will not beat us and they will not thwart our democracy…We are determined to build the Libya we have always dreamed of.”

Salwa was a voice for Libyan freedom that had been recognised internationally. She had campaigned against the Gaddfi regime as a student, as a lawyer she defended political prisoners arrested by its security apparatus, and had been one of the first women to take part in Libya’s Arab revolution protests in front of the courthouse in Benghazi. She had been a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council and had campaigned vociferously for women to have a central role in Libya’s future. As she returned home from casting her vote that day, a gang of hooded men shot Salwa dead.

In the 12 months since the elections and Salwa’s murder, Libya’s political situation has continued to be characterized by high farce and brutal violence. In December 2014, the supreme court in Tripoli ruled that the 25 June elections had been unconstitutional. The previous legislative body now did not recognise its successor as legitimate, while the newly elected House of Representatives saw the court’s judgment as politically motivated and asserted itself as the rightful legislature of the Libyan people.

The political inertia that was created by the ruling only served to cede even more ground to the militias and armed gangs. Inevitably those who remain dedicated to the cause of a democratic Libya and for women’s full participation continued to be targeted. Just a month after Salwa was murdered, Fareha al-Barqawi, a former representative for Derna in the east of Libya, was herself gunned down.

For the friends, family and colleagues of these courageous women – and for many more victims of political violence in the country – the cause of freedom in Libya is now also fight for justice and an end to the de facto impunity that the killers of Salwa and Fereha currently enjoy.

The parlous security situation that has empowered the militias is also behind the increase in people smuggling operations on Libya’s coast that has seen so many people from across Africa and the Middle East seek transit to Europe. For many European leaders, the answer to this issue is fresh air strikes to target the criminal gangs. What they do not seem to recognise is that people smuggling is just as much the unfinished business of Nato’s bombing campaign during the Libyan civil war as is Libya’s ongoing political turmoil.

The mechanisms for stabilization in Libya already exist but what they need are the international political will and support to be seen through. In August last year the UN Security Council passed resolution 2174, calling for immediate ceasefire in Libya, inclusive political dialogue, and for the militias to decommission their weapons. The EU must reconsider if the resources it would spend on dropping yet more ordinance on North Africa would be better served in seeking a political and diplomatic solution that could finally bring peace and democracy to Libya.

More positive recent developments have been the inclusion of women in the UN-led Political Dialogue on Libya that took place earlier this month in Berlin and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ announcement that he will send a fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations in Libya. It is vital for the transition to democracy that this mission prioritises investigation into the attacks and threats being made on activists working to promote gender equality and to protect human rights

While political violence in Libya and the deliberate targeting of activists and campaigners has undoubtedly thrown the democratic transition off course the murderers of Salwa Bugaighis have not murdered her ideals and the Libyan people’s will for peace and security.

The spirit of activists and women like Salwa and like Fereha endures. These are people who opposed the regime of Gaddafi, who rallied the Libyan people during the civil war; their courage in the face of men who would murder them remains an inspiration and a touchstone for the many who still seek freedom from violence and a democratic and equal Libya.

When we seek justice for Salwa and justice for Fareha, we seek justice for all Libyans.