Vengeance Has No Place in a Libya Free of Qaddafi

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The overthrow of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in Libya represents not only the end of a 42-year-old regime, but the end of an era of unprecedented repression and dictatorship in Libya. Military action was ultimately effective in helping rebels topple the regime. However, to ensure that they are entering a new era of justice, freedom and development, Libyans across the country must replace the militancy they unleashed against the Qaddafi regime with a new mechanism: forgiveness.

The atrocities committed under the Qaddafi regime, and during the six-month revolution, are numerous. The Abu Salim prison massacre and shelling of Misrata are only two examples of these crimes, reinforcing charges raised by the International Criminal Court against Qaddafi and his loyalists for crimes against humanity.

In a society where tribal relations are strong and date back decades, the victims and relatives of those who endured unspeakable abuses under the Qaddafi dictatorship will likely be tempted to avenge their suffering now that the regime has lost control. And because Qaddafi’s repression was systematic and widespread, it affected most segments of the country, which therefore could lead to extensive reprisals against segments of the former regime.

Libya’s progress will require that the National Transitional Council (NTC), or whoever comes to power afterwards, guard against this by granting justice for both the victims and the perpetrators of violent acts. As much as they may wish to avoid dealing with it, Libyans will likely find themselves using retributive justice against certain members of the regime, particularly against those who were involved in the killing of innocent civilians.

This will be difficult to avoid. Libyans are likely to want to pursue this path for the cathartic psychological impact it would have on the grieving families of the regime’s victims and the society in general. For some victims, retributive justice against certain regime figures may be necessary to grant them closure to their suffering and to help them move forward. Some may argue that only retributive justice can undo the regime’s injustices against the Libyan people.

While retributive justice may provide some psychological release to victims, Libyans must realise that this is not the type of justice that will help their country move into a new era of stability, reconstruction and development. Indeed, Libyans need to engage in a wide national reconciliation process that uses restorative, rather than retributive, tactics to repair broken relationships and heal deep wounds.

No one understands the needs of those who suffered under Qaddafi more than the victims themselves, and with restorative justice those victims will be given the opportunity to identify what helps them deal with their grievances and move into a new Libya.

Restorative justice will also grant regime figures the opportunity to acknowledge the suffering of their countrymen, apologise for their past wrongdoing, and seek forgiveness. Restitution will include the need for regime individuals to relinquish all privileges they gained due to their positions in the Qaddafi regime.

Forgiveness will be critical for the Libyans to enter a post-Qaddafi era of stability and development. A genuine and inclusive reconciliation process must involve all Libyan parties (including tribes, Islamists, technocrats, former regime officials, and the diaspora) and only with forgiveness will these parties be able to deal with the past in a way that allows them to move forward to a new and democratic Libya.

For a successful national reconciliation to take place, a major party must lead the way in initiating and facilitating the process. Generally, the state and civil society organisations play an important role in this process, as illustrated by the South African experience. Unfortunately, the Qaddafi regime did not leave a healthy civil society sector to play this role. In the Libyan context, therefore, the tribe remains a central social unit and is a strong candidate for initiating the reconciliation process in Libya.

Tribal leaders are well positioned to take the initiative, as they have strong influence within their own tribes and with other sectors of Libyan society. Because tribal cleavages cut across other social and economic ones, tribal leaders could play a critical role in reuniting the post-Qaddafi Libya.

It is true that forgiveness is not easy to accomplish in a society that suffered for four decades under a brutal and capricious dictatorship. However, Libyans must recognise that vengeance will only prolong their suffering and endanger their transition to a new Libya. Libyans are well equipped to forgive, as their Arab and Muslim culture encourages such values as forgiveness and reconciliation.

Traditionally it is said “forgive when able,” and today Libyans are indeed able either to pursue or forgive individuals associated with the Qaddafi regime.

Recent splits between rebel factions, and frustration over the formation of a post-Qaddafi government, have suggested the road ahead will not be easy.

But Libyans should remember the principles of the Prophet Mohammed when he prayed to Allah to save the people of the city of Taif who mistreated him. His response to the Quraysh tribe, who fought against him and forced him out of his native Mecca: “Go! For you are all free.”