Property issues in Libya: A reminder that the road to sustainable peace still goes via root causes

by Rhodri C. Williams

What to say about Libya? Despite the slide from the country’s post-revolutionary and chaotic new normal to civil war, it is still too early to give up hope. While Libya may have yet to scrape bottom, many of the factors that argued for a sustainable recovery from Gaddafi’s long nihilistic night remain latent. And despite the increasing subordination of Libya’s politics to the influence of regional competitions and actors, the country still remains to some degree a case apart, churning in the region’s ideological divisions without the despair-inducing ethnic and sectarian fractures that threaten the Mashriq.

It seems a very long time since my work in Libya, on property issues that stalled (at best), displacement issues that exploded, and rule of law issues that have descended to a near farce, with mass trials of senior Gaddafi regime officials wrapping up amid power cuts and procedural irregularities. By all accounts, Ibrahim Sharqieh’s grim prediction that the lustration law forced through in 2013 would be the equivalent of the Iraqi de-Baathification process has been vindicated, as the heavily militarized winners of the revolution collapsed into open conflict with each other. Then comes IS in Sirte, refugee catastrophes in the Mediterranean, and the needless death of good and selflessly devoted Libyans.

The temptation is strong in such situations to cut losses and contain damage. For Europe, for instance, earlier efforts to build up a Libyan state that could be a responsible partner on migration issues have now given way to desperate proposals to unilaterally stem migration that bypass and undermine what remains of the Libyan state. Fortunately, the UN Special Envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, has shown extraordinary persistence, chivvying two sides that refuse to recognize each other into 80% of a peace deal even as economic collapse looms. Another refusal to write Libya off came last month, when the Legatum Institute revived the moribund debate over property issues in Libya.

The Transitions Forum of the Legatum Institute is run by the prominent historian Anne Applebaum and is devoted to “the study of radical political and economic change … offering lessons learned for current and future transitions across the globe”. Questions of property and territory have been a consistent theme in Ms. Applebaum’s work, ranging from her nuanced treatment of post-World War II ethnic cleansing, reparations and nationalizations in her 2012 book on Eastern Europe to the depiction of how property confiscations undermined Georgian judicial reform in a more recent Legatum report.

Beginning late last year, I had the privilege of working with Libyan analyst Tarek Megerisi and Irish journalist Mary Fitzgerald on a report on property issues in Libya. The report built on earlier Legatum work on Libya’s financial sector in setting out an updated picture of how Gaddafi’s simultaneously calculated and cavalier approach to property rights underlie many of the grievances that continue to drive the country’s conflict. I was also invited to participate in the launch event for the report last month and enjoyed the chance to reengage with a community of Libyans and international Libya observers that still see the potential for a future that transcends the country’s past.

In both the panel discussion (embedded above) and a prior interview with Anne Applebaum (see below), I focused on the problem of the zero-sum political tradition engineered by Gaddafi himself that continues to infect both the immediate issue of finding a fair solution to property conflicts and the larger issue of negotiating peace between the factions in Libya. As the ICG pointed out in its latest Libya report, for instance, the mutually exclusive claims of both parties to the current Libyan conflict to international legitimacy have come to constitute one of the single greatest obstacles to finding a way forward.

In discussing how the impasse might be resolved, I used the example of Cyprus, where recent rulings by the European Court of Human Rights have pushed both parties toward a solution to the property issues that balances the rights and legitimate interests of both sides. While the Cyprus case remains contentious and differs from Libya in numerous important respects, it stands for the idea that the resolution of long-standing, infected property conflicts must include protections for and concessions by both sides.

The Legatum report represents an important update in a steady, if sparse, chain of reports and analyses on property issues in Libya. These include my own report for UNHCR, an excellent analysis by Suliman Ibrahim and Jessica Carlisle in a broader study of access to justice in Libya by a Leiden University research project, and a USAID land tenure country analysis including both a report on property rights in relation to justice and security sector reform and a translation and analysis of draft legislation floated in 2013 to reverse Gaddafi-era appropriations.

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