Tag Archives: UNHCR

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.

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Rest in peace Mohamed Al-Sweii

Mohamed images-63221My colleague from my time with UNHCR in Libya, Sam Cheung, passed on the tragic news that Dr. Mohamed Al-Sweii was killed in the heavy fighting in Benghazi earlier this week. In the laconic delivery of the Alwasat article, as filtered through google translate:

…the deceased came out of his workplace Benghazi Medical Center to check on his family and as soon as he entered the area which is witnessing violent clashes was shot in the head, killing him instantly.

The first time I met Dr. Al-Sweii, in March 2012, he was waiting for us at a beachside cafe in Tripoli’s fashionable Gargaresh district. He received us with a dazzling grin, in big fashionable traffic cop glasses and an immaculate suit. I can’t recall exactly what I made of him at the time but I probably assumed at first he was just another one of the good-time boys cruising around liberated Tripoli in shiny cars and tight Italian t-shirts. My notes from early in the meeting are not without a dose of humanitarian snark in the margins (“not clear if has heard of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement”).

Whatever my first impressions, though, the rest of my notes spoke volumes. As the sun sank red to the Mediterranean, Mohamed walked me through a comprehensive aid delivery program built on the same goodwill and amateur enthusiasm that was powering every other government function and public service in Libya at the time. The difference being that his efforts targeted the virtual untouchables of the revolution, the communities driven out from their homes, persecuted and made to bear collective guilt for four decades of humiliation under the ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The next time I met Mohamed, it was in the cavernous bullet-riddled former Mercedes dealership in the center of town where he spent his days coordinating aid delivery, escaping to unwind in the cool breezes of Gargaresh only late in the afternoon. It was perhaps at this time I heard the whole story of how he had been a medical student in Benghazi when the revolution broke out and volunteered to fly back and forth to the front lines at Ajdabiya, rescuing battle-wounded overnight revolutionaries in a jerry-rigged ambulance.

Dr. Mohamed put a face on those turbulent times for me. It was him, young and idealistic, suppressing his fear by the things he could do with his own mind and his hands, who would build up a new and better country.

Now, three years after the revolution, Mohamed found himself back in Benghazi, once again risking his own life to save those injured in a far murkier and more ambiguous conflict. People like Mohamed, or the human rights lawyer Salwa Al-Bugaighis murdered last June in Benghazi are the most important resource Libya has. A country denied institutions cannot afford to lose the individuals who give of themselves most freely.

Rest in peace Doctor Mohamed. Libya, heal thyself.

Happy Midsummer’s Eve – and World Refugee Day

by Rhodri C. Williams

Every now and then the various preoccupations of this blog collide in unexpected ways. Today is such a day. Sitting here on Åland, its the first day of my summer vacation and time for the rites of Midsummer Eve, a pagan celebration the observance of which is an important part of the local community’s sense of itself. It is a day of rootedness in traditions carried out on a particular piece of turf since time out of mind by people connected through the ages by language and a sense of cultural continuity and the simple fact of their abiding presence.

All of which makes the contrast with this day’s other guise so jarring. It is World Refugee Day and not just any such day, but the one that has seen the greatest spike in conflict-related displacement since World War II. As this village’s 30 families raise the midsummer pole tonight, over 50 million people in other parts of the world have been violently uprooted from their communities, their traditions, their homes and their lands. It is a truly grim milestone and one that will cast a shadow over this and many future midsummer evenings to come.

Syria is hemmorrhaging

As the Syria crisis reaches yet another crescendo, the UNHCR comes out with a really quite astonishing tweet:

Whether born of calculation or desperate spontaneity, the composition of the thing effectively conveys a seasoned humanitarian agency that is on its knees in the face of unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. It will be a hard act to follow. Lets hope it never needs to be.

For a glimpse of the pressure cooker life in a camp in Hatay province, Turkey, see Robin Yassin Kassab’s latest in Foreign Policy. The manner in which camp life produces hyper-compressed vignettes of the windy discourses we are all so familiar with now is striking – and worth quoting at length:

Part of the problem is Western fear of the opposition’s greatly exaggerated Islamist-extremist element. The irony is that the longer the tragedy lasts, the greater the empowerment of once minor and irrelevant jihadi forces.

Atmeh village, on a hill behind the camp, has been turned into a barracks for the foreign Islamist fighters of Hizb ut-Tahrir. These men are not, apparently, fighting the regime, but waiting for “the next stage” — in other words, the coming struggle between moderates and Islamist extremists after the fall of the regime. Syrians, including democratic Islamists, refer to them derisively as “the spicy crew” and shrug off the risk they represent. One assured me it would take “two minutes” to expel them once the regime falls.

But sectarian hatreds — stoked by the regime’s propaganda, its Alawite death squads, and assaults on Sunni heritage — are certainly rising. I met a man whose wife and 11 children were killed in an airstrike and who plans to marry again and produce 11 more children, “just so I can teach them to kill Alawites.” There’s a teenager who boasted, “Afterwards, we won’t leave a single Alawite alive.”

This deliberate attack on the social fabric is perhaps the regime’s greatest crime. When tyrants light the fuse of sectarian war, they are unleashing passions that extend beyond politics. They are killing people who have not yet been born.

Yassin-Kassab’s account is included in a recent list of articles on Syria recommended by Syrian activists. See also the Guardian here for a description of the effect of the conflict in neighbouring Syria – as well as dubious sectarian populism by the Turkish government – on the  mixed but traditionally tolerant population of Hatay province.

Meanwhile, for a refreshingly clear explanation of the dynamics behind the latest, mysterious wave of Syrian Kurd refugees that broke over Iraq two weeks ago (and which for UNHCR must have been the final straw), see Hugh Eakin in the NYRB blog.

And finally, a new Oxfam report, written together with the ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality, shows that women refugees are both disproportionately represented in and impacted by displacement, going hungry to feed their families and facing heightened domestic violence.

Global conflict-induced displacement at highest level since 1994

by Rhodri C. Williams

During any given spring in the past, the release of the global internal displacement figures by the IDMC followed by the overall displacement numbers from UNHCR came as a malign one-two punch. Even in the salad days of the mid-2000s, the ostensibly ‘stabilized’ figures of around 25 million conflict-induced internally displaced persons (IDPs) and around 12 million refugees involved huge numbers by any count, staggering in their relentless accretion of human misery and broken lives. And all the more so as consciousness dawned of the rising tide of disaster displacement (and a studious silence about the additional millions uprooted by development projects persisted).

But with all that in our luggage, this year has been particularly bad. First came IDMC in April with the unwelcome news that conflict-related internal displacement (and by implication, the re-emergence of regional and internal armed conflicts) had been written off far too early. And now comes UNHCR pointing to 45.2 million deracinated lives at the end of 2012. Before you even count a further six months of rampant displacement in Syria, in other words, we see the worst overall conflict displacement numbers since 1994, the year the Rwanda genocide began and it seemed the Bosnia war would never end (and no one even had the energy to ask what was happening in the north and south Caucasus anymore).

Gird your loins humanitarians, it looks like we called it too early.

Report on property issues and displacement in Libya for UNHCR

by Rhodri C. Williams

Entering Tajoura, picture by the author

Toward Tajoura, March 2012, picture by the author

Many TN readers will be aware that I spent the better part of last Spring working for the UNHCR on a report on housing, land and property (HLP) issues related to displacement in Libya. The research involved interviews with numerous internally displaced persons (IDPs), many of the officials directly or indirectly responsible for their welfare, as well as civil society activists and legal experts. The work was undertaken throughout the north of the country, including Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi, Sirte, Ajdabiya, Tiji, Nalut, Yefren and Kikla.

The resulting report was published earlier this Fall and includes both immediate term recommendations for humanitarian programming and longer term observations on how the process of seeking durable solutions for Libya’s displaced relates to broader dynamics of transitional justice, rule of law reconstruction and sustainable development. Accordingly, those of you who have read my earlier short piece on HLP issues in Libya will find many of the themes introduced there greatly expanded upon here. 

The report goes into some detail and is not a light read at nearly 100 pages. The Executive Summary is a bit more manageable at 15 pages and closely tracks the four part breakdown of the full paper. However, in order to help TN readers get a quick overview of the main points in the paper, I have further compressed the summary down to about five pages, reprinted just below.

A great deal of credit is due to the UNHCR country office in Libya, and particularly to Senior Protection Officer Samuel Cheung, for recognizing early on the need to understand the nexus between property issues and displacement in Libya. The UNHCR also proved farsighted in providing a mandate not only to examine the humanitarian implications of property disputes, but also to extend the analysis to take in concerns related to transitional justice, rule of law and development.

Since its local release last Fall, the report has supported efforts by both national advocates and international observers to ensure that outstanding property questions in Libya are resolved in accordance with international standards. Such efforts will be crucial to achieving an end to the ongoing and protracted displacement of entire communities collectively punished for their imputed support for the Gaddafi regime, and thereby achieving meaningful national reconciliation.

The report also underscores the need for more research and further analysis in order to ensure that the resolution of HLP issues is based on Libyan realities as well as international standards. There have been some very promising signs on this front, including the inclusion of a study on property and housing issues in a broader project related to strengthening rule of law institutions in Libya run by the Hague Institute of Global Justice, as well as plans to shortly include an updated property rights profile of Libya in USAID’s land tenure country profiles series.

In sum – this paper represents a first stab at a complex issue that is crucial to Libya’s future. I am grateful to the UNHCR for giving me the opportunity to participate in this process and look forward to any comments and feedback from TN readers.

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How I spent my Christmas break

One of the less memorable milestones for TN in 2013 will be the first passage of an entire month – January – without a single posting. The fact, as many of you are probably now aware, is that I have been completely taken up with some recent work with the International Legal Assistance Consortium (‘ILAC’, based here in Stockholm) on supporting rule of law efforts in Libya.

This work builds on research I did last year for the UNHCR on housing, land and property issues for IDPs and refugees in Libya, which had important rule of law and transitional justice implications. It also reflects a little bit of a return to the rule-of-law fold via another assignment last Spring, this one mapping and analyzing the emerging field of constitutional assistance for the Swedish Folke Bernadotte Academy (report to be published soon). The job with ILAC has involved core RoL concerns of the kind I started out with long ago in Bosnia – an assessment of the judicial system and the RoL institutions around it as both the objects and carriers of transitional reform.

So there have been a few changes in the make, and these have kept me very busy. One is a shift from freelance consultancy to something more in the way of a day job, and the other might be described as a shift in focus from a particular substantive concern (property) to the kind of institutions that safeguard access to and enjoyment of property and most other rights. Whatever comes of all this, I do plan to keep TN going, based on two equations. First, and most practical, less consultancy equals more disposable time (on that, more later, once I have extracted myself more fully from the hamster wheel).

But, second and more important, the times are such that I no longer feel I have to make a choice between ‘rule of law’ proper and the more humanitarian, human rights and development-oriented concerns of my consultancy career and this blog. One of the reassuring things in coming back to grips with the UN rule of law literature was the extent to which this area has explicitly become interwoven with human rights, transitional justice, and development discourses. Or as I put it in commenting on the run-up to the UNGA’s ‘high-level meeting’ on RoL last Fall, what seems striking is an “increasingly emphatic accommodation of legal empowerment and economic/social concerns in an area of practice that arguably began as a bastion of orthodox civil and political imperatives.”

And for those who persist in the belief that a step toward rule of law must entail a step away from social and economic concerns, I have another announcement that may be reassuring. As some of you know, regular TN guest-blogger Natalie Bugalski and her colleague David Pred have founded an independent research and advocacy organization, Inclusive Development International (IDI). Last Fall, I was honored to be asked to join them as an associate and quickly accepted. IDI is dedicated to supporting poor and marginalized peoples in the face of unaccountable political and economic institutions that promote harmful development activities and fail to properly implement safeguards to protect their rights. I cannot imagine a more timely and relevant rule of law challenge.