By Valerie Stocker.
Tripoli, 6 October:
Libyan civil society activists are creating a network they hope will help impact their country’s first Constitution . . .[restrict]since 1969 that is to be drafted over the coming months by a Constitutional Assembly yet to established.
Lately, a number of local CSOs (civil society organisations), including the New Libya Foundation, the Rashad Foundation, H2O, the Free Generation Movement and Phoenix, have been organising conferences and discussion rounds on this subject.
Beyond raising awareness and igniting debate on the grassroots level, their objective is to bring together CSOs of various backgrounds for coordinated action at a future stage. Those involved in the process are for most part young Libyan activists from different parts of the country, including representatives of the Tebu, Tuareg and Amazigh communities, as well as some familiar faces from Libya’s small but active twitter community.
Formed during a workshop that took place at the Thobacts Hotel earlier this week, the network’s coordination committee is now drafting a manifesto that – once approved by the member organisations – will be presented to the General National Congress (GNC).
The workshop was the second event in a row following a conference on constitutional issues held last month in the beautifully renovated King’s Palace in Tripoli.
The centrepiece of this last event was a presentation by Libyan lawyer and human rights activist Azza Maghur on constitutional systems and processes. She focused on the constitution-drafting process as well as the nature and role of the future Constituent Assembly (Al-Lajna at-ta’assisiyya lil-Dustur), also called the Assembly of 60 (Lajnat As-Sitteen) in reference to the number of its members.
“The Libyan people now has the exceptional opportunity to witness and assist the drafting of their own Constitution, unlike older regimes such as France”, Maghur said.
At the same time, Libya is not the only country facing such a challenge; over the past few decades other countries, for instance in Latin America and Eastern Europe, have also gone through major transitions that required (re-)writing their set of fundamental principles.
Libyans can in fact draw lessons and inspiration from their immediate neighbours, Tunisia and Egypt, which are still in the process of drafting a Constitution and represent two different approaches to forming a Constituent Assembly (elected in the former; nominated in the latter case).
Considering the urgent need for a legislative foundation and the logistical challenge of organising another country-wide vote, Maghur is in favour of the GNC nominating the members of the CA, as laid out in the Constitutional Declaration of August 2011 prior to the amendments of March and July 2012 (equal regional representation and direct election of members respectively).
In any case, she said, the former federal divisions of the territory did not reflect current day reality and should thus not be a criterion for appointing CA members. Mustaqill, “free”, was the word of the day, referring to the CA that, in spite of being nominated, aught to be completely independent from other state institutions and outside manipulation.
Of course, Azza Maghur conceded, members of the assembly will each have their own agendas and goals depending on their respective background and political affiliation. They will also, she said, be subject to a great deal of pressure from different social and political groups.
This is natural and should not be seen as a problem as long as the CA acts as an institutionally independent body. Talking about lessons to be learnt from the past, Maghur reminded the audience of Libya’s first Constitution, drafted between 1950 and 1951 under the guidance of UN Commissioner to Libya, Adrien Pelt. At the time, the King did not interfere with the drafting process, she claimed, other than requiring his picture and references to his person to be included in the document. As such, Libyans can look back with pride to their first Constitution, despite it not being useful as a blueprint.
In an ensuing shorter presentation, CSO members went into further detail regarding the duration of the drafting process. The presenters compared past experiences from other countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Iraq and Tunisia (ongoing), in some of which the process took as long as four years.
Rather than being bound by the provisions of the Constitutional Declaration or by GNC decisions, the CA itself should be authorised to determine the amount of time needed to elaborate a draft Constitution within a reasonable timeframe, they concluded.
A document as fundamental as this should not be put on paper in a hurry, especially not in the present context where minorities and previously disregarded groups are trying to make their voices heard.
According to the latest amendment to the Declaration, the CA will have 120 days to finish its task, which many see as much too short. “The Constitution-drafting process is an opportunity for national dialogue”, reads the draft petition handed out by the organisers during the event. Beyond this argument, the organisers are promoting a civil society ‘roadmap’ aiming for what they call a civil society constitutional network. By signing a common statement and coordinating their moves, they say, activists will have a better chance of influencing the drafting of the Constitution and ensuring that their suggestions and concerns will be taken into account.
The aim of this network is not only to influence decision-makers, but also to support them in establishing direct contact with specialised groups and organisations such as, for instance, Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) when addressing human rights issues. At the same time, the organisers emphasised that their roadmap is “not a holy book”, and that participation in the network should be as inclusive as possible. They therefore called upon attending CSOs to bring in at least five more organisations each in order to rapidly expand the network.
Both the conference and the ensuing workshop triggered lively debates among the audience. Referring to the presentations some pointed out what they regarded as factual inaccuracies or requested precisions on the constitutional process.
Regarding the organisers’ main demands, some spoke out against letting the CA decide on the duration of their assignment, fearing delays and further instability. Others expressed their wish for stronger leadership, both within the GNC and the activist community. One member of a women’s rights organization voiced her concern that by signing a petition her organisation would be associated with claims by others that it did not identify with. Fellow attendees, as well as the organisers refuted any such risk, pointing out that the petition was not meant as a political manifesto but rather a guideline and set of common objectives.
At the current stage, they said, it is not about making specific demands, but about agreeing on basic principles and setting up a structure that would later allow for fast action on issues as they arise.