Global Ethics Corner: Vigilante Justice: Have Libyans' Demands for Retribution Gone Too Far?

May 11, 2012

Libya's civil war is over, but many victims of the Qaddafi regime are still violently meting out justice to their former oppressors. Will this just lead to a vicious cycle of abuse in the North African state? How can Libya balance the victims' needs with the perpetrators' basic human rights?

Libya's civil war may be over, but the country has still not attained true peace.

It's been six months since rebel forces liberated Libya and yet the country has no unified army or government. Instead, armed militias control the country's towns and villages. Unfettered by the rule of law, they take justice into their own hands.

Their first targets? Loyalists of former Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi, who led the decades-long assault on Libya's civilian population. In meting out vigilante justice, some analysts say Libya's militias are delivering punishments that meet the definition of torture.

Thirty thousand Libyans died during the country's eight-month civil war. Thousands more were tortured, killed, and oppressed throughout Qaddafi's three-decade-long rule. No one expected that emerging from such a violent history would be easy. Post-conflict transitions are inevitably painful and slow. Bringing justice for crimes committed in a former regime's name with fairness and respect can be tremendously difficult.

But human rights advocates warn that Libya's response is especially bad. Amnesty International says militias are on a rampage. They've uncovered evidence of former Qaddafi loyalists being unlawfully detained, tortured, and killed. According to reports in The New York Times, victims are being encouraged to confront former torturers and inflict similar crimes on them.

Libya's transitional authorities show little interest in dealing fairly with the past. In May, they granted immunity to all rebel fighters for crimes committed during the civil war.

Critics say such practices risk perpetuating violence in Libya. They say Libyans need to embrace the rule of law and stop all forms of abuse—regardless of the victim.

What do you think? How can Libya better balance the needs of victims with the rights of perpetrators?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

"Libya: 'Out of control' militias commit widespread abuses, a year on from uprising," Amnesty International, February 15, 2012

Robert F. Worth, "In Libya, the Captors Have Become the Captive," The New York Times, May 9, 2012

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance: Ammar Abd Rabbo [also for pictures 2, 5, 8, 9, & 10) James (Jim) Gordon IOPCR Dave King Haxorjoe

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