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Restorative justice lessons from Libya

February 21, 2014

Though no one has put their hand up to contest our claim until now, a good methodological prescription is to keep searching for the deviant case so that its theoretical implications can be fathomed. John Braithwaite’s experience with what we now call restorative justice conferences began 34 years ago with mine safety and nursing home exit conferences following regulatory inspections. One deviant case was of a New York City nursing home he visited in the 1980s. A Mafia member owned it. At an exit conference following an inspection of his facility, he put his gun on the table around which the participants were seated. This was used in lectures to illustrate extreme power imbalance, intimidation and asymmetrical threat in business regulation, rather than actual infliction of violence.

Now that we have found a case where violence did break out in a process that we would call restorative, it is an extreme one. It was a reconciliation between the Tebu tribe living in southern Libya (most Tebu live in northern Chad, but also in northeastern Niger and northwestern Sudan) and Arab tribes in Sebha (southern Libya) in March 2012. The inter- and intra-tribal reconciliation traditions in this part of the world have been described as fully restorative in the past. These Islamic tribes follow the pre-Islamic, pre-Christian traditions of the Sulha that were probably widespread across the ancient worlds of the Middle East and the Maghreb of North Africa. They were traditions that Jews and Christians used as well in conflicts with Muslims in Galilee. 

The reconciliation at issue was geopolitically important. During the Libyan Revolution of 2011, many Tebu who were illegal immigrants in Libya at the time were promised citizenship by Gaddafi if they fought for him. Before and after the revolution, other Tebu claim that promises of future Libyan citizenship were also made in return for specific kinds of service, such as providing security for oil production facilities. It is unlikely that any electable future government of Libya could grant citizenship to large numbers of Tebu who were not longstanding residents in Libya. Tebu leaders complain they have been constantly harassed and attacked by Arab militias since the fall of Gaddafi.

…The reconciliation of 26 March 2012 was convened in the traditional way, conducted mainly by Misratan wisemen of tribes who were not involved in the original conflict. The tribes involved in the conflict were the Tebu, the Awlad Suleiman and the Abu Saif. We heard various disputed versions of the initial spark of conflict, but it seems likely to have been the killing of an Abu Saif member by Tebu carjackers. A firefight broke out during a heated argument at the preliminary 

(‘understanding’) phase of the reconciliation process in the ‘People’s Hall’ – long before the desired reconciliatory Sulha outcome was achieved. Three Tebu were killed inside the reconciliation meeting. The Tebu then took the fight out onto the streets of Sebha. In no time fighting had escalated to what van Klinken has called a ‘small town war’. On some estimates, at least 147 people were killed and 500 wounded. The Tebu took control of the airport, presumably to prevent military aircraft from flying in with troops, also took control of the hospital to ensure that the predominantly Arab staff did not neglect the needs of their wounded. However, the other normally rather disunited tribes in Sebha united to get on top of the Tebu fighters with heavy shelling of Tebu shantytowns, which were attacked by tanks and Katusha rockets. This ended Tebu mortar fire into Awlad Suleiman neighbourhoods of Sebha

…There are few more important places to carry out restorative justice today than Libya. Tribes mostly drive groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda, such as Ansar al Sharia, out of the large towns and cities including Sebha. But in the mountains and deserts outside the towns of the south, the jihadists run training camps that supply the salafist terror groups in Iraq and Syria, where more than a thousand Libyan fighters exported into Syria from such training camps have been killed. Reconciliation between the Libyan people and those exiled salafist fighters is imperative and may require international support, if requested. The people who should undertake the reconciliation are radical Islamist leaders and wisemen who nevertheless believe that violence is the wrong path for Islam and that jihadist exiles must be reintegrated into mainstream Libyan society.

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