Libya: Amendment to draconian Law 19/2001 on civil society offers no solution

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

Rather than complying with its constitutional obligation to issue a new law guaranteeing the right to free association, the House of Representatives proposes amendment to repressive law shackling civil society

On 21 March 2023, the Government of National Unity headed by Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh issued Decree no. 7 of 2023, allowing local and international associations in Libya to continue working under ‘temporary’ legitimacy until their conditions are ‘corrected’ according to repressive Law no. 19 of 2001 on regulating associations. Less than a week earlier, on 13 March, all local and international associations operating in Libya registered after 2011 had been recognized as illegal by the Tripoli Government’s Department of External Cooperation, in General Decree no. 5803.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) condemns General Decree no. 5803, which undermines the legitimacy of  local and international organizations and associations that have been operating in Libya for more than a decade. CIHRS further denounces the amendment to the Law no. 19 of 2001, which is no less dangerous to free association and civil society independence in Libya, and requires the same denunciation.  Any amendments to this repressive law are futile in rendering it compatible with civil society.  The law not only violates Libya’s 2011 Constitutional Declaration (Article 15) but it also has been repealed under Law no. 29 of 2013 (Article 6), which abolished all repressive laws enacted before 2011.

Law no. 19 of 2001 is inconsistent with the principles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Libya ratified it in 1970. Constitutional Appeal 57/01, issued in December 2013, is further applicable to the law in its recognition of international law’s primacy over national law: ‘In case of contradiction between national laws and international conventions, the most recent relevant international convention ratified by the Libyan authorities must be applied before the national courts’.

Enacted during the Gaddafi regime and approved by the General People’s Congress, Law no. 19 of 2001 only recognizes associations that provide social, cultural, sports, charitable or humanitarian services. The law places these associations under the strict supervision of the General People’s Congress, which is given sweeping powers to interfere in virtually every aspect of an association’s existence without judicial authorization or oversight.  It has the sole authority to register and publicize associations and approve their articles of association and membership. The Congress can close or dissolve association, merge it with another, revoke its policies and decisions, or assign a temporary management to it. Any and all of the association’s fundamental operations – whether it be obtaining funding, engaging in an activity, or holding a meeting – is subject to the supervision, attendance, and sanction of the General People’s Congress.

The amendments recently proposed to Law 19 of 2001 do nothing to significantly curtail the broad and unconstitutional executive overreach exercised through the General People’s Congress, and instead simply feature a name change of the Congress to the “General Commission of Civil Society”. Under the proposed amendment, this new commission has a legal personality and an independent budget, and will report to the legislative authority. The Head of the House of Representatives will select the members of the commission. Like the former General People’s Congress, the commission will be able to unilaterally accept or reject the registration of associations without reasons given, suspend or dissolve the association without judicial permission, cancel the decisions of the association’s board of directors and replace them, and pre-approve any activity or funding of the association. The Commission is also tasked with granting all permissions, completing legal and administrative procedures, and supervising and following up on local and international associations and non-governmental organizations.

These broad and unlawful powers undermine the freedom and independence of civil society, which are protected by Libya’s Constitutional Declaration. These powers further violate the principles of freedom of association endorsed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the guarantees of freedom of association according to Article (10/1) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The commission and its powers fundamentally violate the basic parameters for any national law regulating civil work, as contained in the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of association issued in May 2012.

The proposal to formally amend Law no. 19 of 2001, thus justifying the continued implementation of this repressive law exploits the absence of a legal framework regulating the work of associations since 2011, paving the way for Libya’s executive authorities to infringe upon judicial and legislative protections of the right to association. From 2016 to March 2023, executive authorities in east and west issued four decisions and administrative regulations that that stifle the freedom to form national and international associations, targeting human rights organizations that expose their violations. These include regulations no. 1 and no. 2 of 2016 issued by the Eastern Government, Resolution no. 286 of 2019 issued by the Presidential Council in Tripoli, and Resolution no. 5 of 2023 of its General Commission of Civil Society. General Decree no. 5803 was also issued on 13 March 2023 by the External Cooperation Department of the Government of Tripoli, and based on the legal opinion issued on 7 March by the Libyan Law Department, to restore Law 19 of 2001 as legislative framework for regulating civil work, and undermining the legitimacy of all associations registered after 2011.

The Libyan Law Department approved the illegality of Resolution no. 286 of 2019, confirming the invalidity of all similar decisions and executive regulations because they were issued by a body other than the competent authority and infringed upon the authority of legislation. The Urgent Matters Department of the South Benghazi Court ruled on 18 of July 2022 to suspend implementation of the same decision based on an appeal filed by Libyan human rights organizations against it. The House of Representatives opted to introduce a new law, alternative to Law 19 of 2001, regulating civil work and guaranteeing its independence, and instead of introducing a new law, it only offered formal amendments to an invalid and unconstitutional law.

CIHRS renews its call to the Libyan legislative authorities to adopt the Civil Associations Law, drafted by specialized Libyan committees and reviewed numerous times over the past decade by Libyan and international experts. The Libya Platform Coalition submitted the draft law in 2021 to the Legislative Committee of the House of Representatives, and has not received a response yet. We predict the failure of any introduced amendments to the unconstitutional and invalid Law 19 of 2001. We warn against invoking this repressive law to be the framework regulating freedom of association, as it would greatly threaten the work of dozens of Libyan, international and relief associations and organizations operating in Libya.

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