Racism in North Africa has a long and complex history. In Libya, racial injustice has reached obscene proportions since the uprising against Qaddafi began in February 2011. Throughout the past year, dark-skinned Libyans and economic migrants have been subjected to torture, beatings, killings, rape, robbery, arbitrary arrests and, in several instances, horrific public lynchings.
Peter Bouckaert, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, warns of a "deep-seated racism" in Libyan society today.
Before the ouster of Qaddafi, foreign workers accounted for one quarter of Libya's 6 million population. These workers originated from countries around the world, but the largest number came from throughout Africa's vast continent, seeking decent jobs in Libya's oil, agriculture and other sectors. Dark-skinned Libyans lived throughout the country but had higher dominance in Southern regions of the country. Towns like Tawergha in the Southern region, previously loyal to Qaddafi, are reported to be ghost towns, with entire populations "disappeared."
Libya's National Transitional Council told the U.N. Human Rights Council: "We do not make any distinction among people on grounds of color." Yet ethnically motivated violence has continued unabated. Amnesty International estimates that "as many as half of the suspects held in formal detention centers were either from countries such as Mali, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan, or dark-skinned Libyans." Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that more than 8,500 detainees were being held in about 60 prisons and detention centers. In a report to the U.N. Security Council, Pillay stated, "There's torture, extrajudicial executions, rape of both men and women."
Pillay said she was particularly concerned about sub-Saharan African detainees who were automatically assumed to be fighters for former dictator Qaddafi. These concerns were reinforced by Amnesty International in its most recent report, "Militias Threaten Hopes for New Libya," released Feb. 15. According to Amnesty, "Entire communities have been forcibly displaced and authorities have done nothing to investigate the abuses and hold those responsible to account. African migrants and refugees are also being targeted and revenge attacks are being carried out." Amnesty International confirms that few had the chance to see a judge or security committee official, and accounts of torture or other abuses in detention were rampant.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1975 called for the international community to use all necessary means to protect civilians. Yet, the torture, abuse and ethnic cleansing of dark-skinned people in Libya has been allowed to continue for much of the past year without retribution.
The United Nations must work with the National Transitional Council to strengthen the rule of law, stop revenge attacks and end human-rights violations against dark-skinned people.
The Obama administration provides Libya military training, sales and equipment, which comprise the machinery of repression being unleashed against dark-skinned people. It is unconscionable to continue the steady flow of weapons to a military engaged in ethnic cleansing and torture. This is not tolerated in places like Darfur and should also not be tolerated in Libya.
U.S. military sales and training should end. Further, the United States should use all diplomatic measures to pressure the National Transitional Council to ensure the protection of all civilians, including dark-skinned people in Libya today.
The African Union's Peace and Security Council has called for an end to racism-related violence and persecution in Libya. The African Union can do more, using its bully pulpit to draw attention to this alarming issue. Pressure must be brought to bear on Libya's National Transitional Council.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights advances global principles against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, yet the dream of a world free of racism remains woefully unfilled.
People of conscience around the world must stand firm against racial injustice so that the vision of the true revolutionaries in Libya is not mired by tortuous racism.
Emira Woods, originally from Liberia, is co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies.