November 5, 2012, In the Field by Colette Rausch
“Why are you here? What interest does the United States Institute of Peace have with Libya?”
Full of uncertainty, suspicion, and even a little fear, the questioner spoke for some of the Libyan participants at a workshop in the battle-scarred city of Misurata. It was June 2012, and my colleagues and I had come there from USIP’s headquarters in the heart of Washington, DC, to facilitate a workshop on justice and security. We had just introduced our Libyan hosts to the packed two-day agenda that we had planned for them, and we were all taking a short coffee break before getting down to business.
But then, as the presenters and participants congregated in small groups—little islands of familiar faces nervously scanning the unfamiliar faces on other islands—one man caught my eye, walked quickly over to me, and asked with transparent concern, “Why are you here?”
We had an agenda, participants, and even refreshments—but, evidently, we did not have trust.
Peace and Trust
Peace is more than just the absence of conflict. Peace is the presence of mutually respectful relationships among individuals and groups. Those relationships enable disputes to be handled with tact, understanding, and a recognition that everyone shares some common interests. At the heart of those relationships is trust.
Trust cannot be coerced, delivered, or manufactured. It develops through a process of collective engagement and through a commitment to a common purpose. Where that process is brand new and where that purpose is vague or open to question, trust does not come easily. Which brings us back to Misurata.
A Proud City
In the battle between Colonel Gaddafi’s regime and the revolutionary fighters determined to topple it, Misurata was strategically invaluable. Gaddafi knew that if his forces held the city known as Libya’s “business capital” and home to a thriving deep-sea port, he would deny the rebels access both to other parts of the country and to resources from the outside world. Most of the population of Misurata, however, supported the rebels. Gaddafi’s troops bombarded neighborhoods in Misurata, slaughtered hundreds of innocent civilians, and cut off the water supply. But after a four-month-long fight, the rebels, with NATO support, finally ejected the regime’s troops from most of the city in May 2011.
Bloodied but proud of their role in defeating Gaddafi’s war machine, the people of Misurata have since demonstrated an unswerving commitment to rebuilding their city and to playing a leading role in renewing Libya as a free country that provides security, justice and the rule of law to all its people.
In February 2012, I visited Misurata with my colleague Vivienne O’Connor to scout out the potential needs and challenges facing Libya in its post-Gaddafi transition. After Vivienne and I returned to the United States, we began working with our local partners to organize a workshop on the difficulties of transitioning from an authoritarian society to one based on the rule of law. The participants would include lawyers, judges, local council representatives, business people, civil society representatives and Thuwar (revolution fighters) who were now running the city’s prisons.
In June, a small group of us traveled to Misurata to facilitate the workshop, which was entitled “Rule of law, Justice and Security for a New Libya.” We were eager to share our experiences in transitional societies, but we had no thought of insisting that our hosts slavishly follow our recommendations on fostering the rule of law—indeed, we weren’t going to make any recommendations.
One of the things that sets USIP’s Rule of Law Center apart from similar organizations is that, when we enter a post-conflict society, we ask, “How can we help you? What is it you would like from us?” We do not declare, “This is what you need to do.” We learned long ago that local people must make their own decisions about how to develop security and justice in their own country. If there are areas where our experience and expertise can be of use, we are happy to share them but we never force them upon others. After all, our experience and expertise come from listening to just such people. When we go to a transitional society, we talk about case studies and comparative practices; the locals tell us the problems they face and the lessons they have learned. It is a collaborative process that pivots around shared trust. Any solutions that materialize as a result of our collaboration will be homegrown and tailored specifically to the needs of the local population.
Tripoli Street, Misurata, Libya
Unfortunately, while we knew we had no thought of dictating solutions, not all of our Libyan hosts did not. And their skepticism and suspicion were articulated by that one question, “Why are you here?”
Superficially, the question might have seemed to an outsider to be no more than a polite inquiry. Just below the surface, however, lay uncertainty and mistrust. Those sentiments can roil every workshop, especially if they are not identified and brought to the surface. In Misurata, we were fortunate that they surfaced at the outset. They weren’t shared by everyone in the room, but more than a few felt this way, and we couldn’t afford to ignore those feelings. We had to tackle them there and then if the workshop was not to become a meaningless voyage through bullet points and procedures, an empty academic exercise. If we could answer that question “Why are you here?” (and the numerous other questions underlying it), we might connect on a much deeper level, one built on trust, mutual respect, and personal accountability.
With that in mind, we set our scheduled discussion aside. Once the coffee break ended, we reconvened the workshop, but we spent the next few hours inviting and answering questions. We stressed that we would answer anything; nothing was off the table, nothing was too sensitive to answer. Had we set some conditions, we would have invited further skepticism from participants.
Their queries came in quick secession, some in direct, even blunt language, while others were more nuanced. Libyan tradition insists on extreme politeness to guests, and no one was rude, but everyone wanted honest answers to their honest questions.
Those questions covered a lot of ground, and revealed a lot about unhappy past experiences, fears for the future, and uncertainty about the present.
Some questioners were wary of our connection to the U.S. government. “How can USIP be truly independent if it also takes money from the U.S. government?” asked one person. “How can you talk about justice,” asked another, “when the United States still runs the Guantanamo camp?”
Some questions indicated a lack of exposure to organizations such as USIP. Confusion or bemusement about what we do and why we do it sparked suspicion: “Why do you come to Libya and spend money organizing this workshop for us?” “What do you get out of this?”
Meanwhile, other questions betrayed far too much exposure to international organizations! We heard many stories about foreigners coming to Libya to ask about people’s most desperate needs and dearest dreams, and then leaving Libya, never to be heard from again. We heard several other stories about how various international nongovernmental organizations and others had descended on Libya, scratched the surface, appointed themselves as experts on the country, and published articles that bore little resemblance to reality on the ground for the average Libyan.
The participants recalled how they had opened their doors to the media and candidly explained the challenges Libyans face, only to have some members of the press use that information to paint a distorted portrait of post-revolution Libya, one full of real problems but devoid of the equally real optimism that is so much in evidence in Misurata. The Libyans had felt betrayed—not so much because the reports were critical but because they were inaccurate or one-sided. One official said that he had given a foreign journalist “access to everything” because the official and his colleagues were eager for help and to learn and abide by international standards. But when the journalist’s report came out, the official felt like he had been “hit in the stomach,” because the article presented things in a very negative light without explaining the challenges facing Libya in its transition.
The most pointed questions came from a man who had fought on the front lines against Gaddafi’s forces. He arrived at the workshop wearing camouflage and a facial expression that made me shudder to think about what he had witnessed on the battlefield. It turned out that he had been a businessman and had never imagined that he would pick up a weapon. He had decided, however, that he had no other choice when confronted by the brutality of Gaddafi’s attack and the imminent threat to the lives of his family, friends and community.
Photos of some of the people of Misurata who were killed during the flghting
Graffiti along the road outside Misurata heading back to Tripoli
Participants relayed their frustrations with the outside world, which seemed to expect perfection from the very beginning of the new Libya. They admitted, too, that after 42 years of dictatorship, Libyans were feeling their way through the transition to democracy and would inevitably stumble from time to time. Gaddafi’s own summary execution at the hands of a lone vigilante showed just how difficult it is to apply the rule of law when tensions are so high, emotions are still raw, and everything is still in flux.
At the same time, the participants wanted Libya to be seen as a country that is moving beyond the Gaddafi era and toward a democratic future. Several questioners asked how the West and the international community as a whole view Libya.
We took each question, and did our best to provide answers that were not only honest but also full. We offered contextual background, explained how USIP operates, related personal experiences, and acknowledged geopolitical realities.
After two hours or more of this sometimes difficult and delicate but always enlightening and sincere exchange, one could feel the tension in the workshop begin to subside, the air begin to clear. When every question had been answered, we moved naturally into the rest of the workshop. The workshop was on ‘Rule of law, Justice and Security for a New Libya.” It brought together 20 representatives from the legal community (prosecutors, judges and lawyers) and civil society. The workshop involved capacity development and facilitated dialogue. Presentation topics included “Justice and Security and the Rule of Law,” “Justice and Security Challenges in States in Transition,” and “Building Justice, Security & the Rule of Law: Examples of Successful Initiatives from Other Countries” (with a specific emphasis on how civil society can actively engage in promoting the rule of law in tandem with government efforts). For the facilitated dialogue component, the participants were asked a series of questions on the challenges and solutions to justice and security issues in Libya. They then broke into groups to discuss these and presented their findings in a plenary session.
Over the rest of that day and throughout the next one, many potentially useful ideas and opinions were exchanged. Participants shared their thoughts freely, with little or none of the caution and apprehension they had displayed at the outset of the workshop.
In Misurata, we went some way toward bridging the gulf that had divided us. We did not bridge it completely or permanently; we could hardly expect to establish an enduringly close rapport in just two days. Trust takes longer to flourish, and it needs to be nurtured. But we laid a foundation that was able to support two days of discussions and learning and to nourish hopes of further sharing in the future.
In the end, none of that progress would have been possible had one participant not asked the question that brought into stark relief the importance of building the one thing that is often the hardest to come by following violent conflict: trust.