In their extremely short history of civil society activism, Libyan women have demonstrated remarkable acuity and resilience against efforts to forcibly exclude them from shaping and participating in the country’s transition. Briefly, in its first draft election law (1 January 2012), Libya’s Transitional National Council (NTC) proposed a 10% quota for women’s representation which was abolished by the second draft. In response, the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace proposed an alternative electoral law and criticized the official draft on four key points: dual nationalism, the lack of a women’s quota, inadequate countermeasures against corruption and the risk of tribal party formation as a result of poorly-proposed quotas for minorities.

According to women activists, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon himself spoke out to support the women quota. As a result of such pressure, as well as public debate, the law was re-drafted and ‘special temporary measures’, as called for in CEDAW were put in place in the form of a “zebra list” alternating between men and women candidates. As a result 32 women were elected (out of 120) to the General National Congress (GNC).

New Crisis for Women

Now a new crisis faces Libya’s women: they are threatened with whole-scale exclusion from Committee #60, the Constitution Drafting Assembly, because the current law on elections to this Committee (now in its second draft) again omits to mention special measures for women. Again, Libyan women urgently call on the international community – the United Nations system, diplomatic missions, and the global community of peace activists – to put pressure on the GNC and prevent its short-sighted and regressive proposal. Libya’s future depends on the full participation of all her citizens.

Women have been vigilantly engaging with the process of this law. On 26 May, when the Electoral Committee presented the draft law to the GNC for broad consultation and discussion, its three women members read an official memorandum stating that the draft law, as it stands, will result in the absence of women from Committee #60.

Also among the official responses is one prepared by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya’s Electoral Support Team (UNEST) which is mandated by Security Council Resolution 2009 (2011) and subsequent resolutions on Libya to offer support and advice, based on international best practice.[1]    In it, the UN response expresses disquiet at a tendency in the draft law to “unnecessarily exclude some categories of the population without clear justification”, a tendency UNEST categorises as undemocratic and non-inclusive. It also observes that the draft refers exclusively to a majoritarian system and incompletely defines constituencies. A full paragraph reflects on the necessity for further special measures to enable “the fair representation of women”, pointing out that it contradicts “the precedent set by the GNC elections and the international conventions, to which Libya is committed.”

Lack of UN Support

However, this is where the UN’s support seems to have stopped. Draft two of the Law continues to exclude women yet there have been no further public statements by UN to press forward the vital necessity of the quota. Yesterday, Tarek Mitri, the United Nations special representative for Libya, said in an interview in New York that it was up to the women to fight their exclusion. He admitted that he had told women activists that CEDAW is “wala’ishi” or “nothing”, because a Parliament could not be sued for ignoring it. “I have spoken to the media on three occasions on this,” he said. “The UN did everything it said it would. They are nascent, sometimes they are able to act more decisively. It is easier for the UN to support Libyans rather than act on behalf of them.”

Is this the feeble best the UN can do to realize promises made by the UN Secretary-General in his last three statements to the Security Council (A/65/354–S/2010/466, S/2011/598*, S/2012/732) on the inclusion of women in all aspects of decision-making in conflict and post-conflict settings?

This question is especially important because analysts are observing that Libya’s fragile security is under threat (read more here.) Mitri himself has stated that the UN cannot protect Libyans (watch video here), as it is mandated to do by the Security Council. Women activists report that landmines have recently been planted in the south and that ad hoc checkpoints run my militias are making movement difficult and dangerous. Violent crime is also on the rise.

In his 2012 Report on women, peace and security (S/2012/732) the Secretary-General states that positive steps have been made in implementing his “seven-point action plan on gender-responsive peacebuilding” (announced in his 2010 statement), including the development of a regional strategy on women and peace and security by the League of Arab States. He makes careful mention of the “adoption by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women of the general recommendation on women in conflict and post-conflict situations which…could contribute significantly to improved accountability at the national level.”

Yet is it possible for the Secretary General’s Special Representative in Libya to say, in 2013, that “CEDAW wala’ishi”? This is not the kind of leadership that Libyan women need in the face of a crisis of this magnitude.

The Secretary-General has made clear that no measures count unless they result in “real change in the lives of women, girls, boys and men across the continuum from conflict to peace.” He acknowledges that “[w]hile temporary special measures are important, addressing the structural factors that discourage women’s candidacy and electoral participation require renewed attention.”

The women of Libya are in full agreement. The draft bill for election to Committee #60 has not yet been passed and women remain convinced that a statement from the Secretary-General himself will be enough to stop the GNC in its tracks. Libya’s temporary new leaders, they argue, want to be seen positively in the eyes of the world. Excluding women not only contradicts the core values of the UN, but will wipe out one of the most important vectors for peace and reconciliation in this traumatised country.

There is still hope..

It’s now the eleventh hour: and it could be one of the United Nation’s finest hours. WILPF calls on the Secretary General to support the quota for Libyan women. We call on the United Nations to give hope to the millions of Arabs who are standing up for inclusive governance and a peaceful future.

[1] United Nations Support Mission in Libya, “Technical Commentary from the United Nations Electoral Support Team On Draft Law on the Election of the Constitution Drafting Assembly 26 May 2013”


Written by Dr. Vanessa Farr