Libya gained independence from Italy on December 24, 1951. In January 1952 Libya was declared a constitutional monarchy under King Idris. In September 1969 the king was ousted in a military coup (known as the al-Fateh Revolution) led by Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi.
Libya is now the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, a republic based on a unique political system designed by Qadhafi in 1977. The system is based on “The Third International Theory,” supposedly a system of direct democracy that combines Islam and socialism. This theory is laid out in a series of essays compiled in the Green Book.
History of the Constitution
- Libya has no constitution. The Constitutional Proclamation and the Declaration on the Establishment of the Authority of the People can be superseded by laws issued by the General People’s Congress. This has led to a muddle of often contradictory laws, with the most recent law taking precedence in cases of conflict.
- On August 21, 2007, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the current president, delivered a speech declaring that some sort of constitution promoting a free media and independent central bank should be implemented. Click here for more.
A Constitution Proclamation was approved and promulgated on December 11, 1969 (English text, Arabic text). The proclamation was intended as a provisional measure until a permanent constitution could be adopted. It was amended with the Declaration on the Establishment of the Authority of the People on March 2, 1977 (English text, Arabic text), which declared the Quran to be the constitution. To this day Libya is governed on the basis of the 1969 proclamation and a series of fundamental laws deemed to have constitutional weight.
The structure of national and subnational government is under constant revision. Details of the laws that reorganize government are not available. As a result, some of the details below may not be a fully accurate representation of the system as it currently exists.
- Executive power is de facto vested in Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi, the revolutionary leader. Although he holds no formal position in the government, he is the highest authority and, as commander-in-chief, he controls the armed forces. Along with a group of close associates, known as the Revolutionary Command Council, he controls all political life.
- Under the revolutionary leader is a complex system that supposedly represents pure, direct democracy based on the Green Book, the People’s Declaration of 1977, and subsequently enacted and ever-changing fundamental laws. It is based on a hierarchy of People’s Committees and People’s Congresses that extend from the local to the central level.
- The system is so peculiar that it cannot be described by a normal distinction between executive and legislative power. What follows is a description of how the system is structured in theory. In practice, the system is controlled from the top in a highly authoritarian manner.
- In theory, the system starts at the bottom with Revolutionary Committees that exist throughout the country to further the cause of the revolution. In practice, these Revolutionary Committees, which do not have any governmental function, monitor the Basic People's Congresses and People's Committees and report to Qadhafi via the Revolutionary Command Council.
- The Revolutionary Committees overlap with the Basic People’s Committees, which can best be compared to party cells in a single party system. The committees permeate all aspects of Libyan economic, political, and social life, maintaining ideological and political control.
- The Basic People’s Committees control the Basic People’s Congresses, which are institutions of local governments discussed below. The pyramid of committees and congresses culminates at the central level with the General People’s Congress and the General People’s Committee.
The General People’s Congress (GPC):
- Is both a unicameral legislature and an executive body.
- Is made up of 760 members elected indirectly from local-level Basic People’s Committees, Basic People's Congresses, and Revolutionary Committees for three-year terms. Its members must be Libyan nationals over the age of 18 and hold leadership positions in the local committees and congresses.
- Elects the head of state and the General People’s Committee.
- Recommends laws that are ultimately approved by the General People’s Committee.
- Can issue decrees with the force of law.
- Chooses a secretary (speaker of parliament) to preside over its sessions, sign laws by order of the Congress, and accept the credentials of the representatives of foreign countries.
- Is organized into people’s committees (which are similar to ministries). Each committee is run by a secretary (which is the equivalent of a minister).
- Vests its leadership in a five-member General Secretariat, comprising: a secretary general; a secretary for women’s affairs; a secretary for affairs of the People’s Congresses; a secretary for affairs of the trade unions, syndicates, and professional associations; and a secretary for foreign affairs.
- Meets for only two weeks each year. For the remainder of the year, the functions of government are carried out by the General People’s Committee.
Its primacy remains unaltered since the Declaration, but its internal structure has been altered several times. The last government reorganization took place with Law 1 of 2001 on the organization of the People’s Congresses.
A cabinet reshuffle took place on January 2010. Click here for more information.
The Secretary-General of the General People’s Congress:
- Is the head of state.
- Nominates the secretaries (members) of the General People’s Committee, who are then confirmed by the General People’s Congress.
Muhammad al-Zanati was the secretary general of the General People’s Congress from 1992 to 2008. Mohamed Abdul Quasim al-Zwai, a close friend of Colonel Qaddafi, was named Secretary General in January 2010. Click here for more information.
- Functions as a cabinet.
- Consists of a secretary general and a number of secretaries chosen by the secretary general of the General People’s Congress from about 600 local Basic People’s Congresses.
- Is confirmed by the General People’s Congress.
- Sets the agenda for meetings of the General People’s Congress and in this way has responsibility for proposing laws and scheduling debate.
- Approves laws upon the recommendation of the General People’s Congress.
- Comprises standing committees for Economy and Trade, Finance, Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation, Justice and Public Security, Planning and Tourism.
In 2000 the membership of the General People’s Committee was reduced with many of its functions devolving to the People’s Congresses.
The secretary general of the General People’s Committee is also prime minister. Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi has been prime minister since March 2006.
- Libya’s legal system is a mix of Italian civil law and Islamic legal principles. The formal sources of law include legislative provisions, Islamic principles, custom, principles of natural law, and rules of equity.
- In 1971, Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi abolished the system that included separate Shari'a and secular courts and replaced it with a single system integrating secular and Islamic principles.
- The major legal codes are the Civil Code and Civil Code of Procedure of 1954 and the Commercial Code of 1953, all of which were amended in 1971.
- Law 20, on enhancing freedom, guarantees the independence of judges and declares defendants innocent until proven guilty. Despite this fact, the judiciary lacks independence, and Colonel Qadhafi regularly interferes in the administration of justice by altering court judgments or replacing judges.
- In 2004, the government divided the General People’s Committee for Public Security and Justice into two separate committees, one for justice and one for security, to protect the independence of the judiciary.
The Supreme Council for Judicial Authority is the administrative authority of the judiciary and appoints, transfers, and disciplines judges.
The regular judicial system is organized around a four-tiered court structure:
1. Summary Courts:
- Hear misdemeanor cases.
- Are located in small towns.
2. Courts of First Instance
- Hear civil, criminal, and commercial cases.
- Hear appeals from decisions taken in the summary courts.
- Apply Shari'a principles in personal status cases.
- Sit in panels of three judges.
- Are located in each of the former governorates.
3.Courts of Appeal
- Hear appeals from decisions taken in the courts of first instance.
- Sit in panels of three judges.
- Are divided into three areas , one each in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Sabha.
- Shari'a Courts of Appeal also hear appeals from decisions taken in the lower courts involving Shari'a.
4. Supreme Court
- Is composed of five chambers: civil, commercial, criminal, administrative, constitutional and Shari'a.
- Sits in panels of five judges.
- Is the final court of appeal.
- Is elected by the General People’s Congress.
- Has the power of judicial review of legislation.
- Is located in Tripoli.
- The People’s Court, an exception court established in 1988 to hear political, economic, and security crimes against the state, was abolished on January 12, 2005. Cases before this court were transferred to regular criminal courts, but most of those imprisoned under its jurisdiction remain behind bars.
- Other special revolutionary or national security courts continue to try political offenses.
- Some of Libya’s laws are under review at present, supposedly in an attempt to bring legislation in line with international human rights standards. New penal and criminal procedure codes were to be reviewed by the General People’s Congress by the end of 2005, but it is not clear whether this has happened yet.
The Libyan military is composed of Armed Peoples on Duty (APOD, Army), Libyan Arab Navy, Libyan Arab Air Force (Al-Quwwat al-Jawwiya al-Jamahiriya al-Arabia al-Libyya, LAAF), and Libyan Coast Guard.
In 2009, it was announced that a British Special Air Service (SAS) team was training the Libyan military in counter-terrorism techniques. Click here for more information.
The Arab Socialist Union acts as the only political party, mobilizing citizens for political involvement.
National elections in Libya are held indirectly through a hierarchy of committees. In theory, every three years all citizens 18 years and older must participate in the elections of the leaders of local Basic People’s Congresses. Members of the Basic People’s Congresses choose their Basic Local Committees, who, in turn, participate in the elections of the General People’s Congress. The General People’s Congress then chooses the General People’s Committee.
There is no reliable information on electoral results. The last elections of the General People’s Congress took place in July and August 2004 but it is unclear how many candidates were elected.
There is no functioning civil society in the sense of independent organizations with views differing from that of the leadership. Although Libya has many organizations and associations, including three dealing with human rights, all have ties to the government.
The Libyan Arab Committee for Human Rights, the Libyan Bar Association, and the Qadhafi Foundation for Development address human rights issues strictly within the limits of what the government deems acceptable debate. They criticize the government at times. This is the case especially with the Qadhafi Foundation for Development, which enjoys a high degree of protection. It was founded in 1998 by Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, Qadhafi’s son. Originally named the Qadhafi International Foundation for Charity Associations, it has since been renamed the Qadhafi Foundation for Development. It has been moderately vocal in criticizing human rights violations such as torture and political imprisonments.
- National Trade Unions’ Federation
- General Federation of Producers’ Trade Unions
- Federation of Chambers of Commerce
- Federation of Chambers of Trade
- Federation of Chambers of Industry
- Federation of Chambers of Agriculture
- The Constitutional Proclamation provides for freedom of religion, the right to work, the inviolability of homes, the right to education, and the right to health care.
- In 1988, the General People’s Congress adopted the Great Green Charter of Human Rights in the Jamahiriyan Era. It guaranteed the independence of the judiciary, freedom of thought, and gender equality; stated as an objective the abolition of capital punishment (which has not been achieved); and prohibited any punishment that would violate the dignity and the integrity of a human being. In practice, however, many of these rights are violated.
- The law does not guarantee freedom of assembly and the government severely restricts this right. Public assembly is permitted only with the government's approval and in support of the government's positions.
- The law provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right, although it represses Islamist groups, which it views as a threat to the regime.
- The Constitutional Proclamation and the Great Green Charter limit freedom of expression. The charter only guarantees freedom of expression within the system of People’s Congresses and “within the limits of public interest and the principles of the revolution.”
Law 20 also qualifies the right to free expression. According to Article 8, “Every citizen has the right to express and publicly proclaim his opinions and ideas to the people’s congresses and the information media of the Jamahiriya. No citizen shall be answerable for his exercise of this right unless he exploits it with a view to detracting from the people’s authority or for personal ends.”
The article continues: “It is prohibited to advocate ideas or opinions clandestinely or to attempt to disseminate or impose them on others through enticement, force, intimidation, or fraud.”
- Libya’s code of criminal procedure is largely up to international standards; violations mostly result from poor implementation of the law. It prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, the government does not observe these prohibitions. Security forces arbitrarily arrest and detain citizens.
The government holds many political detainees incommunicado for unlimited periods in unofficial detention centers. While in the past the government imprisoned political prisoners for ideological crimes against the revolution, today it employs the rhetoric of anti-terrorism. The penal code is problematic as some articles impose severe punishments, including death, for acts and expression that should be protected under the rights to free association and speech.
The penal code is currently under revision, but those parts of the draft made public in 2004 suggest that the changes do not go far enough to bring the code up to the international human rights standards Libya has pledged to uphold.
- The law prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability, language, or social status. It also grants equal rights to women.
- The law considers public ownership of the means of production as the basis of development, but protects private ownership if it is “non-exploitative.”
- The Code of Honor of March 1997 institutes a system of collective punishment for wrongdoing, whereby families, towns, and municipalities are held responsible for the actions of individuals in their midst. Under the law, they are subject to collective punishment such as the dissolution of the local People’s Congress or the denial of government services, including utilities, water, and infrastructure projects.
- Law 20 of 1991 on the Promotion of Freedom establishes the death penalty for anyone whose continued existence would lead to the disintegration of Libyan society.
- Multiple security forces rely on an extended network of informers.
- The New York-based organization Human Rights Watch provides a comprehensive overview of human rights developments in Libya.
Political Party Laws
- Political parties are illegal. Law 71 of 1972 bans any group activity based on political ideology contrary to the principles of the 1969 al-Fateh revolution.
- Libyan authorities released 130 political prisoners on March 2, 2006, including 85 members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement who were tried by the People’s Court before it was abolished in 2005. Two prisoners had been sentenced to death and ten others to life imprisonment in 2001.
- Only the elections for the Basic People’s Congresses are based on universal suffrage. The government is structured in a pyramid of committees and congresses, with each layer involved in the selection of the layer above. At the apex are the Revolutionary Command Council and the General People’s Committee.
- The elected members (secretaries) of the various congresses and committees select the members of the General People’s Congress.
Law on Associations
- Both the Constitutional Proclamation and the Great Green Charter limit freedom of association. The charter states Libyans are free to form “associations, trade unions and leagues in order to defend their professional interests,” but does not address associations of a political or social nature. Non-state organizations are not allowed on the grounds that state institutions provide all necessary representation.
- Law 19 of 2003 and Law 71 of 1972 regulate the formation and activity of associations in Libya. Associations engaging in political activity are illegal and political activity is defined as any activity based on a political ideology contrary to the principles of the 1969 al-Fateh Revolution. Violators of the law can be put to death.
The Libyan authorities have imprisoned hundreds of people for violating this law, and some have been sentenced to death. The law is typically used to disband Islamist political organizations, as in 2002 when 86 professionals and students were sentenced to jail for their membership in the Libyan Islamic Group.
Article 206 of the penal code also imposes the death penalty on those who call “for the establishment of any grouping, organization or association proscribed by law,” and for those who belong to or support such an organization.
- The government maintains that freedom of association and assembly are not required in a political system based on “popular power.”
- According to the Law on Enhancing Freedom, “Citizens are free to establish and join trade unions, professional and social federations and leagues and charitable associations in order to protect their interests or achieve the legitimate objectives for which those institutions have been established.”
In reality, workers can only join the National Trade Unions’ Federation, which was created in 1972 and is administered by the People’s Committees.
- According to the law, applications for the formation of an organization or association must be signed by a minimum of 50 founders. If the organization plans to work nationwide, its application goes to the secretariat of the General People’s Congress.
If the proposed work is limited to a governorate, the application goes to the People’s Congress of that governorate. If the work is international, it goes to the whole General People’s Congress. There is no right to appeal a decision denying a group’s application.
Reforms Under Discussion
On June 2009, the General People’s Committee issued a decision requiring 30-day advance approval from a newly established government committee to hold any meeting or event, and requiring the meeting organizers to provide a list of all participants and the issues to be discussed. This decision is greatly criticized, as it does not comply with international law.
- The government runs and strictly controls all media in Libya. Law on Publications No. 76 of 1972, modified by Law 120 of 1972 and Law 75 of 1973, governs the press and restricts publishing rights to two public entities: Al Dar al-Jamahiriya and the General Corporation of Press, Professional Unions, and Syndicates.
- The government owns all print and broadcast media outlets. There is a state-run daily newspaper and several smaller newspapers published by the local Revolutionary Committees. Opinions contrary to those of the government are not allowed. No privately owned radio or television stations are permitted.
- The official news agency is the Jamahiriya News Agency (JANA).
- The two exceptions to the state’s control of the media are satellite television (especially Arabic news channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya) and the Internet.
- According to the annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders, Libya ranks 160 of 178 countries. The index runs from 1 (most press freedom) to 178 (least press freedom).
- The Law on Publications is reportedly under review.
- In 2007, several newspapers and a satellite TV company were launched by a company affiliated with one of Qaddafi’s sons after the announcement that non-governmental media was authorized. In 2009, however, these outlets were nationalized.
- On November 22, 2008 Agence France Press was the first global news agency to formally open a bureau in Tripoli with an accredited foreign correspondent and on February 24, 2009, international newspapers and magazines such as the International Herald Tribune and Newsweek became available for sale in Libya for the first time in a quarter of a century.
- On November 9, 2010, Colonel Qaddafi ordered the release of 19 journalists that had previously been imprisoned. The official reason for the arrests is unknown. Click here for more.
Personal Status Law
Shari'a law governs inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property.
- In 2008, a group of Libyan professionals attempted to establish an independent human rights organization named Centre for Democracy and the Association for Justice and Human Rights. Their applications were refused and the president of the Centre for Democracy accused the authorities of kidnapping him and beating him up to force him to renounce the creation of the organization. The authorities deny these claims. Click here for more information.
- In 2009, a new draft of the Libyan penal code was proposed. While this draft allows room for more freedom of expression, it still retains numerous limitations, especially laws concerning the right to criticize the government.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) on May 15, 1970. Libya is one of two Arab states (Algeria is the other) to have signed the first Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to communicate directly with the committee overseeing the ICCPR regarding alleged breaches of the convention. It has not signed the second Optional Protocol, which pledges signatories to abolish the death penalty.
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) on May 15, 1970.
- The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) on May 16, 1989. It has not signed the Optional Protocol to CAT, which allows visits to places of detention by the Committee against Torture.
- The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) on July 3, 1968.
- The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on May 16, 1989. When Libya acceded to CEDAW, it entered reservations stating that that the convention must be implemented in accordance with Shari'a. In July 1995, Libya submitted a new general reservation that the treaty’s implementation cannot conflict with personal status laws derived from Shari'a.
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on April 15, 1993.
- The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families on June 18, 2004.