• Indigenous peoples in Libya

    Indigenous peoples in Libya

    The Tuareg and the Toubou live in the south of the country; they are generally nomadic, moving from one place to another with their livestock and living in tents. Libya voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Indigenous World 2024: Libya

The Amazighs form the Indigenous population of Libya and are estimated to number some one million people, or more than 16% of the country’s total population.

They live in various areas of Libya in the north, east and south of the country albeit without any geographical continuity. To the west of Tripoli, on the Mediterranean coast, they live in the town of At-Wilul (Zwara) and in the Adrar Infussen (Nefoussa) mountains, on the border with Tunisia; in the south-east, on the border with Egypt, they live in the oases of Awjla, Jalu and Jakhra; in the south, the Fezzan region is traditionally Kel-Tamasheq (Tuareg) territory, including the areas of Murzuq, Sebha, Ubari, Ghat and Ghadamès. Libya’s Kel-Tamasheq are naturally linked to other Kel-Tamasheq communities living across the borders with Niger and Algeria. Tripoli is also home to a significant Amazigh community.

In addition to Arab and Amazigh communities, there is an ethnic minority in Libya known as the “Toubou”, comprising some 50,000 individuals, who are originally from the Tibesti plateau in Chad and live along the Libya/Chad border. They live a nomadic way of life and practise pastoralism across an area that extends from northern Niger to the Sudan.

During the time of Gaddafi (1969-2011), Libya was declared an exclusively “Arab and Muslim” country. The 1969 Constitutional Proclamation states in its first article that “Libya is an Arab republic (…), the Libyan people are a part of the Arab nation and its aim is total Arab unity. The country’s name is the Arab Republic of Libya”. Article Two adds that “Islam is the state religion and Arabic its official language”. Government policy since then has always relentlessly persecuted anyone who does not recognize Libya’s “Arab-Islamic identity”.

Following the 2011 “revolution”, a “Provisional Constitutional Council” submitted a draft new Constitution in 2017[1] that in no way changed the country’s identitary foundations. Article Two still provides that “Libya forms part of the Arab nation” and that “Arabic is the state language”. Article Six notes that “Islam is the state religion and Sharia the source of its law”. Other discriminatory articles then follow prohibiting a non-Muslim Libyan from standing for election to the Chamber of Representatives (Article 69) or as President of the Republic (Article 101) and stating that justice shall be passed down “in the name of Allah” (Article 189). These articles are clearly aimed at imposing an Islamic republic, to the detriment of the diversity of cultures and beliefs in Libya. Due to Amazigh and Toubou opposition, however, and also because of the war, this draft constitution has not yet been adopted.

Libya voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

The political crisis persists

The legislative and presidential elections scheduled for 2023[2] did not take place and Libya remains divided and governed by two separate bodies, the so-called "government of national unity” led by Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Dbeiba, based in Tripoli, and a government described as the "government of national stability” headed by Osama Hammad and based in Benghazi in the east of the country.

The ceasefire agreed between the two sides in October 2022 has, nonetheless, generally held to date although sporadic armed clashes do occur in various parts of the country, including Tripoli, which remains the headquarters of foreign embassies and international institutions. The south of the country, rich in oil and gas resources in particular, is in the hands of various armed groups. Libya is still facing a chaotic situation, aggravated by the presence of a large number of local militias allied to one or other of the two camps, or sometimes independent. The presence of foreign mercenaries and the interference of foreign states who are constantly intervening to safeguard their strategic interests, in support of either the government in Benghazi or that in Tripoli, are constantly adding fuel to the conflict, insecurity and instability in the country. The absence of legitimate and recognized State institutions gives free rein to all kinds of illegal trafficking (oil, arms, drugs, metals, emigration) and corruption. In its 2022/23 report, Amnesty International noted that:

Authorities, militias and armed groups imposed severe restrictions on civic space and humanitarian access to affected communities, and engaged in smear campaigns against international and Libyan rights groups. Militias and armed groups have killed and wounded civilians and destroyed civilian property in sporadic, localized clashes. Impunity remained widespread, and authorities funded abusive militias and armed groups. Women and girls faced entrenched discrimination and violence. Ethnic minorities and internally displaced people faced barriers in accessing education and healthcare.[3]

The UN's efforts to end the political violence and implement an electoral process are being hampered by serious political differences, notably over the electoral law and the Constitution. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, declared to the UN Security Council in December 2023 that “the situation is at a standstill for the moment”.[4]

Amazigh continue to face the same challenges

It may seem paradoxical but Libya's most vulnerable communities, especially its minorities and Indigenous Peoples, particularly the Amazigh, are in no hurry to see a “national entente” between the two major camps in eastern and western Libya, and the establishment of a strong central state, as this would be subject to an Arab-Islamic ideology that rejects and opposes the country's ethnic and sociocultural diversity and human rights in their universal sense. Article 1 of Libya's Interim Constitutional Declaration[5] states that “Islam is the religion of the State and Islamic Sharia is the principal source of legislation”. The text also specifies that “Arabic is the official language”. Amazighs fear that this article will be used as a way of preventing them from expressing their language and culture.

Moreover, in practice, Amazighs continue to face various forms of racism, discrimination, intimidation and violations of their rights, as in the days of the deposed Gaddafi regime.

In its 2023 annual report, the organization Itran[6] notes that: “Amazigh communities are among the most vulnerable, discriminated and marginalized in the country. Although the Amazigh people live in regions rich in natural resources, such as oil and gas, they still face many political, economic and social challenges.” The report notes that, in 2023, Amazighs in Libya were faced with anti-Amazigh government actions based on laws dating back to the Gaddafi era.

On 23 October 2023, the Director of the Legal Affairs Office of the Ministry of Education sent a letter to the Director of the Corporate Affairs Office stating that it was illegal to use non-Arabic names for any public or private labelling or communication, in accordance with Law No. 24 of 2001. In another letter addressed to the education office and Zwara municipality, the Ministry of Education rejected the Amazigh name “Tussna” for a local primary school and asked that it be given an Arabic name.

Although there is no law prohibiting the registration of Amazigh first names, the central civil registry authority continues to send letters to its local offices in Amazigh territories (notably the north-west region of Libya) asking them not to register non-Arabic or non-Muslim first names. Local officials of the Interior Ministry's Civil Affairs Authority have been threatened with financial penalties if they register non-Arabic or non-Muslim names for newborns.

The Omar El-Mokhtar public university discriminates in the recruitment of new assistants, making their hiring conditional upon “adherence to Libyan Arab values”.[7]

In recent years, Amazigh people have been intimidated and arrested by police and armed militias simply for carrying the Amazigh flag.

In southern Libya, 15 to 20,000 families, or around 80 to 100,000 Kel-Tamacheq (Tuareg) people, are still deprived of Libyan nationality and identity documents.[8] As a result, they cannot take part in elections, access public education and training services or health care, nor can they be legally employed. Regular complaints to the Libyan administration have gone unanswered since 2011.

Libya's Kel-Tamasheq community is also facing the challenge of Algeria's closure of the Algerian-Libyan border on security grounds. The Kel-Tamacheq populations living on either side of the border have been dramatically affected by the hindrance to their free movement around their traditional territories, which straddles the state border.

Indeed, for many years now, Libya's non-Arab communities, and particularly the Amazigh, have been expressing their desire for autonomous status for their territories, with the aim of preserving their specific sociocultural characteristics. No response has been received to date.

The land issue in Libya

Libya is a large country (1.76 million km², fourth largest in Africa). It is 90% desert, with 85% of its population living along the 10% of its territory that is the Mediterranean coastline. Its land tenure system is confused, influenced by the colonizations the country has suffered in recent centuries and by the political direction of its governments.[9] Land law in Libya has thus been successively influenced by Muslim, Ottoman (16th century) and Italian (1911-1942) law, and by the guidelines of the Kingdom of Libya (1951-1969) and then by the Socialist Republic until 2011. Since the “revolution” of 2011, civil war and the absence of a central state have left the land issue unchanged.

During Libya's socialist period (1969-2011), the government passed Law No. 39 in 1973, abolishing customary land rights to tribal lands and transforming them into State property.[10] At the same time, the government was redistributing land to families who undertook to farm it, in application of the slogan “the land to those who work it”. Today, there is no clear land policy and the country has no up-to-date land registry. The hard-copy registries that were held in various offices across the country were damaged, destroyed or lost during the civil war. Libya's land tenure system is, however, becoming increasingly liberalized through private ownership of land and real estate, albeit informally for the time being. The State domain remains important, and collective ownership of tribal lands persists, particularly in rural areas.



Belkacem Lounes is a doctor of Economics, university teacher (Greno­ble University), expert member of the Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (2016-2021), member of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2018-2020), author of numerous re­ports and articles on Amazigh and Indigenous rights.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Libyan Constitutional Declaration, 2012. https://faolex.fao.org/docs/pdf/lib128759.pdf

[2] Abdel-Hamid Dbeiba, Prime Minister of the Government of National Union: "2023 sera l'année de la tenue des élections dans le pays", Moataz Wanis, 2 January 2023, Anadolu Agency. https://www.aa.com.tr/fr/monde/dbeibeh-2023-sera-lann%C3%A9e-des-%C3%A9lections-en-libye/2778116#

[3]Amnesty International, Report 2022/23: The state of the world's human rights, 27 March 2023. https://w>ww.amnesty.org/en/documents/pol10/5670/2023/en/

[4] Conseil de sécurité: en Libye, le projet de loi électorale suspendu à un accord politique entre les différents acteurs institutionnels, UN Press, 18 December 2023. https://press.un.org/fr/2023/cs15535.doc.htm

[5] Libyan Constitutional Declaration, 2012. https://faolex.fao.org/docs/pdf/lib128759.pdf

[6] Amazighs in Libya, Annual report 2023, Nasser Abouzakhar, ITRAN and CMA, January 2024.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stocker, Valérie, 2019, “Citoyenneté en attente: statut juridique indéterminé et implications pour le processus de paix en Libye”, Institut européen pour la paix, quoted by Pauline Poupart, “Être touareg dans le Sud libyen en transition: une citoyenneté encore inachevée”, 15 January 2023. http://journals.openedition.org/anneemaghreb/11244; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/anneemaghreb.11244

[9] La Libye nouvelle, rupture et continuité, Centre de recherches et d'études sur les sociétés méditerranéennes, 1975, CNRS-Université d'Aix-Marseille. https://books.openedition.org/iremam/2479

[10] Land administration and land rights for peace and development in Libya, analysis and recommendations, UN-Habitat, 16 October 2023. https://www.land-administration-and-land-rights-for-peace-and-development-in-libya_16.10.2023.pdf

Tags: Land rights, Human rights, Cultural Integrity , Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders



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