Human rights must be cornerstone of Libya's law

Libyan National Transitional Council fighters celebrate in the coastal city of Sirte after Gadhafi loyalists fell to rebels

Story highlights

  • Peter Bouckaert says he was in Sirte when a rebel fighter told him Gadhafi was captured
  • He later learned he was killed, avoiding a trial he deserved; one others in his regime should face
  • He says new constitution must include rights, protections for women, minorities
  • Bouckaert: New leaders have crucial chance to establish rule of law; outside world must help

I stood stunned in a Sirte hospital this morning as a man came in waving a golden gun -- a pistol he said was seized from Moammar Gadhafi as he was finally captured by forces of the National Transitional Council. The Human Rights Watch team had spent the night outside Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, as the transitional forces mounted a final, heavy barrage against the last holdouts, snipers in the town. At 9 a.m., the rebels declared victory, and we headed to the hospital to try to document the civilian casualties after weeks of fighting.

The man with the golden gun told us that Gadhafi was wounded but alive, captured with several of his senior officials, and that he was on the road to Misrata. A few hours later came word that Gadhafi, who had ruled Libya for 42 years before being ousted by a popular uprising, had died, thereby escaping the trial and courtroom he so richly deserved.

Even after Gadhafi's hold on Libya was reduced, over the course of the uprising, to a small patch of land around Sirte , his influence loomed large. After four decades in power marked by fear and repression, Libyans will never forget him. And his death isn't the end of the story. Gadhafi didn't rule alone, and it's vital that high-level officials who survived the conflict be investigated and, if credibly accused, be given a fair trial for their roles in the most serious crimes.

Gadhafi took power in 1969 and his rule encompassed an appalling catalog of human rights abuses, at home and abroad. The massacre of an estimated 1,200 prisoners after a failed revolt at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison in 1996 is perhaps the most notorious episode of domestic abuse. Abroad, he was best-known for his alleged involvement in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people.

Since 1969, Libya has suffered forced disappearances, politically motivated arrests and the use of torture, as well as the near-total repression of freedom of expression and association. Gadhafi's Libya was one of the region's most thorough police states, and his unique political system, the Jamahiriya, or "state of the masses," obviated the need for elections.

Now that he is gone and Libya has officially been liberated after the fall of Sirte, the clock starts on the transition to a new government. The National Transitional Council said it plans to organize free elections and rewrite the constitution. It has pledged that Libya will respect international human rights standards.

Gadhafi's burial delayed

    Just Watched

    Gadhafi's burial delayed

Gadhafi's burial delayed 02:45
Gadhafi was hiding in drainage pipe

    Just Watched

    Gadhafi was hiding in drainage pipe

Gadhafi was hiding in drainage pipe 01:21
Where are Gadhafi's assets?

    Just Watched

    Where are Gadhafi's assets?

Where are Gadhafi's assets? 03:09
The next chapter in the Arab Spring

    Just Watched

    The next chapter in the Arab Spring

The next chapter in the Arab Spring 03:52

Libya's new leaders have an extraordinary opportunity to rebuild the country based on the rule of law, where the rights of all are respected, including those of women, minorities and supporters of the old regime. It's vital, for instance, that the new constitution enshrines the right to gender equality and nondiscrimination, and that women are able to participate fully in the political process, during the transition and beyond. The new authorities will need to abolish or revise numerous laws, including those that limit free expression and association and restrict political parties. And they will need to rewrite the penal code and reorganize the judicial system and the security services.

But Libya will need international help to build a credible, unified state that can protect all its inhabitants. The transitional authorities have already spoken out against revenge attacks. They also need to ensure that those now being detained are treated humanely, and those responsible for abuses are investigated and fairly prosecuted.

Human Rights Watch has already documented some of the difficulties any new government will face, such as how to set up and administer lawful and humane detention facilities. We have investigated incidents of torture by forces allied to the transitional council, as well as revenge attacks against communities who are considered pro-Gadhafi. And we have spoken to women (and men) victimized during the conflict by sexual violence, a taboo subject in Libya. The new authorities need to ensure that appropriate care and support are offered to women and girls subjected to such violence, and help to create an environment in which people feel able to report rape and other attacks.

The Libyan authorities should be setting up independent, impartial investigations into the most serious crimes of the past four decades, and also cooperate with the International Criminal Court, which is examining abuses since February 15, 2011. There have been many, implicating both sides. On Thursday we visited the graveyard in Sirte and learned that of the 52 bodies buried this week, at least half appeared to be victims of executions by Gadhafi forces, their hands bound behind their backs.

The biggest challenges for Libya remain ahead, and so do the tough questions: Who should be prosecuted? How to deliver real justice, not just that of the victors? How to ensure that women, minorities and other vulnerable groups are truly integrated into the transition and beyond? But today, the people of Libya are celebrating the end of an extraordinarily dark time. And the best way to leave the Gadhafi nightmare in the past is to build a new Libya based on human rights for all.

      Death of a dictator

    • mann gadhafi speaks_00000000

      CNN's John Vause looks back at the rise and fall of mercurial Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed on Thursday.
    • A policeman examines the site where a Boeing 747 crashed after exploding over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. The incident left 270 people dead.

      Brian Flynn, the brother of a victim of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland, says Moammar Gadhafi's death is justice long delayed.
    • After months of fighting between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces, deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has been killed.
    • DAKAR, SENEGAL:  Libyan Head of State Colonel Moamer Kadhafi (C) reviews troops 03 December 1985 in Dakar upon his arrival for three-day official visit to Senegal. Kadhafi, born in 1942, formed in 1963 the Free Officers Movement, a group of revolutionary army officers, which overthrew 01 September 1969 King Mohammed Idris of Libya and proclaimed Libya, in the name of "freedom, socialism and unity," Socialist People's  Jamahiriya. (Photo credit should read JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images)

      Fareed Zakaria on Gadhafi's fate: "He had always been a fighter -- romantic, mad, crazy -- so I always suspected he would go down fighting"
    • nr gadhafi last moments alive_00001224

      Former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is seen in what may be his final moments as he is captured by rebel forces.
    • TRIPOLI, LIBYA:  Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi salutes his troops participating 07 September 1999 in a military parade in Tripoli to mark the 30th anniversary of the Libyan Revolution that brought Kadhafi to power. Troops from 24 African states joined the flamboyant, five-hour parade which also heralds this week's extraordinary summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). (Photo credit should read MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

      Over four decades in power in Libya, Moammar Gadhafi portrayed himself as the leader of a united Africa and the "king of kings" of his oil-rich desert nation.
    • A National Transitional Council fighter stands on a small rug with a portrait of Moammar Gadhafi at the frontline in Bani Walid.

      The African stage once belonged to Moammar Gadhafi, nicknamed the "king of kings of Africa" by fellow leaders.
    • NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 23: Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi addresses at the 64th General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters on September 23, 2009 in New York City. Over 120 heads of state will converge in New York for the 64th session of the United Nations' General Assembly over the next seven days. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

      Fighting in Libya started with anti-government demonstrations in February and escalated into a civil war.
    • Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, surrounded by his female bodyguards, attends a meeting with female personalities, 12 December 2007 in Paris.   AFP PHOTO / POOL / Jacky Naegelen (Photo credit should read JACKY NAEGELEN/AFP/Getty Images)

      Reactions to the reported death of deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has started to trickle in from around the world.
    • Libyan children waving National Transitional Council (NTC) flags celebrate in the streets of Tripoli following news of Moamer Kahdafi's capture on October 20, 2011. An NTC spokesman said Kadhafi has been killed by new regime forces in their final assault on the last pocket of resistance in his hometown Sirte on October 20, 2011. AFP PHOTO / MARCO LONGARI (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

      Dictators around the Middle East should pay close attention to the fate of Moammar Gadhafi, opposition activists from Syria and Yemen say.