• 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 2023: Libya

The Amazigh form the Indigenous population of Libya. They 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. They are originally from the Tibesti plateau in Chad and they 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 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.


Status quo in a fragile calm

Since the disagreement over the proposed constitutional referendum in September 2021 and the failure of the plan to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in December of the same year, Libya has continued to live in institutional and political chaos, with two assemblies and two governments vying for power. The “parliament” based in Tobruk in the east of the country, which considers itself legitimate because it emerged from elections in 2014 and on 10 February 2022, has appointed Fathi Bashagha as prime minister. In Tripoli, Abdelhamid Debeiba, prime minister of a so-called national unity government was appointed on 21 March 2021 and is supported by a Presidential Council.

Each of the two governments controls part of the territory and has an “army” comprised of militias born in the aftermath of the fall of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The country is split in two and their governments are at war with each other through armed groups loyal to either government. On 22 July 2022, intense fighting took place in Tripoli, resulting in 16 deaths, including civilians, and some 50 injured.[1] Just over a month later, on 27 August 2022, new armed clashes between armed militias in Tripoli left 32 people dead and 159 injured. According to local media, militias loyal to the Bashagha government attempted to enter Tripoli by force but were repelled by groups supporting the existing Debeiba government.[2]

The numerous foreign interferences in Libya play a decisive role in maintaining the Libyan crisis, notably by supplying arms to the warring parties, despite the arms embargo declared by the UN.[3] No less than 13 actors are directly or indirectly involved in Libya: the neighbouring countries (Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Chad), the Arab-Islamic countries (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar), the European countries (France, Great Britain, Italy), the United States, Russia and Turkey. The most influential are the Arab-Islamic states, Egypt, the European countries, the United States, Russia and Turkey. Libya is of geostrategic, oil-producing, religious, security and migratory interest and each country is seeking to preserve its own interests there, to the detriment of the Libyan population.

Without legitimate and recognized State institutions and a unified authority, the population suffers in anguish, without any protection, hoping for a return to peace and stability. At the end of her visit to Libya from 14 to 21 December 2022,[4] Ms Reem Alsalem, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, stated that “political deadlock, insecurity, instability, governance and rule of law challenges and problematic legal frameworks that are not in line with Libya’s international human rights obligations were among reasons for the appalling situation”. This is characterized by “horrific levels of torture, sexual violence, abduction for ransom, detention, trafficking in persons, forced labour and unlawful killings.” Ms Alsalem also denounced the “proliferation of armed groups and weapons driving complex and cross-border criminal enterprises, [which] have strengthened the rampant impunity that reigns for crimes committed”.

The UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya conducted its fifth fact-finding mission to the country from 20 October to 21 November 2022.[5] UN investigators met with various stakeholders but were not permitted to visit prisons or the southern city of Sebha, which is inhabited mainly by the Indigenous Amazigh Kel-Tamacheq community.


The Indigenous Peoples of Libya, eternally forgotten

While armed groups fight for control of territories and resources, the weakest Indigenous communities are left behind and continue to suffer the most severe discrimination. Such is the case of 15-20,000 families, or some 80,000 Kel-Tamacheq people in southern Libya who are still being deprived of Libyan nationality and identity documents. As a result, they are denied access to State education, training and health services, and cannot be legally employed. The demands they have regularly made to the Libyan administration since 2011 have not been successful.

Although their territory in Fezzan (southern and south-western Libya) is rich in mineral resources, including gas and oil, the Kel-Tamacheq are the poorest people in the country because they have no control over these resources.

The Kel-Tamasheq community in Libya also faces the challenge of the closure of the border with Algeria on security grounds. Kel-Tamacheq populations living on both sides of the border have a tradition of cross-border movement and exchange that has been brutally interrupted. The consequences can be dramatic when people cannot visit a loved one or get medicine or food from the other side of the border.

The representatives of the High Council of Amazigh of Libya (HCAL) and the Mayors of the Amazigh municipalities of Yefren, Kabaw and Qalaa, had an opportunity to raise the challenges faced by the Amazigh of this country with Ms Stephanie Williams, Special Advisor on Libya to the UN Secretary-General, during their meeting on 1 March 2022 in Tripoli.[6] The Mayors and representatives of the HCAL highlighted the marginalization of their community from the political process and State institutions and the extrajudicial detentions to which Amazigh are subjected by armed groups, and demanded respect for their right to participate in the country’s constitutional and institutional project.

In fact, the non-Arab communities of Libya, and particularly the Amazigh, have for many years now been expressing their desire for a federal Libyan state in which their territories would enjoy a status of autonomy that would allow them to preserve their specific features. No answer has been given to date but the Tripoli government is making numerous symbolic gestures towards the Amazigh.[7] In the current situation, however, this is probably more out of a concern to keep them on board than to really hear their demands.


Conservation and protected areas

Libya is a country that comprises more than 90% desert in which the vast majority of the population is concentrated in a thin strip along the Mediterranean coast. With a total area of 1.76 million km², Libya has seven national parks, one of which (Ashafean in the Adrar Nefussa) was classified as a biosphere reserve (MAB) by UNESCO in 2021.[8] The country also has five marine protected areas and two wetlands.

Under the dictatorship of the former regime and, indeed, in the current context of civil war that has lasted since 2011, the issue of biodiversity and nature protection is not a matter of concern for many Libyans. The various authorities are too busy with their political and military battles, while the people are more worried about their own survival.

Nevertheless, with the impetus and support of foreign partners, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP/MAP), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Government of Tripoli has decided to launch a “project to create 30 new protected areas including wetlands, marine and coastal sites and biosphere reserves”.[9]

As things stand, all animal and plant species are under serious threat in Libya due to the combined effects of the lack of a public policy to protect biodiversity and nature, global warming, deforestation, poaching and civil war. Khaled Ettaieb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Tripoli, illustrates the extent of the disaster in Libya: “Before the fall of Gaddafi, even hunting rifles were prohibited. Since 2011, however, poaching has been undertaken with weapons of war and sophisticated vehicles”.[10]



Belkacem Lounes holds a doctorate in Economics and Social Sciences, is a university professor (Grenoble Alpes University), expert member of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities and Minorities
in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, member of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and author of numerous reports and articles on Amazigh and Indigenous Peoples’ rights.


This article is part of the 37th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2023 in full here.



Notes and references

[1] “En Libye, calme ‘fragile’, les Nations unies craignent de nouvelles violences.” Le Monde and AFP, 31 August 2022, https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2022/08/31/en-libye-calme-fragile-les-nations-unies-craignent-de-nouvelles-violences_6139603_3212.html

[2]Libye: des affrontements meurtriers secouent Tripoli, faisant craindre une nouvelle guerre.” Middle East Eye, 28 August 2022, https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/actu-et-enquetes/libye-tripoli-affrontements-guerre-haftar-dbeibah-bachagha  

[3] Mast, Fleur. “Les ingérences étrangères en Libye.” Center for Studies and Research on the Arab and Mediterranean World (CERMAM), 13 April 2022, https://cermam.org/fr/les-ingerences-etrangeres-en-libye/

[4] United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, official visit to Libya, 14-21 December 2022. Summary preliminary findings and recommendations. “Libya: Alarming levels against women and girls must end.” 23 December 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/12/libya-alarming-levels-violence-against-women-and-girls-must-end-says-un

[5] United Nations, Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner. “UN Fact-Finding mission Libya concludes fifth investigative mission.” 30 November 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/11/un-fact-finding-mission-libya-concludes-fifth-investigative-mission    

[6] “Stephanie Williams meets with Amazighs stressing of compromise and inclusiveness in country's current complex political environment.” Lana Agency, 02 March 2022, consulted 15 January 2023, https://lana.gov.ly/post.php?lang=en&id=235370

[7] “Head of GNU Government participates in the Amazigh new year celebrations in Nalut.” Lana Agency, 13 January 2022, consulted 15 January 2023, https://lana.gov.ly/post.php?lang=en&id=230160

[8] “La Libye rejoint pour la 1ère fois le réseau mondial de Biosphères de l’Unesco avec la Réserve de biosphère d’Ashafean.” Unesco news, 17 September 2021, https://www.unesco.org/fr/articles/la-libye-rejoint-pour-la-1ere-fois-le-reseau-mondial-de-biospheres-de-lunesco-avec-la-reserve-de

[9] Takouleu, Jean Marie. “LIBYE: WWF et l´UICN appuient la designation de 30 aires matines protégées.” Afrik 21, 28 February 2022, https://www.afrik21.africa/libye-wwf-et-luicn-appuient-la-designation-de-30-aires-marines-protegees/

[10] Chibani, Ali. “Le Maghreb prend conscience du déclin de sa biodiversité.” Orient XXI, 4 August 2020,  https://orientxxi.info/magazine/le-maghreb-prend-conscience-du-declin-de-sa-biodiversite

Tags: Global governance



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