Libya: Discriminatory Restriction on Women

On February 23, Abdelrazeq al-Nadhouri, chief of staff of the forces known as the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the military governor of the region that extends from Derna to Ben Jawwad, repealed his order requiring women who wish to travel abroad  to be accompanied by a male guardian and replaced it with a new order imposing travel restrictions on all men and women ages  18 to 45. The new order specifies that people in that age group need clearance by relevant security agencies ahead of any international travel from eastern Libya. Justifying these restrictions, the order refers to the “necessity to put in place measures to counter risk from abroad that threaten national security.”

Libyan officials in the east should immediately repeal this new order, Human Rights Watch said.  While governments have the authority to restrict travel on an individual basis based on narrow and appealable grounds laid out in law, al-Nadhouri’s order, by its sweeping nature targeting all would-be travelers of a certain age, gravely undermines the right enshrined in international law that entitles everyone to leave any country, including their own, and to return to their country.

(Tunis) – Officials in eastern Libya should immediately repeal an order, issued on February 16, 2017, that bans women under age 60 from traveling abroad unless they are accompanied by a male guardian, Human Rights Watch said today. The order threatens to curtail freedom of movement for women in eastern Libya, including for medical treatment, education, and professional travel.

Abdelrazeq al-Nadhouri, chief of staff of the forces known as the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the military governor of the region that extends from Derna to Ben Jawwad, issued the order requiring women who wish to travel abroad by land, air, or sea to be accompanied by a male guardian, also known as a mahram. The text of the order justifies it as necessary for “reasons of public interest” and “to limit negative aspects that accompanied Libyan women’s international travel.” On February 21, after a public uproar, al-Nadhouri reportedly suspended implementation of this regulation until further notice.
Libyan women celebrate the third anniversary of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi at Freedom Square in Benghazi, February 17, 2014.
Libyan women celebrate the third anniversary of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi at Freedom Square in Benghazi, February 17, 2014.  © 2014 Reuters

“Requiring adult women to have a male guardian with them when they travel is a humiliating step backward for women,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

In a television interview on February 19, al-Nadhouri claimed that the order was necessary for the “national security of Libya” and that it had “no religious or political background.” Al-Nadhouri claimed, without providing any details, that several young women had collaborated with foreign intelligence agencies, creating a risk that they would disclose information that could harm the national interest. He also warned, “As long as [a Libyan woman] is in Libya, she is free. Once she leaves Libya our eyes will be on her.”

Many women’s rights activists and human rights lawyers rejected the regulation, saying it violated women’s rights, as protected by Libyan laws. On February 22, women’s rights activists staged a demonstration in al-Kish square in Benghazi protesting the travel restrictions.

Libyan women have had the right to travel abroad without the permission of a male relative. In 2014, the Tripoli-based religious authority, Dar Al-Iftaa, called for a woman to be accompanied by a male guardian if she wished to travel abroad, but the religious edict, or fatwa, never became law.

The Libyan National Army operates with affiliated militias and the army special forces in eastern Libya under the command of Khalifa Hiftar, a retired general who served under the ousted Gaddafi government. The LNA has gained control over territory in much of eastern Libya since the outbreak of hostilities in May 2014. It is aligned with the so-called Interim Government based in al-Bayda, and the House of Representatives, based in Tobruk, both in the eastern part of the country. The Interim Government is not recognized by the United Nations or the international community and is competing for legitimacy with the Tripoli-based and UN-backed Government of National Accord.

Article 14 of the Libyan Constitutional Declaration guarantees the right to freedom of movement. Libyan authorities are also bound by numerous international treaties ratified by the country. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Libya acceded in 1989, legally obligates member states to end all discrimination against women, without delay, and guarantees the right to freedom of movement.

As a state party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Libya must ensure nondiscrimination and the right to freedom of movement for all people, without distinction as to gender. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also provides: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state… [and] to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

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