Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2004

2004 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Libya made significant progress in its bid to break out from international isolation with the lifting of UN sanctions in September 2003. Despite limited cooperation from Libya on the war against terrorism, the U.S. government opted to maintain its unilateral sanctions against Libya, citing concerns with Libya's possible development of weapons of mass destruction, its lingering ties to terrorism, and its abysmal human rights record. In June, Libyan leader Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi appointed a new prime minister and announced broad economic reforms.

Libyan independence dates to 1951, when King Idris assumed power following a UN resolution establishing Libya as an independent and sovereign state. French and British forces had occupied Libya during World War II. Prior to the Allied occupation, Libya had been an Italian colony since an invasion in 1912. In the previous centuries, Libya was under Ottoman rule.

In 1969, Colonel Qadhafi seized power at the age of 25 in a military coup that deposed the staunchly pro-West King Idris. Qadhafi railed against Western control of Libya's oil fields and the presence of foreign military bases in Libya. He ushered in a highly personalized style of rule that combines elements of pan-Arabism with Islamic ideals. Qadhafi purported to find a "third way" that rejects both Western-style democracy and communism.

In the years following Qadhafi's rise to power, Libya gained international pariah status with its sponsorship of various acts of terrorism, as well as its support of insurgencies throughout sub-Saharan Africa. During the 1980s, Libyan meddling in the war in neighboring Chad proved to be a costly military failure. Libyan involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, led the United Nations to impose sanctions on Libya in 1992. The sanctions included embargoes on air traffic and the import of arms and oil production equipment. The United States has maintained its own sanctions against Libya since 1981, citing Libyan sponsorship of terrorism.

Beginning in 1999, Qadhafi embarked on a strategy aimed at ending Libya's international isolation. He surrendered two Libyan nationals suspected in the Pan Am 103 bombing and agreed to compensate families of victims of the 1989 bombing of a French airliner over Niger. The Libyan government also accepted responsibility for the 1984 death of British police officer Yvonne Fletcher, killed by shots fired from the Libyan embassy in London. Qadhafi also expelled members of the Palestinian terrorist organization headed by Abu Nidal.

In response to Libya's surrendering of two terrorism suspects, the United Nations opted to suspend sanctions against Libya in 1999, although the permanent lifting of sanctions was withheld pending Libya's unequivocal renunciation of terrorism. The United States eased some of its restrictions by allowing for the limited sale of food and medicines to Libya, but maintained its travel ban as well as other restrictions. Britain opted to resume diplomatic ties with Libya, reopening its embassy in Tripoli in March 2001. The European Union followed suit by lifting sanctions, but maintains an arms embargo.

The two terrorism suspects went on trial in March 2000 at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands, but under Scottish law. One of the suspects was found guilty of murder in January 2001 and sentenced to life imprisonment, while the other suspect was acquitted of all charges and freed. Following the trial, the United States and Britain repeated demands that Libya formally accept responsibility for the bombing, compensate the victims' families, and renounce terrorism.

In August 2003, the Libyan government struck a deal with the families of the Pan Am 103 bombing victims, offering to pay $2.7 billion in compensation. The victims' families will be awarded roughly $10 million each. In response, the United Nations voted to lift sanctions on Libya in September, removing a significant hurdle to Libya's reintegration into the global community. The Libyan government remains deadlocked with the French families of the victims of the 1989 UTA airliner bombing over Niger. Libya has already paid a total of $33 million to the victims' families and proposed to pay an additional $1 million per family, but the UTA families have said the compensation package is still too low.

The U.S. government continues to maintain unilateral sanctions against Libya. Washington remains concerned about Libya's potential links to terrorism as well as its long-range missiles and chemical weapons programs. These sanctions include a prohibition of U.S. investment in Libya, a ban on U.S. oil companies doing business in Libya, and a travel ban that forbids the use of American passports for travel to Libya. Libya has also remained on the U.S. government's list of state sponsors of terrorism. In addition, the United States maintains a freeze on Libyan assets. U.S. officials are discussing the possibility of extending the travel ban for only 90 days as opposed to the typical year-long extension. This reduced period is intended to signal to the Libyan government that Washington might be willing to upgrade relations if Libya is more forthcoming on the issues of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Despite its oil wealth, the Libyan economy remains hobbled by inefficient state controls and corruption. Libya's rapid population growth has also led to rising unemployment, currently estimated at 30 percent. In addition, years of sanctions have taken a toll on the lucrative oil sector, with production down to 1.3 million barrels per day from 3.7 million barrels per day in the 1970s. Acknowledging the need for change, Qadhafi has authorized wide-ranging economic reforms. In June, the Libyan leader announced a plan to privatize the economy and promote direct foreign investment. In a bid to attract foreign investment, the exchange rate was liberalized and trade licenses were abolished to allow integration with the global market. Libya has also applied to join the World Trade Organization.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Libyans cannot change their government democratically. Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi rules by decree with little accountability or transparency. Libya's governing principles stem from Qadhafi's Green Book, a treatise that combines Islamic ideals with elements of socialism and pan-Arabism. Qadhafi rejects Western-style democracy and political parties, claiming instead that his country is a jamahiriyah, or state of the masses. As such, Qadhafi calls for direct popular rule. The reality, however, is that power is tightly held by Qadhafi and a relatively small inner circle of advisers.

Libyans do not have the right to organize into different political parties. While people do play a role in popular congresses, they do not affect the balance of power that remains squarely in Qadhafi's control. Extra-governmental bodies, including the revolutionary committees and people's committees, aid Qadhafi and serve as tools of repression. There is no significant legal opposition in Libya, and people's political choices are subject to the domination of Qadhafi and his esoteric political system.

Free media do not exist in Libya. The government severely limits freedom of speech and of the press, particularly any criticism of Qadhafi. The state owns and controls all print and broadcast media outlets and thereby maintains a monopoly on the flow of information. Satellite television is widely available, although foreign programming is censored at times. Internet access is limited, as there is only one service provider (owned by Qadhafi's son). However, reportedly, the number of Internet users is growing.

Freedom of religion is restricted, and the government controls most mosques and Islamic institutions in Libya, which is 97 percent Sunni Muslim. Islamic organizations whose teachings and beliefs differ from the official, government-approved version of Islam are banned. Academic freedom is severely restricted.

Freedom of assembly, demonstration, and open public discussion are severely restricted. Qadhafi maintains an extensive internal security apparatus. The Libyan leader is ruthless with suspected opponents and is able to mobilize his multilayered security apparatus quickly. These multiple and overlapping security services rely on an extensive network of informers that are present throughout Libyan society.

The judiciary is not independent. Security forces have the power to pass sentences without a trial, and the government has used summary judicial proceedings to suppress domestic dissent. Political trials are held in secret with no due process considerations. Arbitrary arrest and torture are commonplace. In October, Amnesty International called on the Libyan authorities to release or grant new trials to 151 students and professionals who have been detained since 1998. They were charged with belonging to an unauthorized group, the Libyan Islamic Group, and have been denied access to a fair trial since that time.

The largely Berber and Tuareg minorities face discrimination. While women's status has improved in some areas like education and employment, discrimination continues in other areas where local traditions predominate. Female genital mutilation is still practiced in remote rural areas. Violence against women also continues to be a problem.