Transitional Justice and Graffiti in Libya

It may not be as ‘sexy’ as international trials or even truth commissions. It’s not as political or high-stakes either. Memorialization, however, is an essential element of transitional justice. In this context, a fascinating debate is taking place about what to do with the vibrant graffiti that has blossomed on the hitherto barren and depoliticized walls of Libyan cities and towns.

It might be a stretch for some readers to hear that graffiti is an integral part of transitional justice. But if transitional justice, the definition of which has never really been clear, can be broadly understood as the decisions and efforts of a society to reckon and deal with the past, then Libyan graffiti amounts to a very visceral element of transitional justice in Libya. As the International Center for Transitional Justice wrote in a 2007 report:

“In vastly different contexts communities see public memorialization as central to justice, reconciliation, truth-telling, reparation, and coming to grips with the past.”

In the emerging study of transitional justice, memorialization has received uneven and inadequate attention. The immediate artistic expression of struggle for freedom, democracy and justice has received even less attention. Yet, in the case of Libya, graffiti is, to a remarkable extent, Libya’s first moment of democratic expression.

The amount of graffiti across Libya is astonishing and suggests a deep-seated need to express both disdain for the past Gaddafi regime and the hopes for a new future. According to one report, “[p]erhaps the most spontaneous expression of the uprising can be seen on the street, with graffiti covering so many surfaces at some point the new government eventually may have to place some limits.”

It’s not always pretty – most of it is unimpressive and simple. But numerous graffiti murals are beautifully detailed and satirical. More importantly, the graffiti is a symbol of resistance and the drive to a free and just Libya. Remarkably, during the conflict, Libyans  in Gaddafi-held areas even took the risk to ruin pro-Gaddafi murals with graffiti.

Below I have included a gallery of some of the artwork that was created during the conflict. Many of the pieces evoke the impassioned and desperate desire for a better life and a life beyond a tyrannical police state. Painted over cracks in the wall, they represent amongst the first – and certainly the most colourful – cracks in Gaddafi’s rule. Less than a year ago, expressing such anti-Gaddafi sentiments would surely have guaranteed their authors’ imprisonment, torture or death.

The graffiti sprayed across Libyan cities is in itself a symbol of breaking with the past. As Rana Jawad writes:

“The graffiti and street art in post-revolution Libya is a constant reminder of what most fought for this year – to topple 42 years of tyranny.”

Art often captures the shared values and sentiments of a society much better than politics or violence. The graffiti splayed across Libyan cities is no different. Yet while many pieces should be celebrated and preserved, much of it also betrays the nastier side of post-conflict Libya. Many murals entail vicious glorifications of violence. Some are anti-semitic and racist. Less violent, but perhaps still problematic, others reify the fractured and fragile tribal divisions in the country. Over the coming weeks and months, Libyans authorities will have the difficult task of deciding which murals will become memorials and which will have their images and messages wiped away.

Deciding which murals stay and which go will be no easy task. In order to avoid the process merely legitimizing particular political actors, the decision should be as inclusive as possible. It may be tempting, but as the ICTJ rightly notes: “the creation of memorials or the preservation of memory sites should never be at the expense of truth and justice.”

Yet the basic criteria are quite clear: those images which can memorialize the struggle for democracy, human rights and justice should remain. Those which could sow the seeds of vengeance and violence and thus pose a risk to post-conflict peace, should be removed. All, however, should be documented in order to preserve a truthful and honest understanding of the conflict – not one which is fabricated by the politics that be, after the fact.

The graffiti matters because it would never have been possible just a few months ago. Above all, the graffiti, from Misrata to Benghazi, is a vivid and profoundly moving reminder of the brutal past and a powerful instruction to the citizens of Libya: “never again.” Being amongst the first and most potent democratic expressions after decades of Gaddafi rule, the graffiti murals have an important role to play in Libya’s transition.

Graffiti, Transitional Justice and Libya


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Libya, Memorialization, Peace Processes, Transitional Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Transitional Justice and Graffiti in Libya

  1. Bix Gabriel says:

    Dear Mark,
    Thank you for this fascinating glimpse at how Libyans are memorializing the recent past (and the present) through graffiti. As the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, the only worldwide network of places of memory – from monuments, museums, and historic sites to neighborhoods, streets and roadside memorials – dedicated to remembering past struggles and addressing their contemporary legacies, we very much believe in the power of public memory through public art as a way to inspire reflection, discussion and even action. We’re happy to have discovered your work and hope you’ll keep ours in mind!

  2. David Taylor says:

    Dear Mark,
    Thanks for this incredibly interesting and important post, opening up the discussion on transitional justice beyond simply criminal prosecutions and truth commissions. Your statement that memorialisation is an essential element of transitional justice, but receives inadequate attention, could not be more true. For your interest and for the interest of others, Impunity Watch, the Dutch research-for-policy NGO for which I am working, is currently preparing a comparative analysis of memorialisation in several post-conflict countries based on ethnographic research findings. The analysis will be published in the coming months. As part of the same project, we also published a short analysis including some findings from a debate series held in the Netherlands last year, which can be found here:

    Thanks again! And looking forward to more posts!

  3. Mark Kersten says:

    Dear David and Bix – many thanks to both of you for sharing the work of your organizations. I am certain that many JiC readers are eager to learn more about the subject and your work in the area – I know I am!

  4. Pingback: Navigator Ltd. - Navigator Reads – December 16, 2011

  5. Roseanna says:

    I came, I read this aritcle, I conquered.

  6. Pingback: Libia: il miraggio della democratizzazione – OSMED

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