Africa's highest court on human rights has ordered Libya to immediately cease any action that would result in the loss of life. The order also compels Libya to report to the Tanzania-based court within two weeks.
The ruling is the first-ever issued by the court against a state, Clive Baldwin, a legal adviser at Human Rights Watch, said Thursday.
The African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights, which falls under the authority of the African Union, issued its ruling on March 25 but did not make it public until Wednesday. The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights brought the case to the Tanzania-based court.
Human rights activists called the decision a positive step for the protection of civilians.
The petition against Libya said that "serious and massive violations of human rights" that are guaranteed under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights had taken place.
The commission alleged that demonstrations in Benghazi and four other Libyan cities on Feb. 19 were "violently suppressed by security forces who opened fire at random on the demonstrators, killing and injuring many people."
The court issued the orders without hearing written or oral hearings because of what it called the imminent risk of loss of life.
Baldwin said Human Rights Watch, Interights and the Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights took a case against Libya to the African rights commission, which then presented the case to the court. He said that Libya has said in the past that it would comply with the court's rulings.
"Gadhafi has often claimed to be one of the leaders of Africa, and he was behind pushing for an African Union some years ago," Baldwin said.
African Union member states must now apply pressure if the rulings of the court are to have any practical effect, Baldwin said. He noted that rulings of the European Court of Human Rights are effective because of the peer pressure applied by member states.
Joanne Sawyer, the litigation director at Interights, a group that promotes human rights worldwide, said the African court's action was a positive step.
"This strong action from the African court is a clear signal to the Libyan government that they will be held accountable for their actions," Sawyer said.