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Human Rights Watch and Libya

The following is a cross-post of an article by Just Journalism Executive Director Michael Weiss published in The Weekly Standard.

Where governments and statesmen can afford to be cynical about trade relations and security agreements with rogue regimes, human rights groups are supposed to operate at a higher level – the ultimate goal being for those regimes to alter their behavior. When NGOs traffic in realpolitik, it has a more scandalizing impact. Nothing better showcases this phenomenon than Human Rights Watch’s kid-gloved and self-interested approach to Libya in the past several years.

In 2009, Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s director of the Middle East and North Africa division, penned an essay for Foreign Policy magazine titled “Tripoli Spring,” which argued that Libya was opening itself up to reform and “self-rehabilitation in the international community.” Whitson’s piece started out with a troubling anecdote about the fate of Fathi al-Jahmi, who had just six days before died in a Jordanian medical center after being tortured and abused in the five years he spent in solitary confinement in one of Muammar Qaddafi’s prisons. “What Fathi al-Jahmi died for,” Whitson wrote, “is starting to spread in the country… It is impossible to underestimate the important of the efforts made so far.”

Al-Jahmi was indeed an emblematic figure in Libya, a civil engineer turned provincial governor in the country. He left in the early 1970s, just after Muammar Qaddafi’s bloodless coup, and then returned to manage businesses he’d founded there. Al-Jahmi remained in Libya even after Qaddafi nationalized most private enterprise because, as his brother Mohammed told me over the phone from his home in Massachusetts recently, “he was a principled man.” He was also vocal in his opposition to the new government, said to be founded on a mysterious cocktail of Islamism, Arab nationalism, and Marxist socialism. Regardless, Qaddafi’s regime offered al-Jahmi a job in the state-owned African Engineer Company, which Mohammed says was a front for the external security services. Fathi turned it down. “Only prostitutes and pimps could thrive in this climate,” Mohammed tells me. “My brother was offering to help Libya redefine its relationship with the world. He wanted a constitution, freedom of speech, free enterprise—everything the Libyan people right now are calling for.”

The trouble was, HRW, a non-governmental organization meant to further human rights, was not acting as a tribune for such voices in dire need. Whitson’s citation of al-Jahmi in her essay was especially cynical since her organization had refrained from drawing attention to his case before his demise. As Mohammed wrote in a June 2009 article for Forbes:

Only on the day of Fathi’s death did Human Rights Watch issue a press release that announced what we had known for two months: That Fathi appeared frail and emaciated, could barely speak and could not lift his arms or head. When the researchers asked him on April 25 and 26 if he was free to leave prison, he said no. When they asked him if he wanted to go home, he said yes.

HRW declined to call for an independent investigation into Fathi’s death, which his brother guessed was brought on by years of torture, malnutrition, and medical neglect. Mohammed al-Jahmi also suspected that HRW was wary of barracking Qaddafi at precisely the moment that Whitson was limning an interlude of mild but encouraging perestroika in a totalitarian country.

Indeed, her piece recounted Libya’s preliminary attempts, beginning in 2003-2004, to burnish its international reputation by handing over its nuclear weapons program, which was far advanced beyond what Western intelligence agencies suspected, compensating the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, and releasing the five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor who had all been detained in Libya on the paranoid suspicion of their spreading HIV to children. But she also noted that internal repression, as on her first visit to the country 2005, was “as suffocating as ever.”

When Whitson traveled back to Libya in April 2009 with her HRW cohort she began to notice that the “brittle atmosphere of repression [had] started to fracture.” Victims of prison killings were being compensated a la Lockerbie. Meetings were held at which ordinary citizens spoke out freely against the regime. A draft penal code offered to restrict capital punishment to murderers. And the Libyan judiciary was acting autonomously and against the notorious state security apparatus. Even journalists were given license to complain about state censorship while testing its limits by publishing hard-hitting exposes on “unsanitary hospitals or contaminated food supplies.” Quryna and Oea, two “semi-private newspapers” founded by one of Qaddafi’s seven sons, Saif al-Islam, were also said to be sincere about combating government corruption despite facing a host of libel lawsuits from the public officials these newspapers disparaged.

Whitson was particularly effusive about Saif, crediting him as the “real impetus for the transformation” in the country since he served as chairman of the Qaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development, an organization that “has been outspoken on the need to improve the country’s human rights record. It has had a number of showdowns with the Internal Security Ministry, with whom relations remain frosty.”

Saif’s foundation has purchased a great deal of credibility in the West. It gave $2.4 million to the London School of Economics, where Saif obtained his doctorate (his dissertation, now said to have been plagiarized, was on comparative democracy) and enjoyed unusual privileges for a graduate student in Britain. According to the Guardian, in August 2009, Saif was set up in a “neo-Georgian eight-bedroom mansion, [where he] could relax in his own swimming pool sauna room, whirlpool bath and suede-lined cinema room”—all courtesy of his father. The London School of Economics is now facing a serious public pressure campaign launched by alumni and activists to donate its ill-gotten funds to victims of Qaddafi’s cruelty; and the scandal so far has resulted in the resignation of the college’s director, Sir Howard Davies. But, as Mohammed al-Jahmi pointed out in Forbes two years ago, the Qaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development was never quite the liberalizing force that Whitson claimed. It had intimidated Fathi al-Jahmi’s family while he was on his deathbed; some relatives, according to Mohammed, had continued “to endure interrogation, denial of citizenship papers and passports, round the clock surveillance and threats of rape and physical liquidation.”

How the son and heir of Qaddafi can have been portrayed as inextricable from the police state his father founded was unexplored in Whitson’s Foreign Policy essay. But her overall view did jibe with HRW’s 2009 report, “Truth and Justice Can’t Wait.” Although highly critical of Libya for its continued human rights abuses, the report nevertheless found that “the past five years have witnessed an improvement in the human rights situation, though far less than promised or required.” HRW cast its lot with Saif’s conciliatory gestures, seeing him as one of the few functionaries widening the berth for state accountability and personal freedom. Saif’s newspapers are referred to in “Truth and Justice Can’t Wait” as evidence of “some tolerance towards limited political diversity.” He is even quoted in the report as establishing the four “red lines” on free speech in Libya: “the application of Islamic law, the Koran and its requirements, security and stability of Libya, its territorial integrity and Mu’ammar Gaddafi.” After being assailed on Libyan radio by an angry caller, Saif is shown somewhat magnanimously as intervening to stop the prosecution of the radio broadcaster on the grounds that criticism of Saif himself did not cross one of the “red lines.”

Even so, HRW did not articulate how a proscription on criticizing or mocking the Libyan dictator was coterminous with an “improvement in the human rights situation.” No mention of “red lines” in Whitson’sForeign Policy article, either.

There were other complicating details about that brittle atmosphere of repression beginning to crack in 2009. During Whitson’s last trip to Libya, HRW convened a much-touted press conference in a Tripoli hotel to coincide with the publication of “Truth and Justice Can’t Wait.” The affair turned into an ad hoc truth and reconciliation committee in that family members of various dissidents who had been imprisoned, killed or disappeared by the government were allowed to stand up and share their horror stories. In a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Whitson cites this “unprecedented news conference” in her opening paragraph. Once again, Saif al-Islam was the man who made it all happen.

But even before the current crisis in Libya—and Saif’s appearance on state television to defend his father unto the “last man, last woman, last bullet”—he’d begun to show signs of regression. He had, Whitson now informs us, “in fact abandoned his nascent reform agenda long before the past week’s demonstrations” by failing to enact the institutional and legal reforms he seemed keen on back when Tripoli was in spring. He withdrew from public life in 2010 and altered the remit of the Qaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development such that it no longer troubled itself with human rights at all. As for Quryna and Oea, Saif’s “semi-private newspapers,” they’ve been shuttered off and on along with the scion’s radio stations and a press agency. Journalists who presumably did less than cross Saif’s “red lines” on freedom of expression were either suspended or arrested.

HRW had not documented any of this recidivist behavior before and has only now taken to the comment pages of a national newspaper to expose it after the fact. After more than a week of pro-Qaddafi mercenaries and military holdouts massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of protestors by land and air, and after a week of hearing the “Mad Dog” himself frothing visibly at the mouth again, claiming that the revolution in his country was the work of al Qaeda and drug- and alcohol-added teenagers.

Saif’s foundation received only one follow-up mention by HRW after the “Truth and Justice Can’t Wait” report in 2009 in the form of the organization’s World Report 2011. Under the Libya heading, the Human Rights Society of the Qaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development is listed as the only “organization able to criticize human rights violations publicly.”

So if Saif proved a disappointment before he became a mouthpiece for his family’s latest atrocities, where was HRW to say so? And did it not have a moral responsibility to document this about-face in real time since it had happily promoted Saif’s initiatives in 2009? One begins to hear the whir of back-pedaling and the revving of a corporate public relations engine in Whitson’s Los Angeles Times piece. “She doesn’t admit that Saif fooled her,” says Mohammed al-Jahmi.

Curiously, though, Whitson still hasn’t owned up to another embarrassing fact. That HRW convened a news conference in Tripoli in 2009, the one that allowed dissidents to recount state abuses, and that it “ended in pandemonium,” to quote from an account published in the London Times, the only Western newspaper admitted to the conference. Correspondent Martin Fletcher reported:

Several burly men in the audience, whom the dissidents identified as government agents, stood up, denounced the speakers, accused Human Rights Watch of dividing Libyan society while ignoring US and Israeli human rights abuses and demanded that it leave.

Fletcher then quotes Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of HRW, as expressing his concern that these scrofulous minders might have been “taking pictures and observing who was here” for later punishment. In other words, the Qaddafi regime was always in control of any and all attempts to call out the Qaddafi regime. And HRW knew this even when it was citing “unprecedented” and “impossible to underestimate” reforms in Libya.

What accounts for the elisions and half-truths on the part of one of the world’s most respected NGOs?

Mohammed al-Jahmi believes that HRW was too motivated by its desire for “access” to spot a classic totalitarian shell game in action. “The Libyan regime,” he says, “used a carrot-and-stick approach” with HRW, delaying its staff’s entry visas month by month. This creates a psychological condition whereby even skeptical activists can become susceptible to Captive Mind Syndrome, paying credence to sham promises and amplifying every state allowance because of the general absence of state allowances. “Somewhere along the way,” Mohammed says, “a fundamental truth gets lost: These dictators don’t change overnight.”