Berlin — One overlooked factor in the recent events in Libya has been the malignant neglect shown by Human Rights Watch over the years in failing to call attention to Moammar Qaddafi’s lethal repression of political dissidents and civil liberties. The fast-moving situation in Libya has catapulted the already scandal-plagued Middle East and North African (MENA) division of HRW into damage-control mode.
MENA’s executive director, Sarah Leah Whitson, waxed lyrical in 2009 about the progressive and enlightened sensibility of Qadaffi’s son, Saif al-Islam, calling him “the real impetus for transformation” because he’d established a charitable foundation and two quasi-private newspapers. Just last year, during a visit to Libya, she called him one of the “forces of reform” and compared his foundation to HRW.
But in the wake of Saif al-Islam and his father’s violent crackdown, Whitson is scrambling to cover her kudos for Libya’s rulers. She now concedes that Libya’s regime was not serious about the business of human rights. This is the same Whitson who held a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia to finance more Israel-bashing HRW reports. All of this helps to explain why NGO Monitor, a watchdog organization that tracks human-rights NGOs who have deviated from their missions, called for Whitson to be sacked.
The writing was plainly on the wall. In 2009, HRW’s handling of the Qaddafi regime’s incarceration of anti-regime activist Fathi Eljahmi prompted Eljahmi’s brother, Muhammad, to write in an online commentary for Forbes that the activist’s death “should give prominent human rights organizations pause. For nearly a year, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch hesitated to advocate publicly for Fathi’s case, because they feared their case workers might lose access to Libyan visas.”
The topsy-turvy world of human-rights organizations is perhaps best summed up in raw numbers. While Human Rights Watch flirted and courted a clinically insane dictator and his likely heir, Saif al-Islam (who had announced that he intends to “eradicate” the democratic opposition), HRW devoted the bulk of its energies and resources to targeting the region’s only democracy, Israel. As NGO Monitor revealed, “Since 1991 it has issued six substantive reports on Libya (versus more than 40 on Israel, for example). HRW’s website lists 42 pages of documents and reports on Israel and only 12 pages for Libya. In fact, many of HRW’s ‘major’ reports on Libya are actually directed towards the EU, US and Italy.”
The phrase “useful idiots,” which is generally attributed to Lenin, refers to the ability of ruthlessly authoritarian regimes to hoodwink Western liberals into believing that awful political systems are model forms of government. Lenin would surely be proud of HRW and Whitson’s work in Libya.
— Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.