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Human Rights Watch and Libya

5:33 PM, Mar 4, 2011 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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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.” 

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