In 2009, Sarah Leah Whitson, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), visited Libya, claiming to have discovered a “Tripoli spring.” In particular, Whitson praised Muammar Qaddafi’s son Seif Islam as a leading reformer. In two articles promoting this façade of reform, she repeatedly praised him for creating an “expanded space for discussion and debate.”  In reality, Whitson was advancing a fiction; Libya remained a closed totalitarian regime that kept its population under tight control. Seif Islam continued to be an integral part of the repression, even appearing on state television to warn the protesters that the regime would “fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.”

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed (February 24, 2011), weeks after the rebellion against the regime had intensified and Qaddafi began murdering his own citizens, she belatedly reversed course, acknowledging the absence of human rights “reforms” in Libya.  Whitson admitted that:

“With no progress on any institutional or legal reforms... Seif Islam last year announced his withdrawal from political life and said that his foundation would no longer focus on human rights and political affairs... For sure, most Libyans we spoke with never had much faith that Moammar Qaddafi would learn new tricks, or that the announced reforms were anything more than an endless loop of promises made and broken.”

This condemnation reflects the chronic failure of HRW as a human rights watchdog, particularly in the Middle East. 

Whitson’s “Tripoli Spring” Myth

In the wildly misnamed “Tripoli Spring,” (Foreign Policy, May 27, 2009), Whitson called Seif Islam “the real impetus for transformation” via his Qaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development and two semi-private newspapers. Her embrace of Qaddafi’s heir-apparent continued during a visit to Libya in February 2010, referring to him as one of the “forces of reform” in danger of being silenced, and favorably comparing the Qaddafi Foundation to HRW (“Postcard from . . . Tripoli,” Foreign Policy in Focus, February, 11, 2010). Although HRW’s Libyan press conference was cut short by government agents and ended in “pandemonium,” ominously presaging the violence of 2011, Whitson spun her trip and the event in an entirely positive light. As Nick Cohen reported in The Guardian (Our absurd obsession with Israel is laid bare, February 27, 2011), “Human Rights Watch, once a reliable opponent of tyranny…described a foundation Saif ran in Libya as a force for freedom, willing to take on the interior ministry in the fight for civil liberties.”  

In the article, Whitson also praised her experience of “open dissent” in the country.  Yet, she failed to disclose that in January 2010, the regime had actually imposed censorship controls on the internet and had blocked access to YouTube.  By this time, the government had also shut down the two semi-private newspapers lauded by Whitson in “Tripoli Spring” and had  established a new regulatory body to monitor journalists. 

Fathi Eljahmi - HRW Silent Consent in Torture

HRW’s willful blindness was further reflected in the case of Fathi Eljahmi, Libya’s most prominent dissident, who was imprisoned in 2004, tortured, held in solitary confinement, and who died as a result in 2009. As his brother wrote,

“both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch hesitated to advocate publicly for Fathi's case…. Perhaps because they still fear antagonizing Gaddafi, in their May 21 statement Human Rights Watch didn't call for an independent investigation and stopped short of holding the Libyan regime responsible for Fathi's death…. Sarah Leah Whitson is one of the Human Rights Watch researchers who last saw Fathi before he was rushed to Jordan. She wrote an article for Foreign Policy upon her return from Libya, where she described efforts by the Gaddafi Foundation for International Charities and Development, which is headed by the Libyan leader's son, Saif al-Islam, as a ‘spring.’ The organization is actively menacing my brother's family. Some family members continue to endure interrogation, denial of citizenship papers and passports, round the clock surveillance and threats of rape and physical liquidation.”

Not everyone followed HRW and Whitson in promoting the Qaddafi façade. US-based Freedom House remarked that the “regime hardened its monopoly on media outlets in mid-2009 with the nationalization of Al-Ghad media group, which was established in 2007 by al-Qadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam.”  Journalist Michael Totten, who also visited Libya and compared the country to North Korea and Turkmenistan, noted that Saif Islam “is ideologically committed to preserving his father’s prison state system, and that he wants to export that system to as many countries as possible. Gullible diplomats and journalists may sincerely believe he’s a reformer, but a close look at his own statements proves that he’s lying when he passes himself off as moderate” (emphasis added).

HRW’s Embrace of Arab Dictatorships: A Behavioral Pattern

As NGO Monitor documented in its detailed report Experts or Ideologues: Systematic Analysis of Human Rights Watch, Whitson’s pursued similar policies regarding other repressive regimes in the Middle East.  In May 2009, Whitson led a fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia, where she used HRW’s testimony “about Israeli abuses to the US Congress” and accusations of “systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets,” and the specter of the pro-Israel lobby to solicit funds from “prominent members of Saudi society.” 

In November 2010, HRW staff and international committee members, including Whitson, traveled to Lebanon to discuss human rights reform in the country.   Whitson praised “the Lebanese sophistication for human rights.” In contrast, HRW Lebanon Director Nadim Houry condemned the lack of effectual and accountable state institutions, the absence of political will to implement change, and the problems created by the country’s political confessionalism.  In January 2011, Hezbollah orchestrated a bloodless coup, seizing control from the Saad Hariri government in order to block cooperation with the UN Tribunal empanelled to investigate the murder of Rafik Hariri in 2006.

Similarly, Whitson met with Hamas Minister of Justice Faraj Alghoul in May 2010. At the meeting, Whitson assured Alghoul that she was visiting Gaza “to listen to all parties directly so she will prepare more objective and impartial reports,” and appeased Hamas by promising that HRW’s next report would tackle Israeli settlements and allege Israeli violations of international law.

As noted by HRW founder Robert Bernstein, under Whitson’s direction, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division has “lost critical perspective” by writing “far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region” while

“Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.”