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Fast-moving events in Libya have catapulted the scandal-plagued Middle East and North African Division (MENA) of Human Rights Watch into a new controversy for its failure over the years to diligently investigate human rights violations in Libya.
According to Anne Herzberg, a legal advisor for Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, “Human Rights Watch, and specifically MENA director Sarah Leah Whitson, has soft-peddled [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi’s oppressive acts and offered no help to the Libyan people. Whitson was well aware of the atrocities committed by the Gaddafi regime, but she chose to present the facade that Gaddafi’s son [Saif al- Islam] was prepared to implement ‘reforms.’” Calling on the HRW official to resign, Herzberg said on Sunday that the ongoing events in Libya “reveal Whitson’s gross incompetence. She has failed to retract her previously misleading statements. She cannot continue to head the MENA division.”
Whitson has long been a controversial figure within human rights circles. She recently conducted fund-raising activity in Saudi Arabia to garner donations to be used to finance reports slamming Israel, and has praised anti- Israel activist Norman Finkelstein, who equates Israel with Nazi Germany.
“I continue to have tremendous respect and admiration for [Finkelstein] because making Israel the focus of one’s life work is a thankless but courageous task,” she said last year in a New Republic investigative report on HRW.
NGO Monitor received backup from Nick Cohen, an author and columnist for the Observer and New Statesman, who, in a Sunday opinion piece in the Guardian titled “Our absurd obsession with Israel is laid bare,” wrote that “Human Rights Watch, once a reliable opponent of tyranny, went further and 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.”
NGO Monitor claims Whitson “covered up” widespread human rights violations in Libya and waxed lyrical about the Gaddafi regime and Saif al- Islam, citing a 2009 Foreign Policy article in which she called the younger Gaddafi “the real impetus for transformation” because of a charitable foundation and two quasi-private newspapers he had established.
Just last year, during a visit to Libya, she called him one of the “forces of reform” and compared his foundation to HRW.
Last week, al-Islam took to state television and warned pro-democracy activists and those opposed to the regime that “we will eradicate them all.” While he has told Western reporters that the political situation in Libya was calm and under control, Al Jazeera provided video footage on Monday showing him stirring up regime supporters to massacre pro-democracy activists and asking the crowd whether they “need guns.”
Whitson has backtracked in the media over the past two weeks regarding her longstanding praise of al-Islam.
“What Sarah Leah Whitson admits she knew about the Gaddafi family’s fraudulent reform agenda completely contradicts statements during her Tripoli trip,” Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Reform was never on the horizon and Saif Islam was simply seeking to validate the eventual transfer of power to his hands, using allies like Whitson,” Steinberg said. “Her attempts to give a facelift to MENA’s treatment of Libya is indicative of the division’s approach to many of the repressive regimes in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Hamas, and others.”
Whitson was returning from the Libyan-Tunisian border on Monday and was unavailable for comment, although HRW special adviser Fred Abrahams communicated with The Jerusalem Post by e-mail.
“Human Rights Watch has a long record of exposing abuses by repressive governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and Libya is no exception…. I very much doubt that any other organization has produced more detailed coverage of human rights abuses in Libya over the past 6 years,” Abrahams wrote.
In both e-mails and telephone calls with the Post on Monday, HRW officials declined to comment on whether Whitson should resign.
“It is patently untrue to say that Human Rights Watch has ever been ‘praising the regime in Libya,’ as your question suggests,” Abrahams wrote after being asked about Whitson’s and HRW’s praise for al-Islam and the Gaddafi regime. “On the contrary, we have consistently and unreservedly condemned serious human rights violations by the Libyan government, and put into the public domain previously unknown information about serious abuses.”
He added that HRW “also seeks change and impact by advocating with repressive governments” in an effort to end abuses.
“In some cases we do such advocacy through governmentaffiliated organizations, such as the Gaddafi Foundation, which in some ways acted as the Libyan government’s Ministry of Human Rights,” Abrahams wrote. “We believe our advocacy with the Gaddafi Foundation was appropriate because it produced results: The Foundation secured the release of 202 arbitrarily detained prisoners in 2010 and another 132 prisoners in 2006.”
He also noted that HRW is often asked why it produces more material on Israel than on repressive governments like Libya, Syria and other closed, repressive regimes.
“The amount of attention we devote depends in part on the number of developments to address,” he wrote. “In recent weeks, we have been devoting far more attention to Libya, for example, than to Israel. Our reporting on Israel similarly peaked when there were significant developments during the wars in Gaza and Lebanon.”
Nevertheless, NGO Monitor claims that HRW has a structural bias against the Jewish state, saying that according to the group’s website, “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.”
Herzberg, NGO Monitor’s legal advisor, told the Post that “Whitson’s division consistently issues more publications on Israel than Libya. Perhaps if Whitson had devoted more resources to Gaddafi’s brutal regime, there would not be murders occurring in the streets of Libya right now.”
She added that al-Islam frequently invoked anti-Semitic rhetoric in speeches.
“Whitson never once publicly admonished the foundation or Saif Islam for this hateful speech,” she said.
According to NGO Monitor, in a 2008 speech al-Islam said, “Palestine is an issue that was invented by the Zionist movement, led by Jewish elites such as Rothschild and Herzl. These elites used the issue of religious persecution in Europe to call for immigration to the promised land until they were able to persuade and to influence millions of Jews in the world, and then create the tragedy of Palestine and the Arab-Jewish conflict, and now Arabs and Jews are paying for it.”
In 2009, HRW’s handling of the Gaddafi regime’s incarceration and repression of antiregime 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.”
NGO Monitor said HRW did not “sound the alarm over blatant abuses” in connection with Eljahmi.