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In 2009, Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), visited Libya, where she claimed to have discovered a “Tripoli spring,” led by Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam. In two articles, she praised him for creating an “expanded space for discussion and debate.”
As a top official of a prominent human rights watchdog, Whitson’s endorsement gave credibility to this fictitious reform movement. Two years later, and weeks after the rebellion began and the Gaddafi regime had killed hundreds, if not thousands, Whitson belatedly reversed course, and in a February 24 Los Angeles Times op-ed acknowledged the façade of Saif’s human rights “reforms.”
In contrast to her earlier praise, Whitson wrote that “most Libyans we spoke with never had much faith that Muammar Gaddafi would learn new tricks, or that the announced reforms were anything more than an endless loop of promises made and broken.”
Clearly, this reversal came far too late to help the Libyans, and reflects the wider moral failure of HRW in the Middle East. In her wildly misnamed “Tripoli Spring,” (Foreign Policy, May 27, 2009), Whitson extolled Saif – who has since vowed to “fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet” against the Libyan protesters – as “the real impetus for transformation” via his Gaddafi Foundation and two semi-private papers.
Her embrace continued after a second visit in December 2009, when she referred to Gaddafi’s heir-apparent as one of the “forces of reform,” comparing his foundation to HRW (“Postcard from… Tripoli,” Foreign Policy in Focus, February, 11, 2010). Although HRW officials were placed under constant surveillance, and its press conference was cut short by government agents and ended in “pandemonium,” Whitson still spun her trip in a positive light.
In January 2010, when the regime imposed censorship on the Internet and blocked access to YouTube, Whitson was silent. At the same time, the government established a body to monitor journalists, and closed the two semi-private papers lauded by Whitson in “Tripoli Spring.”
But no correction was issued by HRW.
Whitson’s blindness was further reflected in the case of Fathi Eljahmi, Libya’s most prominent dissident, imprisoned, tortured and killed in 2009. His brother condemned both Amnesty International and HRW for hesitating “to advocate publicly for Fathi’s case” for fear they would “antagonize Gaddafi.”
He reserved special condemnation for Whitson’s reference to Saif ’s charity as a “spring,” observing that the foundation “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.”
But Whitson and HRW chose to remain silent.
In contrast to Whitson’s promotion of the “reformer” façade, others were not taken in. Journalist Michael Totten, who also visited Libya, compared the country to North Korea and Turkmenistan, pointedly noting that Saif “is ideologically committed to preserving his father’s prison state system… 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.”
Whitson’s endorsement of Gaddafi’s son is not the only example of her cozying up to repressive regimes. In May 2009, Whitson led a fund-raising trip to Saudi Arabia where she marketed HRW’s work combating pro- Israel “pressure groups” to solicit funds from “prominent members of Saudi society” including the ruling Shura Council (the religious police).
In May 2010, Whitson had a meeting with Hamas Minister of Justice Faraj Alghoul. As in the Libyan and Saudi cases, Whitson took the soft approach to massive human-rights violations. Instead, she assured Alghoul that she was visiting Gaza “to listen to all parties directly so she will prepare more objective and impartial reports,” and promised that HRW’s next report would allege Israeli violations of international law.
Beirut was next on Whitson’s itinerary, and during a November 2010 trip she praised “the Lebanese sophistication for human rights.”
In contrast, HRW Lebanon director Nadim Houry condemned the lack of effectual and accountable state institutions, and the absence of political will to implement change. Two months after Whitson’s proclamation of support, Hezbollah took control of the government to block cooperation with the UN tribunal investigating the murder of prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2006.
In each of these cases – Libya, Saudi Arabia, Gaza and Lebanon – Whitson has displayed behavior completely lacking in moral leadership required for any organization claiming to support human rights. In addition, copying the strategy of the Arab dictatorships, year after year HRW has maintained an obsessive focus on allegations directed at Israel. Its website includes only 10 pages on Libya, but more than 40 on Israel.
As HRW founder Robert Bernstein stressed, the “plight of 350 million people” ruled by the most “brutal, closed and autocratic” regimes, “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.”
As long as ideologues like Whitson are responsible for HRW’s agenda in the Middle East, the spin will continue, at the expense of universal human rights.
Gerald Steinberg is on the faculty of Bar-Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor, the Jerusalem-based research organization. Anne Herzberg is NGO Monitor’s legal adviser.