MidEast Division Director Misled Public about Libyan Regime and Qaddafi’s Son

JERUSALEM – Following Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) neglect of brutal human rights violations in Libya and false claims and cover-ups about prospects for reforms there, NGO Monitor today called for the immediate resignation of Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s director of its Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division. HRW’s MENA division failed to devote the necessary resources to speaking out against human rights violations by oppressive Middle East regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Hamas, Lebanon, and most notably, Libya. Recent statements by Whitson regarding Seif Islam, a son of Moammar Qaddafi, demonstrate that she consistently whitewashed the reality in Libya and further embarrassed her organization.

“Human Rights Watch, and specifically MENA director Sarah Leah Whitson, has soft-peddled Qaddafi’s oppressive acts and offered no help to the Libyan people,” says Anne Herzberg, legal advisor for NGO Monitor, a research institution that tracks NGOs. “Whitson was well aware of the atrocities committed by the Qaddafi regime, but she chose to present the façade that Qaddafi’s son was prepared to implement ‘reforms.’ The events in Libya over the past weeks reveal Whitson’s gross incompetence.  She has failed to retract her previously misleading statements. She cannot continue to head the MENA division, and we call for her immediate resignation.”

NGO Monitor notes that Whitson held a press conference last year in Libya that was abruptly halted and ended in “pandemonium.” Yet, Whitson spun her trip and the event in a positive light in her 2010 “Postcard from Tripoli,” in which she said that Libya had a “moment of opportunity.” Even more egregious is Whitson’s enthusiastic marketing of the Qaddafi regime from 2009’s Tripoli Spring (published in Foreign Policy):

For the first time in memory, change is in the air in Libya. The brittle atmosphere of repression has started to fracture, giving way to expanded space for discussion and debate, proposals for legislative reform, and even financial compensation for families of the hundreds of men killed in a prison riot a decade ago.
Many Libyans say the changes were unavoidable in the face of the open satellite and Internet access of the past decade.

These assessments differ sharply from the Libya Whitson now admits she saw, as part of her attempts to rewrite the record. In contrast to the earlier fiction, she recently wrote, “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.”

“What Sarah Leah Whitson admits she knew about the Qaddafi family’s fraudulent reform agenda completely contradicts statements during her Tripoli trip,” says Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor. “Reform was never on the horizon and Seif Islam was simply seeking to validate the eventual transfer of power to his hands, using allies like Whitson. 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.”

HRW’s willful blindness was reflected in the case of Fathi Eljahmi, Libya’s most prominent dissident, who was imprisoned in 2004, tortured, held in solitary confinement, and died 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.”

While failing to sound the alarm over blatant abuses such as this, MENA consistently underreported human rights violations in Libya:

  • According to HRW’s website, since 1991, HRW 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, U.S., and Italy.

“Whitson’s soft approach towards totalitarian regimes clearly is counterproductive and immoral, as in the Libya cover-up” adds Herzberg.  “She met with Hamas in May 2010 to reassure the terrorist organization that HRW’s reports were ‘objective and impartial,’ while at the same time promising that HRW’s next report would denounce Israeli violations of international law.  Prior to that, she solicited funds in Saudi Arabia to combat so-called pro-Israel ‘pressure groups.’  Instead of confronting human rights violators, the MENA division under Whitson has helped sustain their power.”

During a November 2010 trip to Lebanon, Whitson praised “the Lebanese sophistication for human rights,” contradicting HRW’s own Lebanon Director, Nadim Houry, who 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.” Shortly after Whitson’s assessment, Hezbollah overthrew the Hariri government in a bloodless coup.

MENA has completely failed to promote universal human rights in the region,” notes Steinberg. “In fact, Mauritania, a country with more than 600,000 slaves, is not even covered by HRW. Human Rights Watch will continue to decline as long as Sarah Leah Whitson leads the MENA division.

See more information on MENA Division Reporting Practices.