NGO Monitor has called for the resignation of Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, amid allegations that she whitewashed the atrocities committed by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi for years. Despite the fact that a press conference Whitson called last winter in Libya was reportedly sabotaged and shouted down by government agents, she wrote a glowing depiction of the event and glossed over the disruptions.
“That only two government hacks delivered screaming denunciations puts our Tripoli session at the polite end of Middle East news conferences,” wrote Whitson in a dispatch. She also praised the human-rights “breakthroughs” in the country and noted “a shift in the Libyan winds.”
The HRW Middle East director had earlier extolled the “reforms” of the Libyan regime in a 2009 Foreign Policy column. “For the first time in memory, change is in the air in Libya,” she wrote. “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.”
But now that Muammar Qaddafi has turned Libya into a bloodbath, Whitson has appeared to back away from her past optimistic statements. In a February 24 column for the Los Angeles Times, she wrote that “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.”
NGO Monitor president Gerald Steinberg says that this about-face shows that Whitson was deliberately misleading the public about the prospects for reform in Libya. “What Sarah Leah Whitson admits she knew about the Qaddafi family’s fraudulent reform agenda completely contradicts statements during her Tripoli trip,” he said in a press release today.
Anne Herzberg, the legal adviser for NGO Monitor, said that Whitson “cannot continue to head the MENA division, and we call for her immediate resignation.”
Whitson’s actions are certainly puzzling. If Libyans had expressed doubt that Qaddafi would ever make good on his promises, why had she implied that the regime was open to reforms in the past? And further, why has HRW published only six major reports on Libya since 1991? Was the organization simply apathetic about Libya? Was it unable to access enough data to issue accurate reports? Or was it deliberately misrepresenting the Qaddafi regime for some reason or another?
The public needs and deserves an immediate explanation from Whitson and others at Human Rights Watch. And there may be a good explanation for the group’s actions. But based on the evidence available now, the situation doesn’t seem to bode well for HRW or for Whitson.