The world’s attention is anxiously trained on the North African country of Libya, where anti-government demonstrators, seeking to emulate the recent coups in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, have been fighting against the 40-year dictatorship of Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi is the mercurial leader (he has no official title) who came to power in a military coup in 1969, and has supported various terrorist groups through the years, perhaps most famously sponsoring the bombing of a Pan Am Jet over Lockerbie, in Scotland, in 1988, killing 270.
Facing unrest last week, Gaddafi ordered Libyan police and military forces to fire on protesters, and when soldiers refused to turn their guns on their countrymen, Gaddafi brought in an army of African mercenaries. As protesters attempted to march on the capital, Gaddafi threatened (in language one doesn’t hear too often from a head of state) to “turn Libya into a Hell”.
Unfortunately, Libya is no stranger to violence and suffering. In 2010, a report by Amnesty International asserted that “the human rights situation in Libya remains dire” and that “human rights violations continue to be widespread in Libya”. Torture is routine, and political freedom unknown.
Libya as Arbiter of Human Rights
Yet, incredibly, for years Libya has been the world’s arbiter of Human Rights: first as a leader of the (now-defunct) UN Human Rights Commission, and, since, 2010, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council (joining such exalted human-rights protectors as Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Pakistan, Uganda and Zambia (www2.ohchr.org). (On Friday, February 25, the Council voted to suspend -- though not terminate -- Libya's membership.)
Incredibly, for years Libya has been the world’s arbiter of Human Rights
UN bodies charged with upholding human rights have long had a special – many would say obsessive – focus on Israel. (In fact, this monomania in part discredited the old UN Human Rights Commission and led to its replacement in 2006 with the UN Human Rights Council.)
At the conclusion of the UN Human Rights Council’s inaugural year, during which it began a pattern of zeroing in on Israel, UN Secretary Kofi Annan warned the Council risked discrediting itself: “There are surely other situations, besides the one in the Middle East, which would merit scrutiny….I would suggest that Darfur is a glaring case in point.” (jewishvirtuallibrary.org)
Yet the UN Human Rights Council has continued to concentrate obsessively on Israel, passing 33 resolutions strongly criticizing Israeli behavior so far (while ignoring or downplaying actions by armed groups that oppose Israel such as Hamas and Hezbollah) since 2006. The Council’s mania is even more glaring if one looks at its special emergency sessions: 15 such sessions have been called since 2006, and six of them have been used to criticize Israel (www2.ohchr.org).
Libya has added its own views to this noxious mix. When the UN Human Rights Council debated the Goldstone report into Israel’s conduct in the 2008 war in Gaza, Libya inserted the charge of “genocide” to the charges against Israel.
The casual tossing around of a term like genocide has real consequences: not only does its use delegitimize Israel, but it also works for some as a call to arms.
Alice in Wonderland
It is even more surprising – and galling – that Libya could sit in judgment of Israel for so many years while its own behavior was troubling.
In addition to the horrible human rights abuses of mentioned above, the years that Libya sat in an official capacity on UN human rights bodies saw some high-profile bizarre behavior.
In 1999, Libya arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to death six Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, accused of infecting 400 Libyan children with HIV. When the medical workers were finally freed after eight years in prison, they reported they had been tortured in Libyan jails. Yet there was never any formal censure about this human rights abuse by the UN.
In 2009, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the mastermind of the Lockerbie bombing, was released from a Scottish jail on compassionate medical grounds. To the world, he was a mass murderer, allowed to live out his final days at home. But in Libya he was a celebrity, given a hero’s welcome, and embraced on TV by Col. Gadaffi. Again, there was no formal censure by the UN.
Israel, like all nations, can be criticized. But a world in which Israel, year after year, is the target of one-sided resolutions by prestigious international bodies, while the nations that sit in judgment of it are guilty of horrendous human rights abuses themselves – while a leader like Muammar Gaddafi can criticize Israel and not be critiqued in return – is an Alice in Wonderland World, where right and wrong are so mixed up they cease to mean anything.
In focusing disproportionately on Israel, the world has too often overlooked real human rights abuses elsewhere. Let us hope that the current crisis in Libya focuses our attention to where it is needed most, and helps us all to spread the banner of human rights and dignity, at last.