Treating Libya like a troublesome child

Who gave Amnesty International and other human rights groups the authority to boss about the new Libyan government?

Patrick Hayes

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Is it time for Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) to undergo re-education already? Many organisations in the West seem to think so. The NTC – a gaggle of former Gaddafi cronies and other assorted unelected figures – spent last year jetting round the world, promising Western leaders they would behave if they gained power. But now, to the irritation of the West, the transitional government has hosted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, a man wanted for ‘crimes against humanity’ by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

‘What was the NTC thinking…?’, Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, demands to know. Do they not realise that inviting Bashir into the country is to ‘cock a snook at The Hague court and its chief prosecutor, José Luis Moreno Ocampo?’. Amnesty’s counterparts at the New York-based Human Rights Watch have been equally appalled with the visit. According to the organisation’s international justice director, Richard Dicker, it ‘sends a disturbing signal about NTC’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law’.

Even the US government has condemned the move, explaining that it was ‘relatively late’ in doing so because it had ‘not been immediately aware of the visit’. A US State Department official called on Libyans to ‘join the international community in calling for the government of Sudan to cooperate fully with the ICC’, promising the US would have ‘continued discussions’ with the Libyan government about how best to handle its Sudanese neighbours.

There is no doubt that ‘Libya’s nasty new friend’, as one newspaper editorial calls al-Bashir, is a brutal dictator, culpable for horrendous attacks on the lives and liberties of the people in Darfur that took place during much of the past decade. But whereas it’s easy for members of human-rights organisations to offer advice from a safe distance, Libya shares an important border with Sudan and there have long been tensions between the two countries. From a Libyan point of view, it’s not straightforward simply to give Sudan the cold shoulder. Moreover, while Western leaders like Cameron and Sarkozy like to take the lion’s share of the credit for bombing the NTC into power, it’s an uncomfortable truth that Bashir – a long-time foe of Gaddafi – also played a role in supplying weapons and ammunition to the Libyan rebels in their fight to overthrow the regime last year.

It would be more legitimate to ask questions about the establishment of bilateral relations by an unelected government that has been more obsessed by gaining legitimacy from the West than winning support from the Libyan people. Indeed, as previously noted on spiked, Libyans are already taking to the streets voicing their dissatisfaction with the way in which the interim government operates. But, strikingly, the NTC’s lack of a democratic mandate in Libya seems to concern groups such as Amnesty far less than their desire for the new government to show cowering obedience to the universally imposed notion of ‘human rights’. After all, in the eyes of human-rights groups, such a conception goes beyond borders and the democratic will of the people who inhabit sovereign countries.

Writing in the Guardian, Amnesty’s Allen sees the NTC’s parley with Bashir as symptomatic of the fact that ‘the Arab Spring is being assailed on all sides by chill winds’. The poor unwitting souls who brought about the Arab Spring have now, according to Allen, ‘totally failed to grasp the immensity of the changes happening all around them’. She argues: ‘We need to change this political weather as soon as possible.’

But who is this ‘we’? Who appointed Amnesty or their fellow human-rights organisations to be the moral guardians of the Arab Spring? While the NTC is hardly representative of the Libyan people, it is at the very least made up of Libyan people – and there is currently no reason to doubt that elections are forthcoming. Just as missionaries used God and the Bible to justify their ‘civilising’ missions to Africa in the nineteenth century, so groups like Amnesty now use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to hector the new Libya.

In February last year, Muammar Gaddafi was certain the Libyan people wouldn’t oust him. ‘If not Gaddafi, who else would they follow?’, he asked, implying they would be utterly incapable of managing affairs without him. The attitude of human-rights groups, alongside the US, is strikingly similar: Libyans are seen as incapable of self-governance in a way Western observers deem to be satisfactory. This attitude is likely to come to the fore even more this year as the trial of Gaddafi’s son Saif gets underway in Libya. The Libyans – to their credit – have refused to relinquish him to the ICC and The Hague to see how justice is done, Western-style (although the proceedings will be carried out under Western supervision).

Despite its flaws, the fact that the NTC isn’t humbly obeying its superiors in the West, consulting Amnesty and the US first about who they are allowed to speak to, is no bad thing. There is no problem that the Arab Spring faces that won’t be made worse by meddling human-rights missionaries from the West.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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