Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently published its annual World Report. In the report, the human rights organization examined the records of 90 states, including those emerging from the “Arab Spring”. Suffice to say, they didn’t hold back when it came to Libya.
While acknowledging some positive developments, including Libya’s first democratic elections in over forty years, HRW ripped into the current human rights situation in the country. It decried the country’s inability to disarm and demobilize militias, the significant number of individuals who remain in detention, allegations of torture, the lack of justice and accountability for rebel and militia crimes, and the forced displacement of 35,000 Tawerghans. Here’s a snippet from HRW’s press release:
“Libya is still plagued by serious rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and deaths in detention nearly a year-and-a-half after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi…Reining in the myriad armed groups that formed in 2011 to fight Gaddafi’s forces remains a pressing and essential task, Human Rights Watch said. These groups have refused to give up their weapons and act as a law unto themselves, and some are committing serious crimes, such as unlawful detentions and torture.”
In short, it is a pretty harsh report. Many states would respond to such criticism by throwing their hands up in disgust, by vehemently denying such allegations or attacking the integrity of HRW. Take Rwanda as an example. Despite a mountain of evidence, the country refuses to acknowledge that it has funded and supported rebellion in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. The government of Paul Kagame reacts with fury when states or NGOs make claims (based on evidence!) that Rwanda is complicit in the ongoing violence in the DRC. This comes as little surprise. After all, governments generally despise having light shed on their darker practices or having their internal affairs criticized. They typically become defensive when NGOs or international organizations put their human rights records under the microscope. So how might we expect Libya to respond? By kicking HRW out of the country? By ignoring it altogether? With anger? Obstinacy? Incredulity?
The answer is none of the above. Libya’s Justice Minister Salah Marghani responded to the report honestly and with integrity:
The Ministry of Justice acknowledges receipt of the HRW 2013 World Report and specifically the Libya chapter thereof. The Ministry is very grateful for HRW’s observations.
The Ministry expresses grave concern about the recorded human rights abuses in 2012 and unequivocally condemns such evil practices. The Ministry feels very saddened that the new Libya has so far failed expectations of the Libyan people who revolted against the tyranny of the Gaddafi regime in the hope that the new Libya would never allow Human rights abuses unchecked. The Ministry still hopes that this will change and change soon.
Minister Marghani, who has been celebrated for his commitment to human rights (which included working with HRW), continued by stating that while he “does not contest the report’s findings”, his Ministry has instituted a number of measures which are aimed at “ending or drastically reducing such unacceptable practices”. He outlined five, including one on justice and accountability:
Issuing laws on transitional justice, prohibiting trails of civilians in front of military courts and preventing torture, which would promote reconciliation. This would allow fact-finding reparations and trials in relation to the grievances suffered by the Libyan people during the tyranny of Gaddafi and other sufferings and injustices during the transitional period, as well as trials without compromising international standards.
Marghani’s response should be applauded. It was refreshing and humble. He admitted that there have been – and continue to be – obvious challenges on Libya’s road towards political transformation and building respect for human rights and the rule of law. The statement had no hints of being defensive. Not once in the statement did Marghani dispute HRW’s allegations. Instead, the Minister admitted that he was “saddened” that the pace of reform and change has “failed the expectations of Libyans”.
It thus seemed fitting that, following Marghani’s statement, HRW featured the Minister’s response on its website alongside its original report. Now anyone who reads HRW’s report can also see Marghani’s response which includes information on how his Ministry plans to address outstanding issues pertaining to human rights and justice.
It’s a big deal that HRW can actually investigate and report on allegations of human rights abuses properly within Libya. It’s an even bigger deal that Libya has a justice minister who takes the work of HRW seriously and admits to the country’s shortcomings. A lot of governments could take a page out of Minister Marghani’s book.
Update: The Canadian ambassador to Libya, Michael Grant, has issued a statement in support of Marghani’s response to HRW. Grant declared: “I welcome the statement by Libya’s Justice Minister indicating that his Ministry is under no illusions about the challenges of its declared mission to turn Libya into a country that operates according to the rule of law and respect for human rights.”