Human Rights Watch (henceforth HRW) has released a report on the killings of 66 men who were with Qaddafi's convoy when he himself was killed. It's complete with video narrated by a man with an unctuous voice, terribly concerned. These people were abused, he says, though neither video nor testimony shows anything more than you'd expect from an arrest of someone the cops disliked anywhere in the world. But there is convincing evidence - convincing because meticulously documented - that many of these men were later executed, hands bound behind their back.
This thing is, important human rights are violated around the world, at least tens of thousands of times a day. I don't refer to such important rights as having enough to eat, in which case the violations would be in the hundreds of millions. Suppose there is good reason to focus on the more dramatic violations - like the prisoners who suffer brutal beatings, rape, and torture, or the women whose faces are splashed with acid, or the street kids shot by police as they sleep in doorways, anti-logging activists gunned down by hired thugs. There are also those who may well indeed be guilty of something but who are 'summarily executed' by vigilante mobs, or police.
Then, of course, there are all those innocents mutilated, tortured to death or blown to bits by Qaddafi-like régimes such as Assad's, or by the cruel militias of the Congo. Such an embarrassment of riches! How to choose? And when?
HRW has chosen to investigate human rights violations committed in what might be called the most extenuating of circumstances, and a time when it will benefit as bad a violator of human rights as exists on this earth today. Misrata fighters, who had suffered months of the most brutal assault on their city by a half-crazed sadistic dictator, took bloody vengeance on those who seemed - and still seem, for all we've heard - complicit in this atrocity. The investigation is a propaganda gift to Assad, whose defenders will hasten to make comparisons with Libya and who will point out that these same Libyan fighters are, in some cases, on the ground with the FSA in Syria. The propaganda will be all the more effective because HRW has in effect given its stamp of approval to focus on similar killings in Syria, even though they cannot compare with Assad's atrocities. Was this the right investigation at the right time?
It's not as if the bad effects are balanced by good ones. No one seriously believes that the investigations will improve the human rights situation in Libya, or indeed anywhere else. Those who suffered Qaddafi's oppression will not find that the report - which tells them nothing new - should count more than the horrors they've seen and experienced. And the world has never shown itself more prone to respect human rights because of any HRW report, much less some exposé of victims' revenge. Some of the reports may have the limited good effect of benefiting a good cause, but that's just what this report doesn't do.
I suppose it would be too much to ask that HRW investigators even consider alternatives that would do most to further the cause of human rights. After all, such alternatives - like arming the FSA - would come outside the specialized self-mandated writ of the organization. Let's suppose this writ is more important than actually reducing human rights violations. So here's another idea: chose violations whose exposure at least won't play into the hands of the worst violators. That way, at least the investigations won't actually work in favor of an increase in horrific crimes.
But that runs up against another of HRW's high moral principles: to investigate without fear or favor. Pay no mind to politics. Pay no mind to the effects of your activity. Squeeze consequences out of your field of vision and concentrate only on the details of individual cases, even if this plays into the hands of the worst human rights violators. Be impartial, not only in the investigations themselves, but in your choice of what to investigate. In short, don't corrupt your choice of investigation by considering whether it is helpful or harmful. We should, it seems, be indifferent to whether we make the world better or worse.
HRW will protest that they have also investigated, for years, human rights violations in Syria. This is irrelevant to whether they should have investigated the killings in Libya. The question is not whether all the choices HRW has made are bad. It whether the choice to investigate the killings in Libya was bad.
HRW may also say that investigating the Libya killings ups its credibility generally, which is a good thing. However there are many ways to improve one's credibility - is this one of the better ways to do so? If the reports on Libya increase HRW's credibility, that will make HRW all the more useful for Assad's apologists. And it is not clear whether HRW actually needs more credibility. It seems that, credible or not, people accept or ignore HRW reports according to their political agendas, not according to their standards of evidence.
HRW may remind us that circumstances and resources don't permit investigating all violations and Libya is one case where they could conduct a thorough investigation. This too doesn't help. Suppose, in some town, there are rapes of whites by blacks, and of blacks by whites. Since the whites are well-protected and plan meticulously, HRW can issue reports only on the black-on-white rapes, resulting in a boost for violent anti-black racism. Are we to accept that if HRW sighs, "we just do what we can"?
In the end, HRW bases its choices on on their effects on HRW itself. Do the investigations show the organization to conform to its own guidelines and principles? Do they show the organization to have integrity, impartiality, and other signs of good character? Well, fine then. Whether the investigations actually further the cause of human rights is neither here nor there. Unsurprising, perhaps, from those who have not themselves experienced oppression.