Thursday, November 22, 2012

Human Rights Watch should calm down about Libya

Human Rights Watch has gone completely off the rails in its criticism of the Libya integrity commission.

In the first place, suppose its criticisms are entirely justified, and - as HRW says - the criteria for who can hold high elective office are "far too broad and vague and should be limited to concrete and provable claims of wrongdoing, rather than poorly defined connections with the previous government”.   One may still say, so what?  how is this the business of HRW?.   If holding high elective office is going to be termed a human right,  humanity is done a grave disservice, because the whole notion of human rights will be trivialized.    We may well be concerned about human rights if we are speaking of rights against torture, starvation,  arbitrary imprisonment.   But holding high elective office?   This is to confuse privilege with necessity.   Indeed there may be unfairness here.   There may also be unfairness in the judging of American Idol.   Will Human Right Watch come to the rescue?

Second, some rights - 'human' or not - are essentially political rights.   The right to hold high elective office belongs to this category. These rights relate to the decision-processes of a state:  this immediately tells us they can't be as fundamental as survival rights.   (Indeed they take on the paramount importance associated with the phrase 'human rights' only when linked to decisions affecting survival.)   But this means that not only does HRW get their importance wrong; it misunderstands the very conditions of their existence.   You can have political rights only if there is a full-fledged state in operation.    But in Libya, there is no full-fledged state yet; it is a work in progress.  It trying - perhaps even too patiently, tentatively - to assert its sovereignty over the area is is charge with governing.   This puts the government in position much like that of a democratic government when invoking the emergency legislation that virtually all governments possess.

This is something HRW cannot understand - the difference between the responsibilities of a settled state and revolutionaries trying hard to establish a state.   Perhaps the organization has swallowed some insolent, patronizing claptrap about 'learning democracy' or  'learning to respect the rule of law'.   No, it is not about learning or respecting these things;  it is about establishing them.  That requires supreme power, not lectures from human rights schoolmarms.   Can the teachers be taught some painfully obvious facts?     The Libyan government wants to make sure that the forces of the old régime - still violently active, still armed to the teeth, still themselves beyond the reach of law - have no chance to infiltrate the halls of power.   Being rational, that government would rather err on the side of caution and allow itself the discretion to do so.   That is why its criteria of exclusion are broad and vague.    The price to pay, in terms of human rights, is roughly nil.   Unless the government is strong and free of the schemes of the old régime, protecting human rights will be impossible.    And the cost of this caution is the possible denial, to some, of at most a very minor human right.

Perhaps the contemplation of those who died under torture at Gaddafi's hands might teach HRW some sense of proportion.   Then it could help rather than hinder the cause of human rights.

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