A short Comment on Libya, Hypocrisy and Selective Outrage

I am usually not a big fan of “double-standard” discussions, which are usually the source of endless “why here and not there” debates, which are often ultimately excuses either for inaction or for diminishing the importance of a specific action. But I must admit the current situation (pun intended, see previous post) in Libya does lend itself pretty well to this type of analysis.

For one, the referral by the UN Security Council (extensively discussed from a legal perspective here), begs the question of when a situation rises to the point of justifying a referral. William Schabas raised this point in his own comments:

But if the Security Council will move in this way given reports of devastating attacks on civilians, why did it not move in the same way the last time there were such attacks in the same region? I’m referring to Gaza and operation Cast Lead which took place only two years ago, and only hundreds of kilometres away from where Gaddafi is currently massacring his own people.

 Although I do not share the typical demagogic singling out of Israel (to stay in line with this post, why mention that situation, rather than an other?), it is a valid question generally. There are a number of situations since the entry into force of the Rome Statute which might have warranted referrals, not just Gaza, but also Ivory Coast, or Sri Lanka, for example. Usually the answer to this is that whoever asks the question is being naive and that it’s a question of politics. Maybe. But it doesn’t mean that the question shouldn’t be asked. In relation to this, and linked to the debate I was having in the comments section of my previous post, I believe that given the extensive power given to the Security Council under Chapter VII, 1) that chapter should be redrafted to provide for clearer safeguards and guidelines on its use, and 2) the UNSC should be reformed to avoid its overtly political use by the veto-wielding powers. I know that is being naive too, but there is no harm in being a dreamer once in a while…

Second of all, the UN General Assembly has voted to suspend Libya from the Human Rights Council. Of course, one can wonder with the International law Prof Blog, why it got elected there in the first place. And it becomes even more laughable when you actually read the composition of the Council. It is presided by Thailand, with its spotless human rights record. Cuba, a paragon of democracy, provides a vice-president, so does Slovakia, a country which has not be singled out by UN Bodies and the Council of Europe for practicing forced sterilization on Roma women. Other members include such such human rights safe-havens as Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan. Past members included Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Sri Lanka. The members of the defunct Commission on Human Rights all had equally good track records in terms of Human Rights. So the singling out of Libya for a suspension makes perfect sense.

I am not saying that identifying this hypocrisy would justify in any way not reacting to what is happening in Libya. in simple terms, it’s not unfair to get caught, just because others haven’t. But one must take a step back and reflect on the reasons why a cause gets a spotlight at a given moment, and others do not. Actors on the international scene “choose” a topic and it suddenly enters the zeitgeist. There is a complex sociological web of political actors, NGOs, media outlets which frame priorities and frame minds to look in a certain direction and not another, as the over-emphasis on Darfur and its “genocide debate” or on Israel and anything it does, shows. Not to sound cynical or anything, but some causes sell when others don’t. And this applies to NGOs as well, which, in the darker corners of the castles where they put away their shining armors when the night comes, discuss humanitarian markets and compete for them for donations and exposure, in order to sell their own causes as others would sell used cars. But that is maybe a little too cynical, and I’m, once again, straying off topic.

2 responses to “A short Comment on Libya, Hypocrisy and Selective Outrage

  1. On your argument that it's a shame that human rights violating countries can have a seat in the Human Rights Council, I agree with High Commissioner for Human Rights Pillay. What sense does it make to chose only countries that have a nearly perfect human rights record and so some kind of exercise of self-aggrandizement? By choosing violating countries, you can try (and I put emphasis on try) to improve their human rights situation.

  2. Mathias, Actually, I was not making the "argument that it's a shame that human rights violating countries can have a seat in the Human Rights Council". My point was more on putting my finger on the hypocrisy of suspending Libya, when, by that standard, other members of the HRC could very well have been suspended in the past. But in relation to the specific debate you raise, I'm a little puzzled at your reasoning: "What sense does it make to chose only countries that have a nearly perfect human rights record and so some kind of exercise of self-aggrandizement?" It makes the sense that the people who judge should not be those who violate the rules. That's why all legal systems require clean records of their lawyers, prosecutors and judges. That would not be "self-aggrandizement", that would be common sense… and an important question of credibility.As for the second part of the reasoning: "By choosing violating countries, you can try (and I put emphasis on try) to improve their human rights situation", I'd like to see some proof of that in the past. My gut feeling is that by giving power to these countries over the human rights agenda, you actually give them the opportunity to take the spotlight away from them rather than closer…The reason I agree with not selecting just human rights respecting countries is different. It's the basic principle of the sovereign equality of States in the UN system. As long as States are recognised as UN member States irrespective of their internal workings, respect for human rights or for democracy and the rule of law, then there is no good reason to dsicriminate in the internal working of the organisation.

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