This week, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to refer Moammar Gadhafi and Libyan leaders to the International Criminal Court for prosecution, citing mass atrocities being committed against civilian demonstrators. News organizations, however, are still unable to report accurate numbers of human rights violations, especially in the areas surrounding Tripoli, the country’s capital.
Human Rights Watch researchers are currently working in eastern Libya and along the Tunisian border to investigate crimes committed by Libyan authorities. Fred Abrahams, special crisis adviser at Human Rights Watch, says the organization has direct communication with their researchers and tells Need to Know what they’ve seen.
Joanna Nikas: How does Human Rights Watch get its reporting from the ground in Libya, and what have you been hearing?
Fred Abrahams: Well, the reports from the ground have been more and more difficult to get as the conflict develops. At the beginning, we had ongoing communications by phone, e-mail and Skype with people in the east. And they were giving us the numbers in the hospitals — the wounded and the dead. Now, we have a researcher who is on the ground in the east, in the city of Benghazi, so we’re getting very direct and firsthand information. We have another researcher on the Tunisian-Libyan border.
But the problem is the west — Tripoli, the capital, and around Tripoli, where phone lines are pretty much down, Internet is sporadic and we’re having trouble contacting people to find out what’s happening. And this is essential, because the pro-Gadhafi security forces still have control of Tripoli and the surrounding area. We are deeply, deeply worried about atrocities that may be happening there, the conditions for people and the government’s reactions to the protesters. If the government’s behavior in the east is any indication, then there’s a lot of reason to fear for the people’s safety in the west.
Nikas: You mentioned that you have a researcher in the east. Can you tell me what he or she has experienced there?
Abrahams: Our researcher arrived in Benghazi Thursday evening and found an atmosphere of pure celebration. There is overwhelming joy at what Libyans are calling their liberation from 40 years of Gadhafi’s oppressive rule. They are also beginning to organize, so the cities have created civic committees that are running different aspects of local administration, from the hospitals to the schools and security. And our researchers noticed the involvement of mosques and the more religious members of the committee who are contributing in a full spirit of civic participation, which suggested to them that there was no credence to Gadhafi’s claim of this being a revolt of Islamic fanatics or even al-Qaeda as he claimed.
Human Rights Watch researchers are also starting the long process of human rights investigation to determine what took place during the clashes and the government’s attempt to crush this peoples’ revolt. The evidence is just beginning to come in about fire by security forces on peaceful protesters, as well as the role of mercenaries who fought apparently on behalf of the state security forces.
Nikas: The United States, U.N. Security Council and EU have imposed sanctions on Libya. How do you think these sanctions will affect the Libyan people?
Abrahams: The U.N. Security Council has imposed an arms embargo and a travel ban and the EU and U.S. are freezing assets of the Libyan leadership. Also, the U.N. Security Council referred Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously, so that includes Russia and China. This shows that the Security Council is speaking with one voice against the Libyan state. This is a very strong and significant message. This is only the second time that the U.N. Security Council has referred a situation to the ICC, the first being Darfur.
We support the sanctions because they are targeted. We don’t want to see any international measures that harm the Libyan people as a whole — that would be unfair and unproductive — but freezing the assets of the Libyan leadership is one way to put the squeeze on them in a focused manner, and that’s critical. It can send the message that this will not be tolerated, it will apply direct pressure, and that’s what is needed right now — direct pressure on those that are responsible for these apparent atrocities.
Nikas: How is Human Rights Watch responding to this crisis?
Abrahams: We are responding in two ways: The first is to get good information from the ground so we have deployed a researcher in Benghazi. We have another person on Libyan border with Tunisia. Obviously we’ll head towards Tripoli as soon as the roads are safe and they’re open. So the first step in all of these crises is to get on the ground and do our research.
The second is to use that information for constructive advocacy — so we have our people in Geneva, in London, in Brussels, in Washington, at the U.N. in New York, and we are trying to mobilize the international community to step up in a unified voice to take action against this abusive, aggressive and unlawful behavior of the Libyan authorities. So, the goal here is to mobilize the government and the United Nations as well as the European Union. And so far we’ve been seeing good momentum. It just needs to continue.
Nikas: The Human Rights Watch report published in 2009, “Truth and Justice Can’t Wait” said that there had been some minor progress in Libya’s human rights over the past five years. How do you think this crisis will change the way Human Rights Watch works within Libya?
Abrahams: Well, this crisis is a historic change for Libya. There’s no way it can be the same. It remains to be seen if Moammar Gadhafi will be removed from power indefinitely. A lot of people think that’s likely, but in the very least it’s hard to imagine how he is going to have control over the eastern part of the country.
So this is going to open Libya up. We have been unable to travel without state permission; we were always followed and escorted by security forces when we went before, during Gadhafi. This will certainly open up the country, but this does not mean there will be no challenges. Under Gadhafi there were no political parties, there was no free media, no independent organizations, no constitution. So Libya is facing a period of great transition and is going to have serious challenges to recraft its political system. I’m sure there will be plenty of work for Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups to do.
This interview has been condensed and edited.