WHEN I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
(Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s master for 41 years, with apologies to Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass.)
The United Nations has long been the ultimate Theatre of the Absurd. But even by its own absurdist standards, Libya’s election in 2003 to the UN Human Rights Commission (later the Council) – by a vote of 155 nations yet – was a doozy. Libya and human rights was the ultimate oxymoron, very much like the world body itself.
But wait. There’s more. In 2008, Libya won a temporary seat on the UN Security Council; its representative, Najat Al-Hajjaji, chaired the planning committee for Durban II, the 2009 World Conference on Racism; and, to top it off, some 170 nations last year elected its notoriously anti-Semitic UN envoy, Ali Abdussalam Treki, as president of the UN General Assembly.
During the same period, according to UN Watch, 70 per cent of the Human Rights Council’s condemnatory resolutions were directed against Israel, six out of 10 urgent sessions called to condemn countries were against Israel, and the council has only one standing agenda item on a specific country: Israel.
Fast-forward to March 2011. Last week, as Gaddafi’s planes strafed his own people, Al-Jazeera English TV based in Doha, Qatar, interviewed Hillel Neuer speaking from Tel Aviv. Neuer is the feisty executive director of UN Watch, an NGO based in Geneva, which monitors the UN’s human rights’ performance, and he’s also an international lawyer who represents Libyan torture victims. His Al-Jazeera interview, in which he denounced Gaddafi’s “murderous and racist regime”, quickly went viral in its YouTube format.
Al-Jazeera and YouTube. Even a straight interview with Neuer from Tel Aviv. Add Twitter, email, and text messaging, and it’s what’s happening in the Arab world. Revolution man! Democracy is sweeping the Arab world. We wish. Very now. As for the United Nations and Gaddafi and the Human Rights Council: very yesterday. Old news. Which all too many among the usual suspects ready to trash Israel on human rights are pretending never happened and are trying to forget.
Except that it’s not old news at all. It happened alright. And we remember. In fact, there’s a direct link between Libya’s election to chair the Human Rights Council in 2003 and the headline events now cascading through the Middle East. The link’s name is Ayesha al-Gaddafi, daughter of, better known as Aisha. A lawyer by profession, notable highlights on her CV include strong support for the IRA and joining Saddam Hussein’s defence team. She lost that case.
Although the February 26 UN Security Council Resolution finally placed her under a travel ban and stripped her of her ambassadorial role, until then she had been a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN’s Development Program (UNDP). Her job description was to address the issues of HIV/AIDS, poverty and women’s rights in Libya.
Now the UNDP sounds like yet another boring and wasteful UN project. But historians looking for a turning point in Middle East history that eventually led to the 2011 uprisings may well come to cite the UNDP. For even more than the clamour of the Tunisian street, the five Arab Human Development Reports, beginning with the first report in 2002, provided the dramatic and sobering evidence of failure and backwardness in the Arab world and so created the intellectual ferment that underlies the drive for change.
What made the reports influential was that they were the work of Arab scholars and researchers themselves, as independent as circumstances allowed in their own countries. Although critical of Israel and the West, the reports were not as obsessed with Israel and scapegoating as other Arab publications have usually been. Instead, they readily blamed the Arab world for much of its own failings. Thus the 2002 report pointed to three key “development deficits” that were impeding progress: knowledge, women’s empowerment, and freedom. And the four reports that followed, the most recent in 2009, echoed those themes.
In 2002, the Arab intellectuals identified the Arab world’s most striking weakness as “a lack of democracy, which leads to poor governance”. Despite all the protests and demonstrations of recent months, and in Libya the death of thousands, it still is the most striking weakness. Those who care about freedom can only hope that the winds of change blowing towards freedom in the Arab world turn out to be real.
Sam Lipski is the chief executive of The Pratt Foundation and a former editor-in-chief of The AJN.