Africa is due to chair the next session of the commission on a rotational basis, and Libya was nominated by the African regional group. Libya's nomination was confirmed at the recently concluded inaugural summit of the new African Union. The commission will begin its annual session in March 2003.
"Countries with dreadful rights records should never be in charge of chairing the Commission on Human Rights," said Rory Mungoven, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "Libya's long record of human rights abuses clearly does not merit such a reward."
Human Rights Watch said Libya's nomination violated commitments African leaders had made to promote human rights and good governance through the New African Partnership for Development (Nepad). Nepad's steering group comprises Presidents Mbeki of South Africa, Wade of Senegal, Obasanjo of Nigeria, Moi of Kenya and Gaddafi of Libya.
"It's a real setback for African governments' stated new commitment to human rights," said Mungoven.
The Nepad establishes a code of governance supporting basic freedoms and a system of peer review among African governments to hold each other to account for human rights violations, among other things. The scheme has received qualified support from international donors, including members of the G-8 group of industrialized nations.
"Libya's appointment to the steering group of Nepad has already raised the eyebrows among supporters of Nepad," Mungoven said. "But putting Libya forward as Africa's choice to lead the world's human rights forum should really ring alarm bells."
Over the last decade, Libya has detained government opponents for years without charge or trial, prohibited the formation of political parties or independent non-governmental groups, and muzzled its press. In the past, the Libyan government has also been responsible for torture, "disappearances" and the assassination of political opponents abroad.
In a letter to Presidents Obasanjo, Wade and Mbeki, Human Rights Watch called on Nepad leaders to withdraw Libya's nomination or spell out publicly the clear benchmarks for African participation in the commission, consistent with Nepad's goals. Donor governments considering financial support to Nepad should make their concerns known and call for Libya's withdrawal.
"African leaders promised to develop an effective system of peer review under Nepad," Mungoven said. "Now that commitment is being put to the test in the world's leading human rights forum."