Balancing Private and Public Morality

| January 2014
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I am reading Annick Cojean’s Gaddafi’s Harem: The Story of a Young Woman And The Abuses of Power in Libya. It chronicles the experiences of “Soraya”, a young schoolgirl who was taken to become one of the concubine “guards” of Muammar Gaddafi, and details the systematic rape, molestation and abuse of women at the hands of the “Guide of the Revolution.” The book raises uncomfortable questions about the intersection of ethics and foreign policy–the types of issues that we have been trying to address in the ongoing dialogue between the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs and the Naval War College.

Soraya recounts her experiences “working” as a “guard” or as a glorified hostess during the visits of foreign dignitaries, including Western officials. Her enslavement took place during Gaddafi’s honeymoon period with the West, at a time when Gaddafi was taking a number of positive steps: he had dismantled his country’s WMD programs, ceased his support for terrorism, was assisting in efforts to combat the proliferation of dangerous technologies, was attempting to stem the flow of Libyan nationals to join extremist organizations engaged in terror activities, and was even presenting a formula (however unrealistic) for resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute. Although his visits to Libya did not overlap with Soraya’s period of forced service, Holocaust survivor and a leading champion of human rights, the late Congressman Tom Lantos, praised Gaddafi’s constructive efforts and lauded the progress that was being achieved. But how might he–or other policymakers who have taken strong stances against human trafficking and rights abuses–reacted if, during a visit to Libya, they had received a direct plea for help from Soraya or one of her fellows?

Some policymakers might take the line that personal ethics play no role in statecraft which is by definition amoral; that Gaddafi’s crimes were a matter internal to Libya and that outsiders should have no standing to raise the issue. This strict neo-Westphalian approach (which takes the line that “what pleases the prince has force of law”) tends to be embraced by some of the rising powers of the south and east, notably China, but traditionally has never sat well with U.S. officials. Is the answer to be found in utilitarianism: that while Soraya and hundreds of other women were forced to suffer at Gadhafi’s hands, it was for a good cause–the cause of global security; because of the willingness of the West to engage Gaddafi after 2003–in contrast to the more threatening posture of the 1980s and 1990s–deadly materials which might have fallen or even been openly supplied into dangerous hands were secured and destroyed. (A similar query is underway with regards to Syria; is the suffering of the civil populace because of the ongoing war in Syria balanced by the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles).

Cojean’s work is cited by some as further proof of the correctness of the decision taken by the Obama administration in 2011 to commit U.S. airpower to Gaddafi’s demise, and as an implicit rebuke to those who believed in engaging Gaddafi in the first place rather than pushing for his removal. Yet Gaddafi’s private crimes stand in juxtaposition to a generally positive record after 2003 as a responsible statesman, and the post-Gaddafi chaos (much like the post-Saddam chaos in Iraq after 2003) has also led to quite negative ethical outcomes in terms of securing the basic human rights of the populace.  This raises another ethical consideration: what is the better choice, retaining a tyrant who might nonetheless provide security and the possibility of an eventual transition to a more open, liberal and just order or deposing that tyrant but leaving chaos and insecurity in its wake. To some extent, that depends on the individual; Soraya is no longer being attacked or molested by Gaddafi, but a Tuareg or sub-Saharan African who might have lived a peaceful and productive life under the old order in Libya now faces persecution and the risk of being killed.

As someone who writes on national security policy, and who was generally supportive of the Libya deal on WMD and engagement with Libya, Cojean’s account is a reminder of the unpleasant ethical tradeoffs that occur in policymaking–but also highlights why it is important for these issues to be discussed.

[DISCLAIMER: This post reflects the personal opinion of the author]

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Category: Blog, Global Governance, International Law and Human Rights

Comments (4)

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  1. Bach says:

    Interesting topic! But there are more differences in defining some concepts than what were given in this article. The shortest way of speaking is that do you think whether it is important to set up or transfer the American values to win the hearts and minds of the Lybians. When a tyrant dies, the many other tyrants will born. When there are more than 2 persons, who have the same dream of becoming a tyrant, there will be a civil war or chaos. In this case, the Super power one should not choose the collapse of the current tyrant or the insecurity aftermath but she should preserve the peace time or in other words, keep the peace to remain long enough for their people ( from both countries and others in the world) to change their views and absorbing the values of their rights. She should not only to be an observers, police, interfering one, player… But also an intelligent instructor, lovely teacher or even a kind baby sister…

  2. DNI_NIC says:

    “…that libyan dictator is a typical example of an obsessed person on things on his mind due to the tolerance of his culture.Their culture is primitive that flows on modern times,so,the abusive acts are expected because they are mostly illiterate as They follow orders beyond the call of tradition or practicing primitive and aboriginal philosophies and standards in modern times and it is barbaric by nature.”

  3. Nick Gvosdev says:

    Both of the comments above, if I have read and interpreted them correctly, raise important questions about the tension between concepts of universal human rights and standards versus how they should be interpreted in terms of particular national and cultural frameworks, and the role of outside powers, in intervening, in deciding where to impose rules (and rulers) and when to refrain. Donald McHenry’s 1980 lecture to the Council on Religion and International Affairs raised this point when he noted, “in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson, [we would like] to see all countires adopt our own values and even our institutions. But for the most part we recognize that we live in a pluralistic world, and that other countries have a right to determine what their own values and institutions will be. In our relations with other countries we are limited to insisting on observance of those principles that will alow us to live peacefully with one another.”

    It also calls to mind Amitai Etzioni’s “security first” paradigm by which the focus is on the basic right to life.

    Of course, this discussion is also bounded, as we are seeing with regards to Syria, by what is politically possible … If an intervention is not likely to happen, what is the next most ethical course of action a policymaker ought to consider? [As with the original post, this follow-up reflects my personal opinion]

  4. DNI_NIC says:

    “…The explanation you had rendered,Mr.Author,is defining instincts of morality beyond human understanding,and it’s agreable.Human Behaviours are Universal but when Standards are set to achieve goals for the equality of a Certain Norms of Morality,only one thing to consider,and That is The International Human Rights.”