Tom Malinowski writes: Today is my last day at Human Rights Watch. After a decade of helping the organization advance its goals — an end to genocide, torture, and repression, and respect for the dignity of all men and women — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people, and its identity. And I can honestly say that if the struggle for human rights and human liberty is taken to its logical conclusion, it will destroy everything that gives meaning and richness to our lives.
These thoughts began to crystallize in my mind last year, when I traveled to eastern Libya, after the start of the revolution that would end the dictatorship of Muammar al-Qaddafi. It had been years since I had seen so many people so happy, so selfless, so hopeful, so intellectually curious, and so eager to serve their country. Volunteers cleaned up the streets, directed traffic, took care of the sick, and performed countless other tasks without pay. Young Libyans who had once seemed apathetic were debating politics in public squares and starting newspapers and NGOs. Under normal circumstances, Libyans and the foreigners who worked among them might have remained separated by barriers of culture and faith; but now, under fire, sharing in the exhilaration of the cause that brought them together, I saw them making friendships that will last a lifetime.
And then it came to me: None of this joyful liberation would have been possible had Qaddafi not given his people something to be liberated from. Had he not stolen their freedom, they would not be cherishing it. Had he not shown them the worst of what people are capable of, they would not be showing us the best. Yet if human rights groups like mine had their way, there never would have been a dictator like Qaddafi! And what would happen if Libya’s idealistic revolutionaries won? Soon enough, they’d go back to their day jobs and get bored with their lives.
Let’s face it: much of what we truly value in life is rooted in our experience of repression and conflict. Consider great literature and film. Would we remember War and Peace if it had just been Peace, or been moved by All Quiet on the Home Front? Would we care about Winston Smith without Big Brother, Harry Potter’s life without Voldemort, or Frodo’s journey without Sauron? With no guillotine, A Tale of Two Cities would have been a travel guide. With no revolution, Dr. Zhivago would have been a talk show. With no Nazis, Schindler would have had a shopping list. Yet if human rights activists succeed — not to mention people trying to end poverty and war — that’s the kind of inspiration our future storytellers will have to draw from…;)