Joshua PollackLibya's Theory of the Hard Cases

Cross-posted from

Why the big struggles with Iran and North Korea over nuclear weapons, nuclear technology, and delivery systems? Libya’s ambassador to the UN has the Simple AnswerTM you’ve been looking for:

“We gave some devices, some centrifuges, for example for America, but what do you give us? Nothing,” said Abdelrahman Shalgham, who served as foreign minister for eight years before being named ambassador to the United Nations this month. “That’s why we think North Korea and Iran are hesitating now to have a breakthrough regarding their projects.”

(That’s Ambassador Shalgam in happier times, above, poised to corral the Secretary of State.)

These and other remarks appear in a fine article by Michael Slackman of the New York Times. Therein, we learn that welcoming Libya back into the family of nations wasn’t enough. Partly, Libyan officials would like to see more rapid progress in civil nuclear cooperation. But most of all, they are surprised to see the continuation of the State Department’s routine hectoring on human rights:

One diplomat in Libya, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said the government was shocked that the United States still criticized Libya’s human rights record. Libya is a police state where security services operate with impunity and political opposition is not allowed.

“When you were enemies, we didn’t care,” the diplomat said after the State Department issued its latest human rights report this month. “But now, you are supposed to be friends. We were surprised. There were 16 pages targeting Libya.”

(The links are in the item as it appears at

Tripoli is 1,200 miles east and a universe away from Casablanca. One hears genuine shock and betrayal in these words. So in the interests of international understanding, allow me to assure our new Libyan friends that it’s not about them. Pretty much the entire world is represented in the State Department’s annual human rights report, with the glaring but scarcely surprising exception of the United States itself. For that, we have Mark Danner. And the People’s Republic of China, too.

Friends, enemies, and everything in between show up in the annual report. Even Canada. Even Switzerland. As far as I can tell, the one and only country that gets a pass is the Holy See.

Life’s not fair, you know?

Does the Ambassador Have a Point?

Now, having said all that, Ambassador Shalgham may have a little bit of a point. Exhibit A: North Korea. Since 2005, the United States has had not one but two special envoys for North Korea. One of them, Jay Lefkowitz — that’s his mug shot, right there — has human rights as his special charge. This has not stopped him from addressing the nuclear track, which he sees as properly interwoven with human rights and aid:

Today, a Helsinki-style model should be replicated with North Korea, and the U.S. should promote linkage among security, economic and human-rights issues. Significant economic assistance to North Korea should be offered, including development assistance, World Bank loans, trade access and food aid, but it must be given only in return for tangible, verifiable progress on all issues on the agenda. And human-rights progress should not be measured by bureaucrats meeting and reading prepared statements, but by tangible steps that move North Korea closer to the norms of the international community.

This sort of thing does not go unnoticed in Pyongyang, where it is seen as evidence of a hostile policy:

Such U.S. behavior is a very disturbing act as it is little short of challenging the DPRK which has shown generous magnanimity and flexibility for a solution to the nuclear issue and an act of throwing a hurdle in the way of the six-party talks. The U.S. seems not to be interested in the dialogue and the settlement of the nuclear issue at all but more keen on standing in confrontation with the DPRK and bringing about a “regime change” and “bringing down the system” in the DPRK. If the U.S. persists in such behavior, it will compel the DPRK to change its mind. The U.S. should abolish at once such unreasonable post of “envoy” and abandon its ambition to “bring down system in the DPRK.”

Mr. Lefkowitz doesn’t get many invitations to Pyongyang.

Square That Circle! Or Not.

So what to do when nonproliferation objectives seem to conflict with human rights objectives, or other important goals, for that matter? Your humble correspondent here won’t pretend to have Simple AnswersTM to these knotty questions. What answers he might have are neither simple nor really within the scope of an arms control blog. So let’s just conclude.

Certain other countries absolutely see America’s interest in human rights and democracy as a threat, and the mistrust this creates can seriously complicate the pursuit of other objectives. It’s not just North Korea. Take the Russians, for example, or the Iranians. (Mark Haas has placed this phenomenon in broader historical perspective.)

So before we make a serious effort to negotiate, we might want to figure out which issues we really want on the table.

And let’s recognize that some issues are likely to force themselves onto the agenda regardless. Like this or this. This being America, complicating factors like public opinion and civil society can’t be wished away. It’s a Free Country,TM with all that entails.

Nothing’s simple, really.

Related topic: Dan Byman of Georgetown U. has asked, Do Counterproliferation and Counterterrorism Go Together?. He’s giving a talk on the subject at the University of Maryland College Park this coming April 30. Thanks, FCNL Nuclear Calendar!

Late update: Here’s the official Iranian view on human rights.


  1. ataune (History)

    The answer to your question is quite simple. Both Non-proliferation and Human Rights have inherent values and need to be defended. But they are both used as a policy tools by the US particularly.

    The non-proliferation [regime] has its own legal and technical infrastructure, defended here and elswhere. It is when you make it political that you most threathen this infrastructure.

    Human Rights should be a germane and spontaneous need of all the modern societies. It is when you use it as an international policy tool that you harm it the most.

  2. Major Lemon (History)

    I think what happens inside Libya is Gadafi’s business.
    He may be a dictator but if he chooses not to acquire for himself WMD or support terror then we shouldn’t preach to him.

  3. hass (History)

    Your first sentence equates Iran and North Korea. That’s simply false. N Korea threw out IAEA inspectors and built a bomb. Iran has allowed more inspections than it is legally required to permit, and after 7 years of hype, there’s still no evidence of any nuclear weapons in Iran.

    Josh replies: take it up with His Excellency Ambassador Shalgam!

  4. MWG

    Iran has not “allowed more inspections than it is legally required to permit.” UN Security Council Resolution 1737 requires Iran to take the steps deemed necessary by the IAEA Board of Governors. This includes not only suspending enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, but also “transparency measures . . . beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol.”

    It is not the IAEA’s job to look for nuclear weapons. The IAEA’s job is to detect diversion of nuclear material, which includes detecting undeclared nuclear activities (diversion of material that should have been declared). It found that Iran had a “policy of concealment” in violation of its NPT safeguards obligations.

    In the safeguards context, the main difference between Iran and North Korea is mainly that Iran hasn’t gotten as far.

  5. Major Lemon (History)

    Human Rights are of course subjective. It is an error to presume that all cultures are the same and that we should export our brand of liberal democracy to areas where the rule of law sometimes has to be brutally enforced to protect a society from anarchy.