by M.A. Shaikh (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 13, Rajab, 1424)
Colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s humiliating attempts in the last several years to woo the US have culminated in his country’s formal acceptance of responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. This sets the stage for the payment of $2.7 billion to the families of the 270 people who died in the explosion aboard the aircraft. While the admission is likely to result in the removal of the United Nations sanctions on Libya soon, it has failed to persuade Washington to end US sanctions or to remove Libya from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism; it will, in all probability, encourage others to claim exorbitant reparations for acts of terrorism – either real or imagined – committed by Tripoli (and other Muslim capitals) against them.
France already wants Tripoli to increase the compensation agreed earlier for the bombing in 1989 of a French UTA airliner, to equal the rate of reparations now agreed in respect of the Lockerbie attack; France is threatening to veto the UK-Bulgarian Security Council resolution to lift the UN sanctions, unless Libya does as France demands. Even Sudanese ex-trade unionists are urging Khartoum to demand compensation from Tripoli for handing over to the then president Ja’afar Numeiri two Sudanese politicians, who were removed from a British aeroplane that had been forced to land in Libya in 1971 and later executed.
Libya’s formal admission of responsibility came in a letter to the Security Council, signed by the Libyan envoy, Ahmad Own, which read: "Libya as a sovereign state has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103 and accepted responsibility for the action of its officials." The letter is referring to the conviction of Abdul Basset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent, by a Scottish court in 2001. Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment; another Libyan agent was acquitted. The two men had been handed over by the Libyan government in response to Washington’s demand and London’s: a clear violation of Libyan sovereignty. The US and Britain responded to Tripoli’s letter by themselves writing to the president of the Security Council, agreeing that Libya had met the conditions for the UN’s sanctions to be lifted. These had been imposed in 1992 and suspended in 1999. The US, however, said that it would not end the trade ban it had imposed on Tripoli in 1986, and would keep Libya on its list of states that sponsor terrorism. Britain lifted its own sanctions in 1999 after Libya agreed to hand over the two suspects.
Tripoli’s formal admission of responsibility for the bombing came only a few days after lawyers agreed the $2.7 million compensation package. The deal requires Libya to pay the money into an account at the International Bank of Settlements in Switzerland. Such was Libya’s anxiety to comply that it began to deposit the moneys as early as August 20. Under the terms of the deal, 40 percent of the amount will be distributed to the families of the victims when the security council revokes the UN’s sanctions: an action ostensibly delayed by the attack on the UN in Iraq, but expected soon. But if the US fails to lift its own sanctions within eight months, half of the amount will revert to Libya. If, however, both multilateral and unilateral sanctions are lifted, each family involved will receive $10 million: a hefty sum that they are not likely to reject, although they still demand that a proper enquiry be undertaken into the real causes of the Lockerbie disaster. Several have dismissed Libya’s admission, and British and US acceptance of it, as a "disgraceful business deal" that obscures the real reasons for the deaths of their relatives.
The removal of the UN sanctions is a formality, despite the French demand for increased compensation for the families of UTA victims. Paris clarified its stand on the issue on August 21, saying that while it supported the lifting of the UN sanctions, it is determined to secure a compensation rate "commensurate with that to be paid in respect of the Pan Am bombing". When the UTA airliner was blown up over Niger on September 19, 1989, 170 people were killed. A deal was negotiated in 1999 in which the families were to receive $33 million; in all, 1,000 people are eligible for between $3,400 and $34,000 each. The French now feel that accepting this "tiny rate" of compensation, compared to the enormous amounts payable to the Lockerbie families, is an insult to them. They are already engaged in negotiations with Saif ul-Islam, Qaddafi’s son, to secure a revision of the agreed reparations. Colonel Qaddafi is expected to agree to the revision, to prevent Paris from vetoing the Security Council resolution, which is necessary for the UN sanctions to be lifted. All this means that Libya has to foot yet another large bill to finance Qaddafi’s courtship of the West. This is over and above the compensation that Germany also expects to be paid in respect of "acts of terrorism" on German territory.
Qaddafi has in fact gone out of his way to placate the West in recent years, announcing throughout this period his determination to fight terrorism and to improve relations with Europe and the US. In 1998, for instance, he successfully asked Interpol to issue an international warrant (the first ever) against Usama bin Ladin, who was being ignored in the West at the time. Qaddafi, who had suspected bin Ladin of supporting Libyan Islamic groups since 1992, was one of the first Arab rulers to denounce al-Qa’ida as a terrorist group. He certainly does not need to impress on Western governments his determination to fight terrorism, as they know that he has been fighting Islamic groups for many years, branding them, as the West does now, as terrorists. More recently, Qaddafi and his son have appeared on American television programmes, appealing for more cooperation between Libya and the US to fight terrorism and improve relations. Both men were interviewed at the beginning of August, Qaddafi on ABC and Saif ul-Islam on CNN, and went out of their way to woo not only the government but also the American people. Saif ul-Islam even said that "we want to go American and consume as much Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola [as possible]"!
The Bush administration knows that Qaddafi is on the run and is ready to do its bidding, but also wants – apart from humiliating him – to ensure that he is ready to accept all its conditions before lifting the sanctions on Libya. According to US secretary of state Colin Powell, Washington has agreed to the lifting of UN sanctions so that the bereaved families can secure their compensation, but it will maintain the bilateral sanctions until Tripoli ceases its meddling in African conflicts, becomes "more democratic", and proves that it is not pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
But apart from the fact that the US must lift its sanctions if the families are to receive the full compensation ($10 million instead of $5 million), there is additional pressure from US businesses, led by oil companies that hold concessions in Libya. Four American oil companies hold concessions that could eventually be revoked by Tripoli if the sanctions are not lifted. Libya happens to be one of the world’s most promising sites for further oil exploration, and American companies are lining up to pursue more than a hundred exploration licences. Not surprisingly, the US companies are meeting to see what pressure they can bring to bear on the US government to remove the bilateral sanctions. President Bush and his officials have shown how vulnerable they are to pressure from business circles.
But many Libyans, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, are very angry about the way in which their country is being robbed. Some have even engaged lawyers to apply to Swiss courts to prevent any funds from being transferred from the International Bank of Settlements to the Lockerbie families. Qaddafi will be ill advised to ignore their anger.