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POLITICS: Controversy Follows Gaddafi’s Rapprochement With Europe

Michael Deibert

PARIS, Dec 31 2007 (IPS) - The re-emergence of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi into the diplomatic good graces of Europe has met with a decidedly mixed response, even in some of the governments ostensibly courting his favour.

Gaddafi’s official visits to France and Spain earlier this month, the first in decades, come on the heels of an attendance at the European Union-Africa summit in Lisbon, also in December, and have lead to furious debates and soul searching about his past actions and the EU’s much-professed commitment to human rights.

The embrace has been quite a turn-around for the Libyan leader, who seized power in a 1969 military coup that toppled King Idris the First; Gaddafi then set about creating an authoritarian regime marked by a blend of pan-Arab nationalism and heavy state control of the economy.

It was a blend that, along with his expansive, cross-border political ambitions, saw Libya’s relations with Europe and the United States sink to their nadir in the late 1980s following a slew of incidents blamed by some on the Gaddafi regime. Most notorious among these was the bombing of a Berlin disco in April 1986, which killed three people and injured over 200 (for which a Libyan diplomat was convicted along with three others) – and the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988, which killed 270 people and resulted in the conviction of a former Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed Al Megrahi. Following the Berlin bombing, the United States launched an air assault on Libya which is though to have killed at least 15 people, including Gaddafi’s adopted daughter, Hanna.

However, in 2003, following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi indicated his willingness to allow international inspectors into Libya to supervise the dismantling of that country’s programme for weapons of mass destruction, which the inspectors then did.

The visit to Libya in March 2004 by Tony Blair, then British prime minister, represented an important moment in the easing of the Tripoli government’s international isolation. In May 2006, the U.S. State Department announced its intention to restore full diplomatic relations with Libya.

Relations between Paris and Tripoli have been warming since late July, when Gaddafi freed five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor after eight years following the Libyan government’s accusation that they intentionally infected more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. Immediately after the release, it was announced that European aerospace giant EADS, in which the French government has a 15 percent stake, had inked a deal to supply anti-tank missiles to Tripoli, the first such contract since a weapons embargo imposed by the EU was lifted in 2004.

Following Gaddafi’s visit to Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office announced that the two countries had signed contracts worth about 14.7 billion dollars.

In Spain, meanwhile, Gaddafi and the government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero reached an agreement that could potentially see Spanish firms investing up to 17 billion dollars in Libya.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch responded to Gaddafi’s European sojourn with a press release stating that “the absence of a free press, the ban on independent organizations, the torture of detainees, and the continued incarceration of political prisoners (in Libya) should be issues of urgency” for European leaders to address with the Libyan head of state.

Similarly, in a 2007 report, the press watchdog group Reporters sans frontiers (Reporters Without Borders) lamented the fact that in Libya “the media are still government-controlled propaganda mouthpieces” and that “criticizing Gaddafi is a taboo that can lead directly to prison because of the prevailing personality cult.”

In France, dissent over Gaddafi’s visit reached the highest levels of government, with Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner, who had accompanied Sarkozy on a visit to Libya in July, declining to meet with Gaddafi. France’s secretary of state for human rights, Rama Yade, also voiced her displeasure at the visit.

“Sarkozy, as he has said himself, is primarily concerned with getting contracts,” said George Joffe, the director of the Centre for North African Studies at the University of Cambridge in England. “He wants to build up relations with Mediterranean states partially to build up a Mediterranean union, partially because he wants to be the dominant power to the detriment of Spain and Italy, and partially for commercial reasons.”

Sarkozy’s courting of Gaddafi is of a piece with other moves he has made across North Africa, including a high-profile visit to Morocco in October that saw the government of King Mohammed the Sixth sign pacts in which France was guaranteed civilian and military contracts totaling some 2.9 billion dollars. These include a deal pertaining to the construction of a high-speed train between the coastal cities of Tangiers and Casablanca, and another for the construction of a power plant outside the north-eastern city of Oujda.

Like Algeria and Tunisia, Morocco is a signatory to the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreements with the EU, which guarantee free access to European markets and exemption from customs duties, a form of regional integration that Sarkozy has long championed.

The French president also touted his plan for strengthening the Euro-Mediterranean agreements this past July while visiting Tunisia, where head of state Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has ruled as a virtually unchallenged authoritarian since 1987.

A troubling aspect of this realpolitik on the part of European governments, some observers say, is that it focuses only on narrow European economic issues, with little attention paid to holding the Gaddafi government accountable for its misdeeds.

Along with deceased Ivorian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Burkina Faso’s long-serving president, Blaise Compaoré, Gaddafi was one of the key initial backers of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in the 1980s. The NPFL, under the leadership of Charles Taylor, participated in Liberia’s brutal 1989-1996 civil war, committing extensive human right’s abuses against the civilian population there. The NPFL eventually transformed itself into the National Patriotic Party, but Taylor himself currently sits under arrest in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the 1991-2002 civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Senior figures in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Sierra Leonean rebel faction accused of the majority of war crimes in the conflict, attended guerilla training camps in Libya – with the RUF leader Foday Sankoh himself traveling to the North African country. NPFL leaders such as Taylor also received training at the camps.

In addition, Gaddafi has been accused by critics of playing an early role in creating the conditions that brought about the conflict raging today in Sudan’s western Darfur region.

In their 2005 book ‘Darfur: A Short History of a Long War’, authors Julie Flint and Alex de Waal detail Gaddafi’s part in helping to create in Darfur the Arab supremacist organisation Tajamu al-Arabi, a group which announced that its intention was to “change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes.”

Full-scale war in the region started in 2003, initially pitting the Sudanese military and government-aligned Janjaweed militia forces against two non-Arab rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and the larger Sudan Liberation Movement, though the rebel groups have since splintered and re-formed in an ever-shifting array of alliances.

The International Criminal Court has indicted Sudan’s former deputy interior minister, Ahmed Haroun, and Janjaweed leader Ali Kushayb, among others, for war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from their actions in the conflict. A recent Gaddafi-sponsored round of peace talks between the factions yielded little in the way of concrete progress.

A United Nations peacekeeping force of up to 26,000, including 7,000 peacekeepers from the African Union, is scheduled to begin operations in Darfur in early January – a deployment that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s government has been accused of blocking.

Sadly, certain observers note, the silence over these past actions on the part of Europe’s leaders show the friction between rhetoric and reality when there is money to be made.

“It underscores the tensions and contradictions inherent in reaching out to regimes such as Gaddafi’s that at one point were targets of international isolation because of the broader strategic threat that they posed,” said Mona Yacoubian, a special advisor on North Africa with the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally-funded foreign policy foundation based in Washington.

With Gaddafi’s acquiescence concerning weapons of mass destruction, she added, “it seems that the human rights issues have somewhat fallen off the agenda.”

 
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