Saturday, October 20, 2007

Colonel Buggin's Turn

So hail then Libya, a temporary member of the UN security council from next January - and elected with no opposition from the US, thus signalling its demotion from the axis of evil.

In the early 1990s the Libyan mission to the UN was a dozen or so stories of mausoleum. The foyer had a huge equestrian oil painting of Colonel Muammar Gadafy, and the first 10 stories were empty. The mission was caught between the city and the US state department: one was denying it the right to let off the floors for commercial tenants, while the other was trying to tax them because they wanted to do just that. How many companies would brave the prancing colonel was another question, which the ambassador of the time sidestepped, well, diplomatically, when I asked him.

In 1995, and again in 2003, the US bitterly and successfully opposed the election of Libya to the security council. Libya's previous two failures are perhaps more a tribute to the isolation brought about by Gadafy's undiplomatic eccentricities than adroit US diplomacy, since the Africans and the Arabs at the UN are pathologically averse to contested elections.

The cycle for determining which countries from Africa will take a two-year stint on the security council is plotted out decades ahead with a complicated almost Ptolemaic formula that ensures the Arab group always has a representative on the council.

Every UN diplomat wants to be on the security council: it is where the influence is, although it can be a dangerous eminence, almost guaranteeing the untender attentions of the state department heavies when Washington wants something dubiously legal in the council.

The ambassador for Mauritius was recalled after Washington called home to complain about his over-principled opposition to the first Iraq war. Another African diplomat during the first Gulf war told me how he had to leave his phone off the hook to avoid getting instructions that he did not want, but which the US delegates importunately assured him were on the way from his capital. But there are compensations: one study suggested that it was worth millions a year extra in aid for a developing country to be on the council.

So how has Libya changed since its previous attempts? Well fall guy Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi is serving his country sitting in a Scottish gaol, and Libya paid compensation for Lockerbie without admitting responsibility and for a bombing in German nightclub.

Indeed the evidence is at best inconclusive and al-Megrahi's case is under review. It is still an open question whether Libya carried out the bombing because it was an enemy of the US, or whether it was fingered for the same reason. It is not as if we set a fine example. Reagan sent bombers in an attempt to assassinate Gadafy and succeeded in killing his daughter and a hundred other "collateral" civilians. Neither the outcome nor the intention were exactly in the best traditions of international law, but one can note that Margaret Thatcher, who allowed British bases to be used for the attack, cited the current neocon legal formula that it was an act of self defence for alleged terrorist bombings.

On the other hand, unlike the US, which withdrew from the international criminal court when it didn't like its verdicts, the colonel accepted its decision in his border dispute with Chad.

So the Libyans promised not to help the IRA, and handed over information, which sweetened up London. They splashed cash around in compensation for terrorist incidents they were accused of, without admitting liability. Gadafy has abandoned, or suspended his wilder global ambitions. With his eccentric version of Islam, women have the same, but equally minimal, human rights as men, but opponents disappear. And of course there was the travesty of the doctors and nurses accused of spreading HIV.

Perhaps significantly, Israel's UN ambassador only regards Libya's election as "problematic," rather than the more intemperate adjectives one would have expected a few years ago, before rumours began to spread of a Libyan-Israeli deal. In summary, Libya has stopped active opposition to foreign policy, so who cares about some disappeared Arab democrats.

On balance, Libya is not the worst country to serve on the security council, but the developing world really should stop bleating about reforming the council when it sends by Buggins' turn countries like Rwanda during the genocide, or Mobutu's Zaire. In the recent past relatively small temporary members, such as Chile, Jamaica, Ireland and New Zealand, to name but a few, have been principled upholders of international law and human rights in the face of bludgeoning from the big powers. The most practical way to reform the council would be to send more like them. And fewer like Libya.

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