Thursday, June 04, 2009

Libya's UN circus

The choice of Libya to provide the next president of the general assembly does little for the reputation of the United Nations

o Ian Williams
o, Tuesday 2 June 2009 21.00 BST

In international affairs, Libya's Colonel Gaddafi makes Don Quixote seem like a Machiavellian intriguer, so at first sight, the almost certain impending "election" of Libya to provide the president of the UN general assembly for 2009-10 could be the occasion for some wry humour. In fact, it is a bad thing.

According to protocol, the president of the GA counts as a head of state, while the humble scribe who is the secretary general only ranks with foreign ministers. Officially, the Libyan nominee for the position is Ali Triki, an engaging former envoy to the UN. But there have been precedents for capitals supplanting their nominee before, as in the early 90s when the Maltese ambassador had it in the bag only to be bounced in a memorable double cross by his foreign minister, who then spent his term flying round the world getting 21-gun salutes in all the member states. It does raise the intriguing possibility of Muammar Gaddafi pitching his tent on the UN lawn and bringing his corps of Amazonian bodyguards so that he can take advantage of one of the world's most prominent pulpits – the podium of the general assembly.

Of course, since SG's tend to hang around while the presidency changes every year, there is no doubt who pulls the strings. Some previous presidents, such as the former Czech foreign minister Jan Kavan, were bluntly instructed to do as they were told by the secretariat. It may have been counterproductive to tell that to a stubborn former dissident such as Kavan, but it usually works, although the current occupant, Nicaraguan Miguel D'Escoto, has bucked the trend with forthright statements on the Middle East that contrasted sharply with the more anodyne line from the secretariat.

Most envoys want the job for the five minutes of glory, and go to great lengths to get the position, which rotates around the regional groups. This year it is the Africans' turn and they have decided to nominate Libya. It is possible that there was some vigorous canvassing. Certainly when Saudi Arabia won a contested election some years ago, many of the hands that were raised in its favour seemed to have gold Rolexes discernible on the wrists. It is exactly this type of value-blind "voting" that bedevils both the security council's temporary membership elections and the human rights council.

Interestingly, since Gaddafi paid blood money for Lockerbie, helped shop the IRA, renounced nuclear weapons, quietened down about Israel, and opened up the oil wells even more to western involvement, Washington and London seem to have overcome the visceral horror that once had them fighting to keep Libya off the security council. It is arguable that Libya got a raw deal over the Lockerbie bombing, albeit not as raw as its citizen Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrah who is dying of cancer in a Scottish prison while his appeal against a 27-year sentence is heard. The case against him and Libya was circumstantial and politically motivated.

London and Washington may have been attacking Libya for the wrong reasons in the past – but there were plenty of substantial reasons for holding the regime up for scrutiny and despite its more accommodating foreign policy, little has changed inside the country. Admittedly, the position of women in the colonel's idiosyncratic version of Islam is much better than staunch western ally Saudi Arabia, but there are serious grounds to question whether Libya should get a free ride into such a position in an organisation pledged to global human rights.

For a start, there is the democracy thing. Dissident Fathi al-Jahmi has just died after years of imprisonment for trying to put truth in the rumours about Libyan democracy. There are many more who have disappeared without trace into the regime's prisons, although there were substantial reports that 1,200 of them were killed in one incident in a prison. And of course the standard pseudo-left apology for dictatorial regimes is "look at the health service". Indeed. It took immense pressure, and effectively ransom money, to get Bulgarian and Palestinian medical staff out of Libyan dungeons where they had been locked up on spurious charges of spreading AIDS. But on the rule of law front, the killer of London WPC Yvonne Fletcher, shot from the Libyan embassy, which she was protecting against demonstrators, is still at large.

It does make sense to engage with Libya. Negotiations have produced some international satisfactory results – such as the colonel's realisation that he did not have the capability to produce nuclear weapons. But whether Triki or Gaddafi, the "election" of Libya will do little for the reputation of either Africa or the United Nations.

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