Country Report Libya November 2009

The political scene: Foreign relations continue to be sullied by the past

Despite being reintegrated into the international community, following a period of political exclusion from the 1980s until the early 2000s, Libya's foreign relations continue to be sullied by past events. Many of the issues that have damaged Libya's relations in the past have resurfaced as they have come under renewed international scrutiny following the release of Abdulbaset al-Megrahi, the only man to be convicted of the 1988 bombing of a plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, whose warm reception in Libya following his release aroused international condemnation.

In October negotiations between the UK and Libya over compensation for victims of attacks carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA)-a militant Irish independence organisation-came close to resolution after a delegation of British MPs travelled to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, to conclude discussions with the Libyan government. The UK claims stem from Libya's supply of large quantities of Semtex explosive to the IRA during its bombing campaign in the 1980s and early 1990s. One of the delegation, Jeffrey Donaldson, said that there appeared to be growing recognition by Libyans that there is a need to resolve the matter. Speculation in the press suggests that the Libyan government may be prepared to pay as much as £1bn (US$1.7bn) in compensation to victims of republican violence and their families. However, progress with the discussions is unclear; in September, Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, the son of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, stated that Libya would fight any such claims in court.

Separately, the Libyan government is in discussions with the British authorities over the unresolved shooting of a British policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, outside the Libyan Embassy in 1984. In late October Colonel Qadhafi apologised publicly for the killing, but failed to say whether he would co-operate with London's Metropolitan Police in their investigations. In 1999 Libya "accepted general responsibility for the actions of those within the (embassy) ... and expressed deep regret to the family", to whom it agreed to pay compensation. A police report into the shooting, published in 2007, claimed that the police had sufficient evidence to charge two suspects involved in the incident. Libyan authorities have resisted persistent attempts by the Metropolitan Police to travel to Libya and question suspects there.

Elsewhere, Libya's row with Switzerland refuses to die down. Relations between the two countries were badly strained when Colonel Qadhafi's son, Hannibal Qadhafi, was arrested in a Geneva hotel in July 2008 after an altercation with his staff (August 2008, The political scene). Having issued an apology over the incident, the Swiss government expected in return that the Libyan authorities would allow the release of two Swiss nationals, who have been barred from leaving Libya. However, this is yet to take place. In late October a Swiss parliamentary commission recommended that a tougher stance be taken against Libya, by restricting visas issued to Libyans seeking to travel to Switzerland. It also suspended a deal that had been struck with Libya over the restoration of relations, although it rejected a proposal to sever diplomatic ties.

The Swiss are clearly becoming increasingly exasperated. Since the deadline for the return of their nationals expired in August, the Libyan authorities somehow persuaded the two Swiss nationals to leave their refuge in the Swiss embassy; they have not been seen since. A communiqué issued by the Swiss cabinet expressed its irritation over Libya's "systematic refusal" to honour deals. Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Swiss foreign minister, went so far as to accuse Libya of "kidnapping" its nationals.

There have also been reports that Libyan relations with Canada have gone sour. In late October Libya was reported to have ceased issuing visas to Canadians after a cancellation of a stopover in Canada by Colonel Qadhafi, following his attendance at a UN summit in New York in September. A possible reason given for the cancellation of Colonel Qadhafi's brief stopover was that he had learnt that the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, had refused to meet him and was sending his foreign minister, Lawrence Cannon, instead to meet the Libyan leader and express to him Canada's displeasure over the celebrations for the homecoming of Lockerbie bomber, Abdulbaset al-Megrahi.

© 2009 The Economist lntelligence Unit Ltd. All rights reserved
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