2009 is a significant year for Libya. September 1st marks the 40th anniversary of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s bloodless coup d’etat which removed King Idris I from power. The impact of the reforms that Gaddafi subsequently initiated – the introduction of state socialism and the widespread nationalism of many facets of the Libyan economy – can still be keenly felt, for good or for worse, today.
Yet 2009 is an equally significant year for British relations with Libya. April 19 marked the 25th anniversary of the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in London. In spite of the quarter of a century that has elapsed since this appalling crime was committed, her family are regrettably still no closer to securing justice for Yvonne and the peace that they themselves deserve.
This continuing impasse constitutes an open sore upon Anglo-Libyan relations and justifiably so. The Metropolitan Police have made four visits to Tripoli over a number of years, and have conducted interviews with a suspect. And yet, whilst the Met suspects that the Libyan authorities are complicit in concealing the killer’s identity, Tripoli itself appears to be stalling. In my recent discussions with Mr. Jelban, the Libyan ambassador, I was informed that Libya was continuing to pursue the matter, and that he himself was confident of achieving a resolution. When will we see progress and, more importantly, justice?
Indeed the murder of Yvonne Fletcher must be viewed as one of many acts of infamy in a dark period in Libya’s past from which it must do all it can to disassociate itself. To date, Tripoli must be quietly acknowledged as having made considerable progress in this endeavour. In August 2003, Libya agreed a compensation package for victims of the Lockerbie bombings worth some $2.7 billion, taking full responsibility for the atrocity in a letter to the United Nations Security Council. Similarly, a year later, Libya agreed to pay $35 million to compensate victims of the 1986 Berlin nightclub bombing. These measures were quite rightly welcomed, and resulted in a notable thawing of relations of Libyan relations with the West. But there is still work to be done.
And so to the present. Many commentators continue to maintain that Libya is at something of a crossroads, that it has taken its first few tentative steps towards a greater engagement within the international community. I am inclined to interpret this somewhat more optimistically. Libya has taken giant steps to re-emerge from the isolation in which it languished for so long. On 19th December 2003, Libya agreed to destroy its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, to abandon its embryonic nuclear weapons programme, and to open formerly clandestine weapons facilities to international inspectors. This leap of faith serves as a stellar example of how hostile states can been effectively re-engaged, and shown an alternative path that is mutually beneficial.
Yet further improving Anglo-Libyan relations will serve far more than British strategic interests. Libya, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), holds the largest proven oil reserves in Africa. According to the 2008 BP Statistical Energy Survey, Libya had proved oil reserves of 41.464 billion barrels at the end of 2007 or 3.34% of the world's reserves. Libya is Africa’s major oil producer and one of Europe’s biggest North African oil suppliers, with very low production costs and oilfields close to the refineries and markets of Europe. Yet much of Libya’s potential for natural resources remains unexplored, the legacy of UN sanctions lifted only a decade ago. This is a fantastic commercial opportunity, and one which I am keen to see British companies exploit. Trade between our two countries was worth an estimated £1 billion last year, a figure that could conceivably be dwarfed in the near future.
So what does the future hold in store for British relations with Libya? Gaddafi, now approaching his 67th birthday, is widely believed to be preparing for his own succession. Whilst his children continue to bolster their own public profiles, it is Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, his second-eldest son and a noted political and economic reformer, who appears well placed to accelerate Libyan re-engagement.
This is invaluable work, yet the pace of progress will ultimately be determined by those in power in Tripoli. As Libya seeks greater foreign investment it must first address all outstanding grievances against it. Libya’s potential is enormous, but as it continues to move cautiously out of the shadows of nationalisation and state control, it must do more to accept the moral responsibility that is a feature of the international community.
2009 is indeed a significant year for Libya. But I hope that it marks more than simply the 40th anniversary of Gaddafi’s ascension to power. Instead, I hope that it marks the gradual conclusion of a rapprochement begun by Libya’s acceptance of its role in terrorist atrocities and a willingness to compensate its victims. This process has further to travel: it must conclude with the prosecution of the killer of Yvonne Fletcher.