[On this date in 1998, the United Nations Security Council held its first public session on Lockerbie since 1992. The report on the proceedings by the IPS news agency reads as follows:]
UN diplomats, and the families of victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, cannot agree on how to try two Libyans suspected of involvement in that attack, a UN Security Council debate made clear Friday.
For Libya, the intensified discussion here marks a qualified victory: for the first time, the doubts over UN efforts to compel Triploi to hand over Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah for a US and British trial are being aired here at length. In addition, Libyan pleas for a neutral trial and for the easing of some aspects of the sanctions are gaining wider support.
The debate, the first public review of Council sanctions imposed on Libya in 1992, was marked both by the efforts by several diplomats to find a compromise solution for the trial of the Libyans, and the heated resistance from the US government and families of the bombing victims to anything less than a trial in Britain or the United States.
On the one hand, Libya could be cheered by increasing support for the adoption of several humanitarian exemptions to a six-year-old flight ban imposed by the Council, and for a trial of the two suspects at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague. An ICJ ruling last month even bolstered calls by some diplomats for the suspension of all UN sanctions.
On the other, Washington and London remain adamantly opposed to any trial outside of the United States or Britain. These two countries were most directly affected by the 1988 bombing of Pan American flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, of the 270 victims, 189 were US citizens and 11 were residents of Lockerbie.
“There is little hope of seeing suffering end until Libya complies with the resolutions of the Security Council ... and turns over the two suspects,” insisted US Ambassador Bill Richardson.
Other ambassadors, however, used the debate Friday to make their most public call for a compromise solution. “The proposal by Libya for her two suspected nationals to be tried under Scottish law by Scottish judges in a third country or at the ICJ should now receive the Council’s serious consideration so that the matter can be resolved equitably,” argued Ambassador Martin Andjaba of Namibia.
The dispute in the Security Council in turn has been mirrored in recent months by the growing rift between the families of the flight victims, with one British group leaning towards the ICJ compromise while two major US groups reject it.
“Libya’s problems can be solved by turning over the suspects to the United States or Scotland for a fair and impartial trial, in full view of the rest of the world,” argued George Williams, president of the US-based ’Victims of Pan Am Flight 103’. “This is not a negotiable issue.”
“This is the time for compromise. This is not the time to be bombastic,” countered Jim Swire, spokesman for ’UK Families Flight 103’, which represents the estimated 35 British nationals who were victims. “We’re not into politics. All we really want is a fair trial, and the venue doesn’t really matter.”
Libya contends that US and British public opinion on the case is so tainted as to prohibit a fair trial in either country. “We would like to recall that the trial of Timothy McVeigh (sentenced to death for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) was transferred from Oklahoma City to Colorado... because the place in which the crime was committed no longer provided a place where there are the conditions needed for due process of law and a fair trial for the defendants,” argued Libyan Foreign Minister Omar Mustafa Muntasser on Friday.
Muntasser called for the suspension or lifting of the UN sanctions, noting that the ICJ ruling last month had rendered the Security Council demands for a US or British trial irrelevant and moot, since the Court has accepted jurisdiction in the matter on which the resolutions were based.
The Feb 27 ruling, presided over by ICJ Vice President Justice Chris Weeramantry, strengthens Tripoli’s argument for a trial at the Hague. It found Libyan claims that neither the United States nor Britain has the right to compel Tripoli to turn over the two suspects admissible, and said that the Court could now proceed to hear the merits of Libya’s case.
Whether the decision can actually help to overturn the Security Council’s sanctions ruling is doubtful. Britain and the United States both hold vetoes on the 15-nation Council and remain unwilling to drop the penalties until Libya complies with their terms.
Richardson argued that the ICJ ruling “in no way question(s) the legality of the Security Council’s actions affecting Libya or the merits of the criminal cases against the two accused suspects.” He also disputed Libya’s claims that al-Megrahi and Fhimah could not obtain a fair trial in Scotland, noting a recent UN report which concluded that “the accused would receive a fair trial under the Scottish judicial system.”
British Ambassador John Weston noted dryly that Muntasser had assailed the media in Britain for prejudicing the mood against the two suspects—but that the foreign minister also distributed a British documentary aired last year in Scotland which doubted the two men were guilty.
(That belief is shared by several representatives of the victim’s groups—notably Swire, who contends that Iran and the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command may have been behind the attack.)
If the deadlock over how and where to hold the trial remain unclear, Libya has at least convinced several key nations on the Security Council that some aspects of the sanctions regime, which includes a travel ban and restrictions on the import of machinery related to oil refinery, must be eased.
A recent report by UN Under-Secretary-General Vladimir Petrovsky noted Libya’s complaints about the adverse impact that the air embargo was having on the economy, particularly on the health, social and agricultural sectors.
Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov argued that the findings of the report give sufficient grounds to discuss even now the possibility of humanitarian exemptions to the sanctions regime. Among them, he said, should be the replacement of Libya’s four ageing medical evacuation planes and extended humanitarian exemptions for Muslim pilgrims attending the annual ’hajj’ ceremony in Mecca.
Richardson, however, doubted any claims of humanitarian suffering in Libya, calling it the wealthiest country in Africa on a per capita basis, and noting that Tripoli earned some 10 billion dollars in oil revenue last year.
[RB: The speech to the Security Council by the Libyan Foreign Minister Omar al-Muntasser (which I had a small hand in drafting) can be read here. It helped to ratchet up the pressure on the UK and US governments which resulted in their accepting the “neutral venue” solution some five months later.]