Our shameful mishandling of evil

Published in the Sunday Times Sunday, 27 February 2011

For now the priority must be safeguarding the people of Libya, but Western powers must take a long, hard look at how it got this far at all

The appalling handling of Gadaffi since he came to power in 1969 raises some fundamental questions. In the next few weeks, the priority must be to safeguard people’s lives in Libya. National governments have a duty to safeguard the lives of their own citizens in the country. But we must not duck out of our responsibility for those Libyans showing immense courage in trying to overthrow the Gadaffi regime.

It is not conceivable that we can watch from Nato airbases close to Libya while Gadaffi and his sons unleash on their people the weapons with which our countries supplied him.

I have been trying to rouse the conscience of the world to demand a no-fly zone for Libyan military aircraft and helicopters, and encountered in the UK some of the same opposition as when I wrote to John Major, the prime minister, in 1991. He, to his credit, with President François Mitterrand, persuaded President George Bush Sr to implement a no-fly-zone to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein.

I encountered a similar inertia in getting a no-fly zone over Bosnia in the winter of 1992. Yesterday, the United Nations security council adopted a resolution for UN mandatory sanctions. That is an important first step. It enables the council, if Gadaffi uses air power against his people, to respond by asking Nato to implement a no-fly zone over Libya, as was done over Bosnia.

Economic sanctions and criminal indictments of Gadaffi and his regime are of course desirable but they have no immediate impact. Gadaffi, like a wounded animal, may still perpetrate mass carnage on his people. This is a man who we know planned for nuclear weapons and is likely to have chemical and perhaps biological weapons.

Gadaffi was evil from the start. He is also unhinged. Against such an assessment, the words and actions of British leaders over the past decade are an appalling indictment.

We knew in the early 1970s that Gadaffi was supplying arms to the IRA and that he had already financed the Black September movement. Both Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan tried to dissuade him. He went on to supply the IRA with Semtex for its UK mainland bombing campaign.

We knew in the early 1970s that Gadaffi was supplying arms to the IRA and that he had financed the Black September movement

In 1984 we had the fatal shooting from the Libyan embassy in London of WPC Yvonne Fletcher. In 1986 we had President Reagan’s airstrike on Gadaffi himself and then the downing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.

It is amazing that such a respected institution as the London School of Economics built up such close relations with the Gadaffi regime. How could the LSE’s former head, Anthony Giddens, the architect of Tony Blair’s “third way”, visit Tripoli and describe Gadaffi as a leader who “cuts an impressive figure . . . and is interested in the debates and policies involved in social democracy in Europe”?

Blair had a great deal to answer for, but not his support for the MI6-led initiative to get Gadaffi to forgo the development of nuclear weapons, which was justified. Where he went wrong was in his extraordinary personal involvement in embracing Gadaffi, physically and economically.

The UK has to examine with brutal realism the relationship that has grown up between the government and companies such as BP and BAE Systems. The prime minister of Britain is not chief executive of UK plc. There must be a separation between businesses and government policy.

Blair’s conduct when he was prime minister and since then demonstrates why there needs to be a proper separation between public duties and commercial activities. It is simply incompatible for him to be the Quartet representative, helping the development of the economy of the West Bank and Gaza, while conducting himself in the way he has done in his private commercial activities throughout the Middle East. He should step down from his role with the Quartet immediately.

The British government, too, is entitled to issue export licences for arms to countries other than those with whom we are in a political and military alliance. David Cameron has continued to grant export licences for ammunition to Libya. Withdrawing those licences now does nothing to stop the ammunition being used. The decision under both governments was indefensible.

Why do government ministers involve themselves as business salesmen? In part, it is to improve the balance of payments and protect and provide jobs, not unworthy objectives.

But they also like to associate themselves and their government with success. Cameron’s quick switch to visit Egypt helped in the presentation of his visit to Kuwait and Doha. But he would have been a far more powerful advocate of democracy had his visit not been linked to arms sales.