Don't Lift Sanctions Against Libya

Report Africa

Don't Lift Sanctions Against Libya

August 14, 2003 7 min read

The Libyan government has announced that it will pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the 270 victims of the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie bombing, including 189 Americans.[1] The compensation offer is expected to result in a UN Security Council resolution calling for the lifting of sanctions against Tripoli, which have been in place since 1992 (the sanctions were suspended in 1999 after Libya surrendered two officials indicted for organizing the Lockerbie bombing). The resolution is likely to be sponsored by Britain; the Bush Administration has indicated that it may abstain rather than oppose it.

The lifting of sanctions on Libya at this time would be a grave mistake. Libya remains a growing threat to US national interests and international security. This would be appeasement of a brutal and dangerous regime, and would send completely the wrong message to other rogue regimes across the world.

Qadhafi Denies Responsibility
Under the Libyan offer, each victim is to receive $10 million: $4 million to be paid when UN sanctions are lifted; $4 million once US sanctions are lifted; and $2 million when the United States takes Libya off the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Despite the compensation offer, Libya's head of state Colonel Muammar Qadhafi refuses to accept personal responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, and continues to maintain his own innocence and that of his regime. The Libyan leader has a visceral hatred of the United States and as late as 1999 compared America to Nazi Germany, claiming, "Libya is a victim of American terrorism."[2]

While Libya's offer of compensation is a step in the right direction, it would be wrong for the Bush Administration to accede to Libyan demands that this be linked to the lifting of UN or US sanctions and the removal of Libya from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. This would be appeasement of a brutal and dangerous regime, and would send completely the wrong message to other rogue regimes across the world. It would undermine many of the steps taken by the United States since September 11 to combat the threat posed by rogue states. There should be no negotiation with terrorist regimes.

There are several key reasons why the United States should oppose the UN lifting of sanctions against Libya, as well as the lifting of US sanctions.[3]

Weapons of Mass Destruction
Despite growing international concern, Libya is attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction.[4] Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton has described Libya as a "rogue state" and a major potential threat to international security.

In a 2002 speech to the Heritage Foundation, Bolton warned that Libya was continuing to build up its chemical and biological weapons programs. The Libyans are also actively trying to develop their ballistic missile program, with the assistance of North Korea, China, Serbia and India. If Libya continues to receive international assistance, it may achieve extended-range SCUD or Medium Range Ballistic Missile capability. In addition, according to Bolton, "Tripoli's nuclear infrastructure remains of concern", although Tripoli would require significant international assistance in order to acquire a nuclear weapon.[5]

Support for International Terrorism
Libya is one of seven regimes listed by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism.[6] The country has a long history of support for terrorist groups in the Middle East and more than thirty terrorist groups worldwide. Libya provided arms, funding, and training for a wide variety of Palestinian terrorist groups (Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Front, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and the Abu Nidal group), as well as the Kurdistan Workers Party, the Colombian terrorist group M19, the Red Brigades in Italy, and assorted other terrorist groups in Japan, Turkey, Northern Ireland, Thailand and elsewhere.

Libya was caught red-handed sponsoring a terrorist attack against Americans in 1986, when it bombed a German discotheque frequented by American servicemen, killing two Americans. The Reagan Administration retaliated by bombing Libyan targets on April 15, 1986, narrowly missing Qadhafi himself. Although Libya has not been caught red-handed in launching terrorist attacks in recent years, it has not closed down all of its terrorist training camps and could resume its terrorist activities as soon as it finds it convenient to do so.

In addition to its involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, Libya is also responsible for the 1989 bombing of a French passenger jet in Niger, which killed 170 people. A French court convicted in absentia six Libyans, including the brother in law of Colonel Qadhafi, for carrying out the bombing. Libya offered to pay a paltry $33 million in compensation to the families.

Support for African Dictators
Colonel Qadhafi has for many years suffered from delusions of grandeur regarding his position on the international stage, and sees himself as the natural leader of a future United States of Africa. In order to advance this goal he has played an important role in propping up some of the continent's worst dictators, whom he sees as his natural allies.

Tripoli played a prominent role for example in arming and training former President Charles Taylor of Liberia. As recently as July, Taylor is reported to have visited Libya in order to restock on arms and ammunition.

Appalling Human Rights Record
Despite its ludicrous chairmanship of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Libya remains one of the most repressive regimes in the world, along with North Korea and Iran.

Since coming to power in 1969, Colonel Gadaffi has built up a reputation as one of Africa's most brutal and thuggish dictators. As the State Department's annual report on 'Human Rights Practices' points out, the Libyan regime suppresses domestic opposition, tortures prisoners, arbitrarily arrests and detains its citizens, and refuses detainees a fair public trial. It also greatly restricts freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion, and is even accused of trafficking in human slavery.[7]

Libya's record on economic freedom is equally poor. According to the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom, Libya's quasi-Marxist economy is the fifth most repressive in the world, and the least free in the whole of Africa with the exception of Zimbabwe.

Key Recommendations

  • The Bush Administration should oppose both the lifting of United Nations sanctions and US sanctions against Libya. The lifting of either would not serve the US national interest, and would set a dangerous precedent.
  • Libya should remain on the State Department list of state supporters of terrorism until it has closed its terrorist training camps, punished the officials involved in supporting terrorism, and cooperated in dismantling the terrorist groups that it formerly supported.
  • Colonel Qadhafi should continue to be held accountable for the Lockerbie bombing and other terrorist acts.
  • The US should not restore diplomatic relations with Tripoli until it has satisfactorily proven that it has permanently halted its support of terrorism.
  • Washington must increase pressure on Libya to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and open its biological and chemical facilities to international inspection.
  • The US should pressure China, India, Serbia and North Korea to halt nuclear cooperation with Libya.
  • The United States must reserve the right to use military force against the Libyan regime if it continues to act as a state sponsor of terrorism or poses a threat to US and international security.
Don't Lift Sanctions
The lifting of sanctions on Libya at this time would be a grave mistake. Libya remains a growing threat to US national interests and international security. The suspension of UN sanctions against Tripoli has enabled Libya to step up its biological, chemical and ballistic missile programs. A total lifting of UN and US sanctions could have disastrous results and would send entirely the wrong message to other rogue regimes.

Nile Gardiner Ph.D.  is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs, James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Affairs, and Peter Brookes is Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs, at the Heritage Foundation.

[1] Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was found guilty of carrying out the bombing by a Scottish court in 2001, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
[2] Quoted by Lady Margaret Thatcher, in Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (London: HarperCollins, 2002), p.233.
[3] US sanctions against Libya began in 1982, and were expanded in 1986. The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act was passed in 1996 and amended in 2001.
[4] See the CIA Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January through 30 June 2002.
[5] 'Beyond the Axis of Evil: Additional Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction', Lecture by the Honorable John Bolton to the Heritage Foundation, Washington DC, May 6, 2002.
[6] The State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism includes Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan.
[7] See Brett Schaefer, Libyan Fox in the Human Rights Henhouse, Heritage Foundation, August 22, 2002.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow

Peter Brookes
Peter Brookes

Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs