Libya hasn’t changed its spots

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — A recent trip to Libya showed that it remains a police state dominated by a personality cult. Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s portrait was everywhere, and tourists were warned of severe penalties for criticizing the leadership.

A policemen rode on our bus, and it was inspected at frequent roadblocks even though tour buses are supposed to be exempt from such checks.

On the outskirts of Tripoli, we passed the fortified compound in which the colonel is said to reside. At one point our guide gave us a 10-minute lecture on the wonderful work of the regime.

Diplomatic relations between Britain and Libya were broken off in 1984 following the murder of a British police officer by someone from within the Libyan Embassy in London.

Relations deteriorated further following the destruction of a Pan American airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 as a result of bombs planted by Libyan agents. Two Libyan suspects were eventually handed over and tried by a Scottish court sitting in The Hague. One was found guilty, and Libya has since agreed to compensate the victims.

The regime also admitted to having planned to make nuclear weapons, and agreed to desist. These actions were sufficient to persuade the British government to propose, in 2003, that the U.N. Security Council lift sanctions.

Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the colonel in Libya in March 2004 to mark the end of Libya’s almost two-decade-long pariah status. The U.S. government has not yet re-established full diplomatic relations with Libya, yet there were U.S. citizens among the tourists we met.

Libya’s main exports are petroleum products. With oil prices as high as they are, prospects for the Libyan economy should be good, but private enterprise in Libya faces many difficulties.

The problem was obvious even to a tourist. Hotels outside Tripoli seemed to be largely government-run; the food and service was poor and Libyan staff surly. Fortunately many of the waiters were foreigners allowed into Libya to do the sort of work that, according to our guide, Libyans don’t care to do. Few foreign goods were available. Equipment that failed, such as elevators, seemed to remain out of order indefinitely.

Last December Libya blocked a visit by a human-rights group. It seems clear from reports from such bodies as Amnesty International that a pattern of abuse of human rights continues in the country. Libyan authorities’ having failed to investigate past abuses, a climate of fear persists in the country. Political prisoners are kept incommunicado and some intellectuals have been executed. Asylum seekers and migrants face abuse by the police and arbitrary detention. Women in Libya are probably better off than in some other Muslim countries, but they do not appear to be treated as well as men.

Infrastructure has not improved in the way it should have in view of Libya’s oil resources and consequent ability to earn foreign exchange. Much of the just-under 5.5 million population is poor. Housing and roads may have improved, but vehicles looked decrepit. Many streets are unpaved and shops badly stocked.

It is to be hoped that conditions of life in Libya will improve and that more freedom will be accorded to ordinary people. The first priority is a significant improvement in respect for human rights. Sadly there does not seem to be much chance of this, or of Libya becoming a democratic state, while Gadhafi maintains his dictatorial powers.

We, who have the good fortune to live in parliamentary democracies where the rule of law prevails, need to remember that Libya is not the only tyranny. Some tyrannies such as those in North Korea and Cuba are communist states. North Korea is perhaps the worst example of all.

Some of the former Soviet states in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have particularly bad human-rights records. In Kyrgyzstan, whose record is not quite as bad as in others, a recent revolt led to the ousting of the president, but as Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili said, true revolution is not “just about throwing one ruler out and throwing someone else in his place.”

In the Mideast, there is only one state with a fair claim to democracy: Israel. Syria, where a personality cult continues, remains a threat to the stability of Lebanon. Iran is a “theocracy” where women suffer discrimination and political dissenters are liable to arrest. Egypt can hardly claim to be democratic, and Saudi Arabia remains a royal autocracy.

In Africa, human rights are regularly trampled on. The worst case at the moment is the oppression of people in Sudan’s Darfur region, where up to 300,000 people may have lost their lives. Somaliland has no effective government. Governments in the Congo and parts of Central Africa have failed to provide protection for their people against lawless elements.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has oppressed and impoverished the people of a land that has great development potential. There is much talk these days about the need for increased aid to Africa, but so much aid has been absorbed by corrupt leaders that there is some reluctance to pouring in more.

The first need is for improved government and the eradication of corruption, but this will not happen unless living standards are improved. How to break this vicious circle will be one of the main challenges for the new head of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz, one of the leading hawks in the Bush administration. It is to be hoped that he will now show that he can tackle the mess in Africa equally firmly and more effectively than the United States dealt with Iraq following the defeat of the Hussein regime.