On Dec. 21, 1988, Pan Am flight 103 exploded in midair over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Three years after the blast, a Scottish court petition named two Libyan officials, Mr. Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah and Mr. Abdel Basset Ali al Megrahi, as the individuals responsible for the atrocity. Earlier this week, more than 10 years after the explosion, the two men were handed over to United Nations officials in Tripoli in preparation for a trial in the Hague. Justice can now be done.

An international investigation conducted by police and intelligence agencies identified the two defendants, who are suspected of having been Libyan intelligence agents working in Malta at the time of the explosion. When two indictments were handed down — one in Scotland, another in Washington, D.C. — the Libyan government refused to hand the men over. Threats of air and arms embargoes by the U.N. did not change the thinking of the country’s leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. The embargo went into effect April 15, 1992, and lasted until this week. (As part of the deal, the U.N. sanctions were suspended when the two men were handed over. After 90 days, the Security Council must decide whether to lift them permanently.)

Ten years seems like a long time to hold out hopes for justice. But for the victims’ families, the wait is not over yet. The trial may drag on for years, and there is a good chance that no verdict will offer them the solace they seek. The Libyan government has been given assurances that the trial will focus on the two men and is not an attempt to embarrass or undermine Tripoli. That rankles. As one relative of a victim noted, it is like going after the hit men and ignoring the boss who gave the order.

Still, only a year ago, a trial seemed impossible. Both sides had settled into their positions, unwilling to compromise out of a misplaced fear of appearing weak. Credit for breaking the impasse goes to several players. The British government called Mr. Gadhafi’s bluff by accepting his offer to try the two men in a third country. That move effectively deprived Libya of critical support from Arab governments. Tireless efforts by such mediators as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, South African President Nelson Mandela and the Saudi royal family helped convince the Libyan leader that a fair trial was possible and that the West could be trusted. Finally, the U.N. Security Council’s commitment to fight terrorism pressured the Libyans into yielding.

Make no mistake: The sanctions were not airtight. The country’s oil exports were not affected, the air embargo had no effect on seaports and several African countries ignored them completely. Still, they bit. Even countries eager to do business with Tripoli were deterred by the prospect of crossing the U.N. Moreover, the stain of being labeled a pariah state was indelible. Even Mr. Gadhafi could not afford to be indifferent to the perception that his government was linked to international terror. Fear of political instability deterred foreign investment, which in turn deprived Libya of opportunities to develop. For a nationalist, populist leader like Mr. Gadhafi, no punishment could be greater.

The decision to hand the two suspects over, then, is a victory for justice no matter how the trial concludes. This case has been notably free of the self-serving Cold-War boilerplate about “freedom fighters.” Instead, savage acts and an evidentiary trail will be rigorously examined in a court of law. The only question throughout has been the neutrality of the judicial process: Once it was established that legal principles would prevail over political ones, the trial could proceed. There is no more fundamental issue in the pursuit of justice.

Just as important, members of the international community have stood together against terrorism. The speed with which the U.N. dropped the sanctions against Libya reinforces the message the terrorism is beyond the pale. Live by international norms and a government will be accepted within the community of nations. It is a message that Libya has been slow to accept, but hopefully that will change.

Resolution of this case will also pay foreign-policy dividends. Britain and the United States have been eager to mend bridges with the Arab world in general, and Libya in particular. Their compromise on the issue of the trial venue shows a willingness to heed Arab sensitivities. Libya can begin the process of its own rehabilitation. And the U.N. has been strengthened in its role as mediator and troubleshooter.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.