Thirteen years after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, a decision has been rendered. Three Scottish judges in a court in the Netherlands sentenced Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi to life imprisonment for the bombing. His codefendant, Mr. Lamen Khalifa Fahimah, was acquitted. The verdict is unlikely to satisfy many. The long, convoluted process involved in bringing the two men to trial has made plain how difficult it is to fight state-sponsored terror.

The trial was the result of years of intense negotiations, backed by United Nations sanctions. Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, decided that pariah status had cost his country too much. He was willing to hand over the two men if certain conditions were met, the most important of which was that the trial would be a criminal, not a political proceeding. In other words, the two men would be on trial, not the Libyan government.

That precondition guaranteed that the verdict would be unsatisfactory and also ensured that the verdict would not end the case. After all, no low-ranking intelligence official would decide to commit such an act on his own. Clearly, the individuals who plotted and ordered the attack are going unpunished.

To no one’s surprise, the controversy continues. Lawyers for al-Megrahi have two weeks to appeal the decision. Mr. Gadhafi has said that next week he will reveal evidence that will prove the defendant’s innocence.

Nor are the families of the victims satisfied. Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 20 years; that works out to about one month for each life lost. Some are also not convinced of his guilt. They point to a key piece of evidence — the timer on the explosive. They argue that blowing up the plane over land makes no sense as a mid-ocean explosion would have destroyed all evidence. Instead, Pan Am 103 exploded exactly 38 minutes after takeoff, which corresponds to the delay resulting from the use of a particular device. Experts testified at the trial that Syrian-based terrorist groups were using precisely that sort of timer. The families are demanding an investigation that includes British and U.S. government officials, but London is unwilling to follow up.

Immediately after the verdict was announced, both the United States and Britain said they would demand that the Libyan government admit responsibility for the bombing and pay compensation to the victims’ relatives. They have insisted that the sanctions against Libya not be lifted until those demands are met. For its part, Libya said that it was owed compensation for the damage done by the sanctions.

Even if Mr. Gadhafi and his government escaped censure, the decision is still a blow. He has been attempting to rehabilitate his international image and had hoped that the trial would end his country’s isolation. The verdict insures that the pressure will not abate.

But the entire affair raises important questions about the efficacy of sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy. The U.S. government believes that the measures forced Libya to cooperate. The questions hanging over the verdict suggest otherwise. Nor have they worked elsewhere; the most notable failure is the continuing standoff with Iraq.

There is no doubt that sanctions exact a toll. The problem is that they rarely hurt the individuals against whom they are directed. Ordinary citizens pay for the misdeeds of their leaders, and the consequences can be tragic. According to UNICEF, in Iraq about one child in 10 under the age of 5 is wasting away from acute malnutrition; more than 20 percent are suffering from chronic malnutrition.

A special committee at the U.N. is studying ways to make sanctions more effective, but it will face opposition from the U.S., which has made sanctions — often unilateral — a preferred instrument of its foreign policy. In addition to Libya, about 75 nations are under some sort of U.S. sanctions. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that he would be reviewing that policy. During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Powell questioned whether sanctions serve U.S. interests and promised to work with Congress to eliminate most of them.

Sanctions have a purpose and can be effective, but only when there is consensus about their use. Agreement by the U.N. to impose such measures is critical for two reasons. First, unilateral measures will not work. Second, consensus means that a government has put itself beyond the pale. Sanctions become an expression of international censure, and that is what it takes to change a state’s behavior. It has taken a long time, but Libya seems to have gotten the message.

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