He may be a SOB but at least he’s our SOB

Applicable to the oil situation in Libya, it would seem. A year ago, French president Nicholas Sarkozy intervened to free European workers who were tortured by the government. Human rights suddenly came to the forefront of the agenda vis a vis Tripoli. And suddenly all our attention was drawn to Northern Africa and to the brutalities of the Gaddafi regime.

The question before us now is, can we do anything to stop human rights violations in Libya? What can we do? And most importantly, is external intervention really going to do anything? The answers, it seems, involve international trade – especially in natural resources.

It’s getting tougher and tougher to find sources of oil, and cheap oil. African countries are coming back on the radar because several of them – Libya for example – are rich in it. France, Britain and Spain recently signed oil deals worth millions of dollars, coolly forgetting that Libyan leader Gaddafi is on nearly every black-list. Reagan famously called him the “mad dog of the Middle East” and he’s been denounced time and again for sponsoring terrorists. Libya is now “swimming in petro-dollars”, according to an unnamed source in a British think-tank; dollars funded by European, Asian and American governments. It would seem that these politicians will stand by their morals at any cost. That is, until those they’ve accused turn around and wave something shiny in their faces.

After two decades of sanctions, Tripoli finally opened itself up to investigations into its nuclear program. Deals were made with Western powers, and external influences became visible.

The AIDS epidemic that ravaged the continent in the 1990s was one of the worst waves seen by the international community. The Libyan government, needed someone or something to blame and unwilling to accept the truth, claimed it was a foreign attack. All outsiders became the target; arrests and interrogations became more and more common. The details of these torture methods have only been revealed within the last few years.

When the situation got out of hand, Sarkoczy stepped in to bring home the Europeans taken captive and tortured. In a meeting in Paris, Gaddafi’s entourage was followed by a 100-car motorcade and sections of Paris were cordoned off. The Louvre was emptied and to all intents and purposes, Gaddafi was treated like royalty by the same government who had dismissed him as a terrorist and oppressor.

Naturally, this display of diplomacy and simple political games outraged several of his colleagues in the French National Assembly – an opposition speaker declared it “an affront and humiliation for France. It’s descending into tragi-comic farce.” Sarkoczy was criticised for “treating France as a doormat for wiping off the blood of his victims.”

When questioned about this meeting, the French president claimed that human rights in Libya were discussed but that the Libyan leader would not budge; and that pragmatic solutions to the issue were discussed. The French press, public and even fellow politicians have jumped on these claims, insisting that he no longer has any desire to help Libya or deliver justice there. Now that he has secured the safe return of these Europeans, he feels his work is done and he no longer has any responsibility to the justice system in Libya.

Alongside these developments, oil deals have been made between Western powers and the Libyan government. BP has signed its largest exploration deal ever, exploring 17 gas wells. Libya has the 8th largest store of oil in the world and has 1.3 trillion cubic metres of natural gas that multinationals hope to tap into. So far Shell, BP and a consortium of Italian companies have signed deals with billions of dollars for oil access. The US and Russian governments have also signed on for a slice of these profits and are looking to invest heavily over the next few decades.

What connection could there be between such oil deals and improving domestic human rights? It seems that the Libyan government is keen to impress its foreign investors and is trying to boost its international reputation by at least appearing to do something about its appalling state of domestic affairs.

The Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation is an NGO set up by his son Saif Al-Islam Muammar Gaddafi. Seeking to write some of the wrongs that have plagued Libyan society, this NGO has actually managed some tangible results since its conception in 2003.

In its own words: “The Foundation adopts principles that define and guide its functions such as maintaining and protecting human rights, and fundamental liberties, developing civil society and its organizations, promoting charitable voluntary work, establishing cooperation relations among societies to consolidate the team work supporting the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the vulnerable segments in the community, such as the poor, the needy, orphans, and the handicapped. It also provides humanitarian aid for war and disaster victims wherever they are…A number of non-governmental societies are working under the banner of the Foundation and supervision in different fields, to practice their humanitarian and development activities, to render service for mankind and to bring about progress, prosperity and to maintain his rights.”

The Foundation has helped the release of various detainees across the globe, among them several members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has been heralded across Northern Africa as a key player in the fight to improve human rights and has facilitated huge reforms in social thinking, at least in comparison to what they were a decade ago.

These developments have been possible through foreign investment, particularly in Libyan natural resources. The debate about whether or not foreign investment to such a scale should be allowed is for another day – let’s look at what it’s got right in this case. We’re seeing a country in which the leader is attempting to right some of his wrongs in the past, by at least acknowledging that there is a human rights problem to fix, and that change needs to come to Libya if it is to move forward. For an oppressive and tyrannical leader to recognise this is of huge significance and is a sign of forward-thinking times. Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves and make mountains of molehills. We should also be careful not to expect too much too soon. Africa runs on its own time, and it should be allowed to do so.

There is still more work to do, but it looks as though – in this case at least – , foreign investment may not be such a wart on the face of society as we would think. There is still an atmosphere of fear in the nation, what with due process being eliminated from the legal system. Asylum seekers will tell you hair-curling stories of torture and brutality; and the minority population of ethnic Burbas are so oppressed they won’t even speak to the media about their treatment.

Libyans have commented that foreign firms don’t care about their condition and their well-being – all that’s on their minds are making a good deal, securing long-term profits and making sure it’s all done and dusted. They go back to their air-conditioned offices and forget about the potential repercussions, good and bad, of their actions. Europe has been said to be in “a honeymoon period” with Libya, local analysts comment. The European Commission has recently opted to return human rights to its place at the top of the international agenda when discussing rogue states like Libya. Let’s hope that with all this money and affluence pouring in, and the scope of development projects like the Gaddafi Foundation’s, that we see some more tangible progress through trade. If nothing else, we’ll view oil companies better.

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