Governments and Libyans

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by Douglas Gregory

One of the luxuries of commentary is hindsight. With this luxury it is easy to call into question the events of recent weeks which have cast Tony Blair and the British government in a poor light for their befriending  of the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi.  It seems that these Libyans can be tricky to deal with and can get you into political strife, as the Scottish government can also attest to with the Al-Megrahi affair.  Is it fair to criticise the actions of these governments, or were they both working in good faith?  Law and diplomacy rarely present simple choices to government ministers.  The options are seldom straightforward but the principles behind decisions should be simple and transparent.  Let’s contrast each government’s actions and motives when dealing with these infamous Libyans.

Both Gaddafi and Megrahi are notorious mass murderers and, as such, politicians should ‘handle with care’:

Megrahi

We will probably never truly know who is guilty of the largest act of terrorism in Scotland.  Lockerbie was an atrocity of international proportions that has rightly been subject to much observation and comment, but much of this has been ill-informed and has pandered towards simplistic populism.    Abdelbaset al-Megrahi remains guilty of this crime under Scots Law, however there remain serious doubts over the safety of his conviction.  The conviction is shrouded in mystery with many calling into question its integrity.  There is the suggestion that powerful forces such as the American CIA have been at work – the waters are certainly muddy and many questions surrounding the case remain unanswered.   Regardless of the ongoing doubts over his conviction Megrahi is still, by Scots Law, guilty of murder and this conviction should be respected – the Scottish government, officially, say his conviction was sound and, as such, Megrahi is a murderer.  

Shunting to one side the humanitarian perspective there is little doubt that Megrahi’s inability to be a good little cancer sufferer and die quietly and quickly has inconvenienced the Scottish government. It has, predictably, given opportunity to political opponents who have little compunction in belittling Scotland and her institutions, never mind the SNP and her government ministers.

Gaddafi

Quite simply, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is a murderous and cruel dictator.  This has been known for decades not weeks.  His actions include the murder of political opponents and hundreds (if not thousands) of Libyan citizens.  His sponsorship of state terrorism is well known.   Everyone knows he is, essentially, a very dodgy man.   Gaddafi’s actions over the last three weeks merely reinforce this truth.   In power since 1969, Gaddafi has had a vice-like grip on Libya and was largely and publicly treated as a dictatorial pariah, his friends were equally dubious and murderous – Slobodan Miloševic being a good example of the sort of company Gaddafi kept.

Gaddafi is not guilty of a single crime, he is guilty of scores, if not hundreds of them.  

Government actions

Governments must tread with care when dealing with murderers, administrations should look to the law to define their relationship with such individuals.  The pursuit of national interest should never diminish or ignore the seriousness of an individual’s crimes, should it?

Megrahi and the Scottish Government

In August 2009, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill made a decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.  There can be no doubt that this was a decision of political bravery; it was clear to the Scottish government that the decision would be misunderstood by many and that their political opponents would make much hay from it.  

However, this was not a political decision.  Kenny MacAskill, as the Scottish Justice Minister, is responsible for the application of Scots Law.  For hundreds of years our legal system has been making distinct, unique decisions, decisions rooted in our world view and belief in humanity.  Many commentators in Scotland and beyond criticised the application of the process of compassionate release.  Compassionate release as a process of Law is well established in Scotland, criticism of Megrahi’s release ignores such precedent.  

It is a subtle yet simple feature of this affair that the application of the law should be blind to individual cases.  Where are the critics now? Are they demanding a change to our compassionate release process?  Why not?  Were they not suggesting that this process was flawed or were they like a blood-thirsty mob, demanding a pound of flesh and ignoring the law.  

Local critics and observers, like the baying pack of Labour-supporting bloggers (slaberers?) criticised the compassion of MacAskill’s decision, mockingly calling it ‘Scottish Compassion TM’.   For some it seemed okay to belittle our respected legal system.  Seemingly all is fair, especially if you can stick the nationalists one in the eye at the same time.  Thankfully the SNP did not buckle.  Give me reasoned compassion and humanitarian perspective any day over knee-jerk politics and opportunism.  

Bizarrely, but not unusually, it took praise from outwith Scotland to give perspective to the Scottish government’s actions.  

The Observer’s contributor Kevin McKenna, one not given to flattery,  gave his honest appraisal two weeks after Megrahi’s release: “This unprepossessing minister of justice sought to ignore all the serried interests of the global supermen.  Instead, he found refuge in the fundamental principles of a judicial system that has served Scotland soundly for more than 400 years”.  Nelson Mandela, a humanitarian and global leader without peer,  fully supported the reasoning behind MacAskill’s compassion.  

Locally, Iain Gray of the Labour Party, lambasted the decision, branding it a disgrace.  Now call me an SNP tribalist and overt critic of the Labour Party, but when you have Mandela and Gray taking diametrically opposite views on a matter that encompasses law, compassion and reason with a dusting of complex geo-political repercussions, I know whose arguments I will lean towards.  One set of observations and comments will be soundly based, neutral and pursuant of fairness and the other will be, well, a little less sophisticated.

Gadaffi and the British Government

There are no laws that govern how a state should interact with a foreign dictator.  There are, however, conventions and laws surrounding the treatment of murderers.  Over the decades Gaddafi has murdered many of his own people, his savage regime has been associated with the oppression of the opposition, the assassination of expatriate leaders and crass nepotism –  the passage of time does not diminish the seriousness of these crimes.  There exists no respected legal system in the world that either discounts murder because it happened years ago or that absolves a national leader of the consequences of his murderous actions.  These are immovable principles that cannot be ignored, but they were ignored by Tony Blair.

Blair’s ‘Deal in the Desert’ in May 2007 has been documented as a low point in a premiership that history will view poorly.  Tony Blair decided that British commercial interests in the shape of oil drilling rights took precedence over established conventions and laws surrounding the treatment of murderers such as Colonel Gaddafi.  There can simply be no other reasonable analysis of Blair’s actions – he was dealing with and befriending a monster in exchange for money in the bank.  Of course Blair’s spin machine suggested that these dealings with Gaddafi were part of a strategy of making our neighbourhood safer ‘bringing Gaddafi in from the cold’.  Nonsense.  This unholy alliance turned a convenient blind eye to the devastating actions of a notorious leader of an inhumane regime already linked to numerous acts of state-sponsored terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s. Blair’s entreating with Gaddafi , at best, tacitly approves Gaddafi’s heinous actions, at worst it said: “That’s okay Muammar, don’t worry about that, it’s not that important…it’s only murder… now these oil fields…”.  

Not content with currying the favour of a murderer, Blair, working out-with his jurisdiction,  attempted to engineer a  Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Gaddafi  in May 2009 to enable the release of the murderer Megrahi.  Blair hoped that this treaty would ensure favourable commercial outcomes for British companies.  Rightly so, the SNP rejected Blair’s tawdry treaty.  The subtleties of these events have confused many, including it would seem US senators and government officials all the way to the top.

The Americans

Any discussion of Megrahi, Gaddafi and the UK government cannot ignore the actions of the American government.  The Americans have almost universally viewed these events through a crude prism.  It is saddening that the predominant global power has such a basic view of right and wrong and that, just like Blair, they are content to sweep aside legal and humanitarian concerns for the benefit of a few bucks.  The hypocrisy of Obama’s administration is surreal, criticising the application of Scots Law whilst their corporations, seemingly with government approval, work with Gaddafi’s regime to exploit commercial opportunities.   The Americans have lost much respect in the last decade with their response to 9/11.  Their actions and reactions to these Libyan events have left many shaking their heads in disbelief.   It is disappointing, I for one did admire much about the Americans but their recent foreign policy actions have become increasingly politicised, pandering to base domestic fears and misinformation.  We shall ask for and accept no lessons from dogmatic Americans in the determining of right and wrong thank you.  

The Labour Party in Scotland

Fast-forward to the present day.  The circumstances surrounding the Megrahi affair have become yet more intriguing.  The duplicity of the Labour UK Government in this affair has been laid bare by the cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report .  Commentators have been kind to Iain Gray the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland.  (He is still their leader? … Right?)  It has been suggested that he was either unaware of his Westminister colleagues’ actions or knew exactly what was happening and was being utterly two-faced.  Let’s stop beating about the bush.  Iain Gray must have, without any shadow of doubt, been aware of what was happening in London.  He has been caught out, why else has he gone to ground?  Iain Gray is a political pygmy when his actions and motives are compared to those of MacAskill.

Upholding the law

At the start of this article I stated: “One of the luxuries of commentary is hindsight.”  It is easy to cast criticism on the British Government and their actions with regard to Colonel Gaddafi, some may say my support of the Scottish Government’s actions are simplistic, but I would suggest that there are clear differences in the approaches of these two governments.

The practice of a just and intelligent legal system is central to all functioning democracies.  Scots Law is based on strong and fair principles that recognise compassion and the complexity of human interactions.  In August 2009 the Scottish Justice Minister upheld our law and put that before his own personal interests, the interests of his government and quite possibly the national interests of Scotland as a whole (given the predictable fallout).  Megrahi remains a convicted criminal, that is undiminished, but MacAskill reminded the world that compassion can and should be an integral feature of the law.  It is a strength of Scots Law and not a weakness.  

In stark contrast the British government engineered a relationship with a known (and more notorious Libyan murderer), Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.  There was no legal or humanitarian basis for this interaction; it was crass commercial interest that drove Blair’s deal in the desert and subsequent flawed Prisoner Transfer Agreement.  Entreating with murderers when you are a powerful leader like Tony Blair transfers some of their blood onto your hands.  

Hindsight has shown that when governments stray from the law they flirt with danger and controversy.  Kenny MacAskill and the Scottish Government can hold their heads up high; their actions and belief in our law have been vindicated.  In contrast Tony Blair, the Labour Party hierarchy and the UK Government should hang their heads in shame.  

Hundreds of Libyans are dying at the hands of a murderous, barbaric dictator – a friend of Tony’s, a man whom Blair considered worthy of an embrace.