Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Monday, 7 September 2009 13:32 UK

The key to understanding Libya

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Gordon Brown and Colonel Gaddafi
There has been a gradual rehabilitation of Libya in the eyes of the west

The British government's decision to provide support for efforts to get compensation from Libya for IRA victims is part of a complex diplomatic process that has been going on between Britain and Libya for 15 years.

During these extensive manoeuvres there have been ups and downs. The British inability to persuade the Libyans to pay that compensation has been one of the downs.

But there was also an up in the IRA affair.

In 1995 Libya not only formally admitted that it had given weapons and explosives to the Provisional IRA (everyone knew it was involved, because the vessel Claudia was captured in Irish waters in 1973 loaded with arms from Libya) but went beyond that and provided the British with all the details.

That was important information for the British, but for the Libyans, giving compensation on top of information was a step too far.

The British government has in the past accepted Libyan refusals to pay anything and it must be doubtful whether these new efforts - announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Berlin on Sunday - will lead anywhere. Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, said immediately that Libya will resist such demands.

But Mr Brown feels that he must make another try, it seems.

Backed down

The key to understanding dealings with Libya is that its leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is, unlike Iraq's Saddam Hussein, a survivor.

Although he has a track record of engaging in reckless actions, it has also become apparent that when confronted with the consequences of these actions, he has backed down. He has weighed up the threats - sanctions, isolation and, he might have felt, even military action post Iraq, and has made his choices.

The IRA case was one example. Lockerbie was another. He handed over two of his agents, Megrahi and a colleague who was acquitted, to the Scottish authorities and eventually paid compensation for the Lockerbie victims.

He also climbed down in spectacular fashion in December 2003 after the US and UK had caught him red-handed trying to import uranium enrichment centrifuges without the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency. A ship was intercepted in the Mediterranean carrying them.


Libya briefed the IAEA on its secret nuclear programme and gave it up.

The reward for all this has been a gradual but sure process of rehabilitating Libya in the eyes of the Western world.

Sanctions have been dropped and diplomatic relations restored.

There are two forces at work here. The first is that the US and UK want to show that there are benefits for those who play by the rules. Colonel Gaddafi must therefore get rewards for his corrective behaviour.

Strong card

The second is that there are potential riches for the West in the new openings to exploit Libya's oil wealth. Hence the rush to Libya by Western companies and the wooing of the colonel himself and his influential son.

That in turn has given Libya a strong card. It used that card to force the British government to agree on a prisoner transfer agreement designed to enable Megrahi to be returned home.

In the event the Scottish government, in whose hands justice matters in Scotland reside, did not use the PTA but decided on a compassionate release instead.

Libya is now resisting the victims' demands for IRA compensation and there is not much the British government can do about it.

Its only hope is that the colonel remains ready to make yet another gesture.

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