Lessons from Libya and the PM’s apology to Belhaj

With our Prime Minister’s full and frank apology in May 2018 to Abdel Hakim Belhaj for the government’s role in his rendition to Libya and subsequent torture, a line of sorts was drawn under the relationship that had existed with Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. From that perspective it makes it easier for that relationship to be characterized as simply a regrettable mistake.

But to do so would dismiss the fact that the clandestine dialogue between British envoys and Gaddafi’s officials led to the end of the Libyan WMD programmes and the state-sponsored terrorism that had killed many Europeans and Americans. The secret dialogue, with which I was involved, eventually became public – epitomized by the embrace between then Prime Minister Tony Blair and Muammar Gaddafi in the desert. That was a momentary image that signalled lucrative oil and business deals, and opened the door to many Libyans who wanted a Western education.

On one level it is easy to decry all this as a cynical relationship built on sand. After all, if Gaddafi had been sincere about his change of direction, why did senior members of his regime subsequently – and so flagrantly – ignore human rights in their persecution of dissidents and protesters in Benghazi? This abuse led to Gaddafi’s loss of power and ultimately to his death. The leopard had clearly not changed his spots and – the argument goes – our government had either been duped or had wittingly ignored reality, in exchange for hubris and cash. As a result few tears were shed in the West when Gaddafi was killed.

But, on another level, efforts to talk with dishonourable men can themselves be honourable and lead to positive outcomes. Rather than castigate the interlocutors on our side for their lack of judgment and their gullibility, better to acknowledge a sincere effort to have tried everything short of war – which then truly becomes the weapon of last resort when all else fails. This is currently playing out in conflicts involving Iran, Syria, Yemen, Israel and Palestine. Thus the error is not in talking and in looking for common ground, but rather in not thinking through and preparing for the possibility that the talking does not bear fruit. In effect, there must always be a Plan B.

Those of us who have been personally engaged at both ends of that spectrum – who have enabled or participated in talks and who have – when talking has failed – been instruments of legal violence, will attest to the importance of communication. After all, without first having made every effort to engage by other means, how can the use of force be truly a last resort?

A longer version of this blog, including references to Sinn Fein, the IRA, Hamas and Hizbollah, will be found at www.deverellassociates.com/published-articles/ by June 2018