United Nations -Libya’s place on the United Nations Security Council never promised to be a smooth ride, but the North African nation’s brashness since joining the council last year has become a major headache for the world body.
Last January, Libya took its place on the 15-member council for a two-year term. While the United States previously had opposed Libya taking this position, in recent years Washington has led a push to welcome Moammar Qaddafi back into the fold of the international community, due to his willingness to give up a nuclear program and to renounce terrorism.
Tripoli has sided with Western countries on the crucial issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions by voting in favor of a third round of sanctions against Tehran earlier this year, but Libya’s representative has shown no hesitance in speaking out on issues having to do with the Middle East. After months of simmering tensions over Libya’s aggressive posturing, matters came to a head last week when several Western envoys took the unusual step of walking out of a Security Council session after the Libyan envoy compared the situation in Gaza to Nazi concentration camps.
Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, warned that this was a result of opening the Security Council to a “terrorist state,” a swipe at Washington’s decision last year to lift its decades-long opposition to Libya’s candidacy to a council seat. The flare-up has exposed the tensions created by the willingness of the United States and some European countries to reward Libya for its cooperation in recent years.
“This sometimes feels like 30 years ago, in the heyday of the anti-Israel mantra,” a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “But the Libyans are much more subtle and constructive on Iran, and this is really important, including for Israel.”
Following secret negotiations with the United States and Britain, Libya agreed in 2003 to halt its nuclear and chemical weapons programs and to compensate victims of terrorist attacks, prompting a lifting of U.N. and American sanctions and, in 2006, Libya’s removal from America’s list of terrorist sponsors. As a result, Qaddafi has been visited and hosted by Western leaders, while American and European energy companies have been jockeying for contracts with the oil-rich former pariah state.
The United States had opposed Libya’s candidacy to become one of the 10 nonpermanent members of the council two years ago, but Washington changed tack last year and did not oppose Tripoli’s two-year membership when it was presented by the Arab group.
Since taking his country’s seat on the council, Libya’s ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, has exchanged accusations of state terrorism with Israeli officials and blocked compromises on a number of resolutions or statements. In early March, Libya backed out, at the last minute, of a compromise on a presidential statement on Gaza, which requires the unanimous approval of the council’s 15 members. A few days later, Libya refused to support a council statement condemning a Palestinian gunman’s killing of eight Israeli seminary students in Jerusalem unless the statement also included a condemnation of Israeli actions in Gaza.
“This is what happens when the Security Council is infiltrated by terrorists,” Gillerman declared at the time, to which Dabbashi retorted, “We don’t need a certificate of good conduct from the Israeli terrorist regime or its representative here.”
Last week, the 15-member council was trying to agree on a similar text about the humanitarian situation in Gaza in a private session, when the Libyan envoy lashed out and made the remarks about the concentration camps. This led the American and French envoys to leave the chamber. When the British, Belgian, Croatian and Costa Rican envoys followed, the session was adjourned. Several diplomats and U.N. officials said they could not remember a similar incident in recent years.
American deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff told reporters that the remarks “reflect a degree of historical ignorance and moral insensitivity that is one of the large reasons this council has been unable to act on Middle East issues and why peace in the Middle East is so difficult.”
Far from backing down, Dabbashi only amplified his remarks when questioned.
“It is more than what happened in the [Nazi] concentration camps,” Dabbashi told reporters. “There is the bombing, daily bombing [by Israel]… in Gaza. It was not in the concentration camps.”
Libya has since summoned Western ambassadors to explain the walkout.
Carolyn Vidino, a spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the U.N, said, “We have denounced the remarks as outrageous,” but she added that no further steps were being considered to punish Libya. “They also have been helpful on Iran sanctions, so we’ll have to wait and see how they behave in the coming weeks.”
Israel, though, is pushing for a firmer stance. Gillerman noted that as a result of Libya’s “irresponsible behavior,” the council was totally paralyzed on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. “Libya has de facto veto power because it refuses to compromise on any statements,” he told a luncheon briefing sponsored by The Israel Project last week. “We have never seen this before, and there needs to be a rethinking of the criteria to become a council member…. No corporate board or no private club would accept Libya as a member.”
In addition to Israel’s misgivings, a group of lawmakers led by Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is trying to block funding for a new American Embassy in Tripoli until Libya finalizes a compensation settlement for American families of victims of several attacks, including the bombing of Pan Am 103 and the 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque.
Human rights advocates also argue that the West’s embrace of Qaddafi has been too hasty.
“By and large, Libya has been given a free pass on the human rights side of the ledger,” said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. “Libya’s record remains dire, and it has not changed since the thawing of relations with the West.”