Fixing U.N. Sights on Libya

January 30, 1992

When the five veto-bearing members can agree, the United Nations Security Council is a mighty instrument. The Security Council told Iraq to vacate Kuwait; Iraq did not; thanks to the U.N., the U.S. put together the coalition which bombed Iraq and ejected it from Kuwait. That is the precedent that Libya's erratic dictator, Muammar el Kadafi, contemplates while stonewalling a U.N. request to cooperate with French, British and American courts in two airliner bombings.

The genteel U.N. language does not specify what is demanded. It is nothing less than handing over two Libyan citizens accused in British and American courts of the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, in which 270 people died, and four more in a UTA airliner over Niger in 1989, killing 171. These are not ordinary Libyans. They are intelligence officers.

What if Mr. Kadafi does not comply? It is reasonable for him to expect to be bombed. The U.S. did bomb Libyan air bases and a chemical warfare plant in 1986 after the Reagan administration accused it of state terrorism. The Lockerbie bombing is thought to be a retaliation. The U.S. bombed Iraq last year. Mr. Kadafi is reportedly dispersing the inventory of the Rabta chemical warfare plant, now considered the world's largest, in anticipation. The U.S. is getting ready in Geneva negotiations with Russia and 37 other states to ban chemical warfare and begin destruction of stocks. If it found a new reason to act against Libya, chemical warfare capability and stocks would be targeted. Mr. Kadafi understands.

The first step would probably be a civil air embargo, which pilots associations favor. That would relate the punishment to the crime. It would hurt, since Libya is a wealthy country that depends on air links for its citizens and for foreign professionals imported to run key services.

Beyond aviation lies the implied threat of an oil embargo, which in time of glut might work. Libya exports oil to Germany, Italy and Spain. If they don't need Libyan oil -- and in the current market they do not -- these countries might do without. But in a moderate concession, the resolution instructs U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Ghali to try to persuade Libya to comply first. Nothing will happen until he has tried.

The U.N. is plowing new ground in the war against terrorism. The U.S. and Britain lack extradition treaties with Libya. If the Security Council is to be believed, that does not matter. The U.N. resolution was a measured step in the advance of the rule of law for the planet.

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