Libya's Turn

April 01, 1992

United Nations sanctions against Libya, limited as they are, mark the Security Council's latest imposition of mandatory sanctions against a rogue regime. It also took action against Iraq for invading Kuwait in August 1990, and Iraq's defiance led to the gulf war and the crackdown on Iraqi weapons-making that has come after.

In shutting down Libya's civil aviation link with the world, the Security Council has sought a punishment to fit the crime of airliner sabotage. The world community demands that Libya produce for trial the six suspects in the destruction of an American plane over Scotland in 1988 and a French airliner over Niger the next year with a combined death toll of 441. Since the suspects are Libyan intelligence officers, the dictator Muammar el Kadafi must want to loyally protect his agents and prevent their testifying. This is not, from his perspective, an easy order with which to comply.

It is, finally, the calling of accounts on state-sponsored terrorism. A cynic might argue that the world is getting tough only with regimes that are easy to put in the dock -- and the cynic would be right. But the United Nations is setting precedents of enormous scope. Its range of punishments are open-ended. Right now, in addition to the cut off of air links, the Security Council has embargoed arms sales and called for the reduction of Libyan missions abroad. If more pressure is needed, especially with Libya effectively making foreign workers hostages by refusing them exit visas, the world organization should consider oil and shipping embargoes, and the seizure of assets.

Libya's 4-plus million people are supported by oil and gas which constitute 95 percent of their exports. In times of oil shortage, that would give Libya the whip hand over Italy, its biggest customer, and Germany, second biggest. But oil is in glut and OPEC has virtually ceased to function. Those European countries, which would not lightly thwart the U.S., Britain and France, can find ample oil elsewhere and would be decisive if a second stage of sanctions was sought. That is the eventuality Mr. Kadafi is writhing to evade.

True, there is the end possibility of military action. The Reagan administration's bombing raids on Libya in 1986, as reprisal for acts of terrorism, gave many Americans satisfaction. They did not, however, teach Mr. Kadafi a lesson in behavior, not if the U.S. indictment of Libyan intelligence officers for subsequent sabotage is correct.

The pressure now must be on Libya to allow foreign workers to leave. And to track Libyan assets invested abroad. The five abstentions in the Security Council vote was a caution to the big powers. This game must be played with firmness and patience, but not in a way to affront the bulk of the Third World. The lofty yet limited object, ending terrorism and bringing six suspects to justice, must be kept in mind.

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