By Steve Painter
The United States and Britain are ignoring international law in their insistence that Libya hand over two of its citizens for trial in Britain on charges arising from the 1988 Lockerbie air disaster. The affair took a dangerous new turn last week with moves to have the United Nations Security Council impose an air and arms embargo on the small north African nation.
A draft Security Council resolution supported by the US, Britain and France also calls on governments to reduce Libyan diplomatic representation and impose restrictions on the movements of Libyan representatives. The embargo could endanger civilian lives by targeting spare parts and maintenance services for Libya's air fleet.
A 1953 Libyan law, modelled on British law, prevents the government from extraditing its own citizens to a foreign country. However, Libya has offered to hand over the two to an impartial international tribunal, preferably the World Court, in line with the 1971 Montreal Sabotage Convention.
The Montreal Convention is an international agreement signed by Libya and all the UN Security Council states, with some reservations on the part of France. It provides for trial of suspected terrorists by the courts of their own country, and for referral of disputes among signatories to the World Court. The US and Britain have cast doubt on the reliability of their "evidence" by refusing to refer the case to an impartial tribunal.
In debate on Security Council resolution 731, which condemned Libya's refusal to hand over its citizens, the US and Britain claimed that the Montreal Convention didn't apply in this case, but Francis A. Boyle, a professor of international law at the University of Illinois, points out that it is up to a duly constituted international arbitration tribunal to decide whether the convention applies, not the governments of the United States and Britain.
Boyle also says the US and Britain acted illegally in voting on resolution 731 since they are parties to the dispute, whereas article 27 of the UN Charter provides that "a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting". Boyle says France should also have abstained because it is pursuing allegations against Libyan citizens over a 1989 airline bombing in Niger.
Boyle adds that the US expresses contempt for international law in a statement by US ambassador Thomas Pickering that "the issue at hand is not some difference of opinion that can be mediated or negotiated". The UN Charter requires that disputes be settled by negotiation, mediation, arbitration and judicial settlement, and that "all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state".
Boyle argues that the Security Council acted beyond its powers in adopting resolution 731, because it "does not have any lawful authority or power to adopt a resolution that ignores, abrogates or rinciple of international law mandating the peaceful resolution of international disputes".
In a letter to the March 22 British Guardian Weekly, Libyan representative in Paris Saad Muhber points out that the Libyan government has little reason for confidence its citizens would be dealt with impartially by a British court. "The Birmingham Six, the Tottenham Three, and several other saddening cases of prejudgment that the authorities prefer to call a mere miscarriage of justice" are common knowledge, he writes, "with the victims spending up to 17 years in jail for crimes they never committed".
Saad Muhber reiterates a Libyan offer to allow an "independent commission of investigation to have access to the accused in a neutral country provided a package deal could be reached guaranteeing their accommodation, safety, and their availability only to the commission and no-one else.
"Can reason prevail, or are the Libyans going to be, once more, the victims of the arrogance of power, western electioneering infights, and dubious international deals", Saad Muhber concludes.
Sample letters of protest to the UN Security Council are available from the Hands Off Libya Committee, PO Box 455 Brunswick Vic 3056. Fax (03) 387 8256.