Mad dogs and Englishmen: Libyas failure to reform

No longer run by the mad dog of Tripoli (in Ronald Reagan’s infamous phrase) but by a “reformed” Muammar Gaddafi, an elder statesman of the Middle East, Libya has recently been rebranding itself.

To put it mildly, Libya used to have an image problem. Support for terrorism (including the IRA), nuclear weapons aspirations, a repressive one-party dictatorship – these charges and more were until recently regularly levelled at the country. But that’s all changed. Libya’s renounced its nuclear programme, paid compensation over Lockerbie and IRA bombings, and Col Gaddafi’s been busy wooing European leaders like Silvio Berlusconi with his extravagant entourages and attractive oil and gas trade deals.

So that’s all hunky dory then? No, not quite. Because, as Amnesty’s new 135-page report shows, the limited human rights reforms of recent years have stalled in Libya. Torture, unfair trials, the jailing of people for political reasons, and the secretive use of the death penalty (including 18 people recently shot by firing squad) – this is the grimey reality behind the newly-painted facade.

Troublingly enough, Libya is one of four countries that Britain has done a “no-torture” deal with in recent years. These so-called “Memoranda of Understanding” are designed to smooth the deportation of “terrorist” suspects out of the UK. Amnesty has criticised them as “not worth the paper they’re written on” (they’re dodgy deals done dirt cheap, to paraphrase AC/DC) and to have them supposedly “monitored” by Gaddafi’s son’s “human rights” foundation is about as unconvincing a guarantee as I can think of.

Actually, despite Libya’s much-trumpeted return to the diplomatic fold, I don’t think many people have been taken in by the “reforms” (an old banger with a new paint job is still an old banger). It’s all very well having Gaddafi fils setting up human rights organisations, but the evidence from human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and ex-prisoners is that very little has changed.

Indeed, wasn’t a clue to be found in the Libyan authorities’ deathless claim that there are “no refugees in Libya”, despite the presence of thousands of asylum claimants from sub-Saharan Africa in Libya. The recent ejection of the UNHCR from Libya is another deeply disturbing move from a country seemingly in deep denial over refugee issues.
You could say that the hot north African sun has peeled away that nicely painted human rights-friendly facade Libya’s been showing the world of late. It’s looking rather grotty to me. As we know, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun and as Col Gaddafi is neither of these things he’ll doubtless prefer to stay cool in one of his big tents. When he steps outside I urge him to take a look at that peeling human rights paintwork and do something about the rotten edifice underneath.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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