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Qaddafi’s Libya: from pariah state to U.N. luminary and back again

In the past week, Tripoli has been sanctioned in the U.N. Security Council, suspended as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, and its ruling family is subject to an investigation by the International Criminal Court. Even the country’s own diplomats don’t want to have anything to do with the regime. But it hasn’t ...

President Moamer Kadhafi of Libya, waves before speaking to the United Nations General Assembly September 23, 2009 at UN headquarters in New York. Kadhafi, known for his long, rambling speeches on the history of the Arab people, usually delivered from his nomad tent, will step up to the UN podium for the first time in his four-decade rule.AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past week, Tripoli has been sanctioned in the U.N. Security Council, suspended as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, and its ruling family is subject to an investigation by the International Criminal Court. Even the country’s own diplomats don’t want to have anything to do with the regime.

But it hasn’t always been like that.

Until Muammar al-Qaddafi initiated an ongoing bloody crackdown against a nationwide series of protests, putting his own 41-year rule into jeopardy, Libya had been enjoying its status as a sort of United Nations all-star.

Less than six months ago, Libya held the presidency of the 192-member U.N. General Assembly, the world’s most representative institution. Until the end of 2009, Libya served as a temporary member of the U.N. Security Council, a position that gave Qaddafi an influential role in negotiating disputes from Darfur to the Middle East. Until Tuesday, Libya was also a member in good standing at the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Once called an “evil man” by the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Qaddafi’s government largely played to type through the 1970s and 1980s. Libya was an international rogue regime whose agents allegedly shot a British national near the Libyan Embassy in London, killed 2 U.S. Marines at a nightclub in Berlin, and orchestrated the destruction of French and American passenger planes.

The U.N. Security Council responded by imposing an air, arms, and partial oil equipment embargo on Libya in 1992 and 1993. In so doing, the U.N. hoped to compel Qaddafi’s government to surrender two Libyan agents, including Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, to stand trial for their alleged role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, including 11 on the ground. The United States, meanwhile, successfully derailed Libya’s attempts to secure leadership posts at the United Nations, effectively blocking its bids for a Security Council seat in 1995 and 2000.

But Qaddafi’s relationship with the West thawed in the 1990s as the Libyan leader pursued international legitimacy by halting terrorist threats against the United States, expelling the Abu Nidal terrorist organization from Libya, and agreeing to cooperate with the pending Pan Am bombing trial. The Libyan leader also smoothed the way by agreeing to write a $2.7 billion check to cover the costs of a legal settlement that awarded $10 million to each relative of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing.

Qaddafi’s rehabilitation started shortly thereafter, with diplomatic entreaties by Britain, which restored diplomatic relations in 1999. That same year, the Clinton administration agreed to allow the Security Council to suspend U.N. sanctions against Tripoli.

But it was the Bush administration that brought about the full restoration of diplomatic relations with Libya, removing it from a list of state sponsors of its terrorism and lifting a ban on American investments in Libya’s oil fields. Secretary of State Colin Powell as well as his successor, Condoleezza Rice, held meetings in New York with high-level Libyan officials, including Qaddafi’s son, Mutassim-Billah, and Musa Kusa, the Libyan intelligence chief who was once barred from the United States because of his suspected links to terrorist activities. Condoleezza Rice traveled to Libya in September 2008, meeting with Qaddafi in a building compound that was bombed by U.S. jets in 1986, killing one of Qaddafi’s daughters.

For the Bush administration, Libya, which agreed to abandon a nascent nuclear weapons program, offered an example of America’s willingness to make peace with its former adversaries.

Qaddafi intently leveraged his newfound relationship with the United States and other Western countries to secure a larger role on the diplomatic stage, culminating with his 2009 speech before the U.N. General Assembly.

Kathleen Flynn, whose son, J.P., died in the Pan Am attack, sat in the General Assembly visitors gallery as Libya received the support of 178 of 192 U.N. members in a secret ballot for its seat on the U.N. Security Council. “I thought it was a very sad day at the United Nations for us and for Americans in general,” Flynn told me at the time. “We have now let a terrorist nation that blew up an American plane and killed 270 innocent people from 21 countries … have a seat on the U.N. Security Council.”

Qaddafi’s brutal crackdown in recent weeks has quickly sparked a consensus in Washington that Libya requires immediate regime change. “When the only way a leader can cling to power is by grossly and systematically violating his own people’s human rights, he has lost any legitimacy to rule,” Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in the General Assembly after Libya’s membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council was suspended. “He must go, and he must go now.”

Here are some recent highlights of the Qaddafi regime’s tenure at the United Nations:

  • Libya’s former foreign minister, Ali Abdussalam Treki, is elected president of the U.N. General Assembly in 2009.
  • Libya is elected by 178 of the U.N. 192 members to a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council, for 2008 and 2009.
  • Libya is elected as a member of the UN. Human Rights Council in May 2010
  • Muammar al-Qaddafi’s daughter Ayesha is designated in 2009 a national U.N. goodwill ambassador in Libya by the U.N. Development Program.
  • Qaddafi is elected chair of the African Union in 2009.
  • Libyan official Najat Al-Hajjaji served as the chair of the bureau of the preparatory committee for the 2009 U.N. World Conference Against Racism, also known as Durban II.
  • Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi hosts United Nations-African Union brokered peace talks on Darfur in his hometown, Sirte, in October 2007.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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