If it is correct that Libya has finally agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the relatives of the 270 victims of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 above Lockerbie in December 1988 and, far more importantly, is to take responsibility for the attack, the implications are considerable and unsettling.
On one level, the end of international sanctions which is supposed to follow will come as a huge relief to the Libyan people, who have suffered 15 years of economic and political isolation. Unemployment is put at 30 percent and economic stagnation has robbed tens of thousands of bright young graduates of proper career opportunities. The recent liberalization of the private sector will doubtless accelerate once Libya returns to its former place in the world.
But on another level it remains deeply disturbing that a sovereign state is about to admit that it was involved in a heinous act of terrorism. Even though one of the two members of the Libyan intelligence service who were eventually tried for their part in placing the bomb remains in prison (his colleague was found not guilty by an international court), it hardly seems possible that this man alone was responsible.
The question is how a public letter of confession to the United Nations, which is what is being demanded of it, will in any way ease the position of the Libyan government. The authorities in Tripoli have no doubt all along reasoned that compliance with this demand would hardly be the end of the matter.
Col. Qaddafi’s government therefore finds itself between a rock and a hard place. If it actually knows the truth behind the Lockerbie bombing, admitting involvement as part of a legal settlement, it is almost certain, despite any guarantees to the contrary, to ignite claims for a further and possibly more extreme reckoning. If in reality it has no real idea of what happened, it has done itself no service by failing for the last 15 years to try and establish what really took place in the run-up to that fateful December day.
Qaddafi has worked hard to restore Libya’s international reputation. Libya is shortly hosting the first Pan-African oil conference and chairing a meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission. Yet the shadow of Lockerbie has always hung over such efforts. The Libyans have hoped that time would distance them from the devastating accusation of being a state that sponsored terrorism. But the bereaved relatives of Pan Am Flight 103 have acted as a slowly burning fuse. The moment the Libyan government bows to their demand to admit responsibility for Lockerbie, another terrible detonation could take place.
Libya looks to be damned if it does and certain to continue to be damned it doesn’t.