6 August 2007. A World to Win News Service. After many months of bargaining, Libya handed over – directly into the hands of the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy – the six medics accused of deliberately injecting children with the HIV virus. The next day, 25 July, Sarkozy flew to Libya where he signed two weapons deals and a nuclear power plant contract with Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, leaving behind representatives of France’s main military hardware and other strategic companies to negotiate more business.
The head of Bulgaria’s intelligence services, General Kirtcho Kirov, explained the affair like this: The fate of the Bulgarian medics was “only a grain of dust in the eye of an enormous hurricane where gigantic interests converge. I knew that big arms contracts and oil concessions would come out of it.” (24-Tchassa, 30 July, cited in Le Monde). He said that the secret services of some 30 countries were involved in the wheeling and dealing, including those of US, Italy, Israel, Palestinian organizations and Arab states.
That this affair was a sordid example of human trafficking in diplomatic disguise is pretty obvious to many people. But the aims of the players, who really came out ahead and what they won needs a little examination.
First there is Gaddafi, who styles himself “Leader and Guide of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” (“state of the people”). When he came to power in a 1969 military coup against the Western-backed monarchy, Colonel Gaddafi promised to free the country from the clutches of the imperialist powers that drained its oil. Just how little Libya has changed under his leadership can be seen in his current desperation to sign new contracts with Western oil companies to renew the country’s aging oil facilities and keep its elite afloat on the oil import money that still accounts for 80 percent of its income.
In 1999, when the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian intern were arrested, Gaddafi announced that they had deliberately poisoned more than 400 Libyan children as part of an Israeli and/or American plot to destabilize his government. By releasing those medics now in return for business deals with France and other big powers, Gaddafi is either betraying the children and the people, or admitting that the whole thing was a lie in the first place.
Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islma Gaddafi, who spoke to reporters from the French daily Le Monde, was more candid. He said that the local authorities had used the six as “scapegoats”. (Le Monde, 1 August) He called the settlement “a good deal” for all concerned.
The official deal – the part both sides are admitting to – was that in return for the six to be delivered to Cécilia Sarkozy, the families of the children would get about a million dollars each. The fact that neither of the governments involved nor the European Union seems to know exactly how many children are involved – after eight years – is one sign that not much attention is being paid to them in all this. (There are said to be at least 400, of whom more than 50 have died of AIDS so far). European experts have pointed out that a million dollars won’t be enough to pay for the lifetime medical bills these children face, including for the treatment in Europe they have been promised. When Gaddafi’s government was accused of involvement in the 1988 bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, the US forced it to pay 10 million dollars for each of the dead victims. Concern for the children and their future doesn’t seem to be a part of this deal. According to Gaddafi’s son, Sarkozy was not quite lying when he said that the French government had not provided the money, but that it had “organized” the cash, presumably from French-friendly Arab governments.
The son’s use of the word “scapegoat” seems correct. The city of Benghazi was a focal point of rivalry to Gaddafi senior from within the Libyan ruling class. A magazine provoked national outrage in 1989 when it first broke the story of the hundreds of children who had become HIV-positive in the hospital there. The six were convenient scapegoats because some people were jealous of Bulgarian and Palestinian professionals working in Libya during the Western embargo. An international investigation later came to the conclusion that the worst local HIV epidemic ever had broken out before the six had started working at the hospital. It suggested that the real culprit was the lack of adequate medical supplies such as fresh syringes and catheters. One question the West doesn’t seem to want to answer: Was the US-sponsored embargo on Libya a major factor in this situation?
But there is no reason to suppose the Benghazi local authorities were the prime movers behind the eight-year-long persecution of the medics. Gaddafi’s police tortured them Guantanamo-style until they confessed. His court system granted them retrials and then reconvicted them and reaffirmed their death sentences repeatedly, in line with the ups and downs of the regime’s negotiations with the West. The European Union dropped sanctions against Libya in 2004, and by 2006 an American ambassador was once again in place, but there have been repeated disputes over the terms of the country’s “reintegration” into the world economic and political system dominated by the great powers.
Gaddafi’s son told the US magazine Newsweek dated 13 August, “It’s an immoral game, but they made the rules, and now the Europeans are paying the price.” This, too, is misleading. Actually, it’s Libya that’s paying the price, Libya and its people alone, and the European powers are going to get nothing but richer and more powerful with the further extension of their political and economic control over the country and the region.
Obviously what the Libyan pimp regime would get out of its prostitution of the country was one question, but the far bigger and most basic question was which Western imperialists would get Libya, a country with huge oil and gas fields and reserves, uranium and other resources and potentially huge sources of profit just waiting to be plucked. Even though the EU officially dropped its embargo on Libya several years ago, no Western country was able to make any big deals until recently. Jockeying and mutual blocking between the big powers seems to be at least part of the reason. Germany, for instance, has made it plain that they have wanted the EU to hold France back.
As Sarkozy himself pointed out when he was criticized for this dirty dealing, France was not the first power in this gold rush. “It’s better to come after than before” the six were released he said, an implicit slap at UK Prime Minister Tony Blair who had visited Gaddafi in May for the signing of British mega-contracts. This was Sarkozy’s way of trying to claim the high moral ground in the swamp of imperialist interests. “What am I supposed to be criticized for, that I got work for French companies?” he said in his own defence. Until Sarkozy stepped in, Great Britain, Germany, the US and Italy all seemed to be ahead of France in getting a foot into Libya’s door, Le Monde complained. Immediately after, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced she would be on her way to Tripoli shortly.
The reasons for France’s apparent success so far have less to do with Sarkozy’s charm and more with its traditional economic and political influence in Libya and that part of Africa and the fit between its imperialist interests and what Libya has to offer. “A major arms supplier to Libya before its adventurism in Chad chilled Franco-Libyan relations, France is well placed to provide Libya with much-needed help in building superhighways, trains, satellite systems, and civil engineering, aerospace and defence projects,” wrote the American-owned International Herald Tribune 25 July.
The arms deals, amounting to less than half a billion dollars, are relatively small potatoes. The deal between the Libyan government and France’s nuclear group Areva promises much more. Thanks to its agreement with the US to give up its nuclear programme, Libya has a large stockpile of uranium waiting to be shipped, which is particularly welcome as world uranium supplies tighten. Further, Areva may be heavily involved not only in building and running nuclear power plants in Libya, including, Gaddafi’s son said, with the idea of selling electricity to Italy, but also prospecting for much more underground. Further, Libya seems to lending its military muscle to helping Areva in its efforts to retain keep out the US and retain exclusive French control over Niger, Libya’s neighbour and one of the world’s main sources of uranium. Even as Sarkozy was buying Libya on the cheap, Areva was paying a lot more for a major Canadian uranium mining company, reinforcing the position of the French monopoly as the world’s number three extractor of this strategic mineral.
French arms for Libya may be mostly a matter of putting French arms and interests in Libyan hands to further French interests in neighbouring Chad, Niger, Sudan and other countries in the region. The involvement of the secret services of Morocco and Algeria in this affair, according to the Bulgarian general, two more countries traditionally dominated by France, despite recent American efforts, seems to go along with Sarkozy’s public statements about making Libya a cornerstone of a French-dominated “Union of Mediterranean States”.
However, while doing its best to get the upper hand over its rivals, by hook or by crook, in true gangster style France seems to think it wise to cut them into the deal as well. The arms contracts signed so far give the UK, Germany and Italy, in particular, a piece of the action. Sarkozy’s departure for a high-profile vacation in the US immediately after his Libyan business trip would seem to signal acceptance of American imperialist supremacy – on French terms. This is a fine example of what Karl Marx meant when he called capitalism “an operating fraternity of thieves.”