The year 1997 marked the height of Libya’s isolation from the international community. The regime of Muammar Gaddafi was under strict sanctions from the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, amongst others. For its alleged role in a vicious laundry list of transgressions, including the bombing of a German discotheque, Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, and UTA Flight 772, Libya was castigated as a sponsor of international terrorism. Its leader painted as the embodiment of evil and the “mad dog of the Middle East“.
By 1997, it had also been three years since Apartheid had ended. Nelson Mandela was the immensely popular and universally revered President of South Africa. The country was destined for a more just, fair and egalitarian future. For his role in South Africa’s peaceful transition from autocratic Apartheid to stable democracy, Mandela was considered a saint and joined a select group of individuals whose names would forever be associated with peace and justice.
In that same year, the two men met. According to a New York Times report of the event, Mandela embraced Gaddafi and defiantly criticized the West for its role in ostracizing the Libyan despot:
In Tripoli Mr. Mandela, 79, greeted Colonel Qaddafi with a hug and a kiss on each cheek, saying, “My brother leader, my brother leader, how nice to see you.”
Shortly afterward, he told reporters that he remained unimpressed by American opposition to his mission, adding: ”Those who say I should not be here are without morals. I am not going to join them in their lack of morality.”
Mandela’s visit was undoubtedly a boon for Gaddafi. Just a year earlier, in 1996, Gaddafi had ordered the slaughter of some 1,200 prisoners in the notorious Abu Salim prison massacre. Yet here was Mandela, a man so widely respected that he was largely beyond criticism – from the West or anyone – visiting Tripoli and hugging Gaddafi. For Mandela, the trip was apparently a payment of gratitude for Gaddafi’s support for the anti-Apartheid movement during Mandela’s long imprisonment.
The personal bonds between Mandela and Gaddafi went deep. One of Mandela’s grandsons was named after the deposed Libyan leader. Their political relationship was also close. Mandela was instrumental in brokering the 1999 breakthrough deal between Western states and Libya that brought the Lockerbie suspects to trial. Later, Mandela believed that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi had been wrongfully convicted of the crime, visited him in his Scottish prison, and welcomed his repatriation to Libya in 2009.
At the time of the Lockerbie deal, the South African President intimated that his personal relationship with Gaddafi had produced a political breakthrough and, more importantly, that diplomacy and negotiation must always remain an option:
“No-one can deny that the friendship and trust between South Africa and Libya played a significant part in arriving at this solution… It vindicates our view that talking to one another and searching for peaceful solutions remain the surest way to resolve differences and advance peace and progress in the world.”
Not long afterwards, the West underwent a dramatic volte-face. Libya was politically rehabilitated and shed its pariah status. Within a few short years, Western states were re-engaged in Libya, negotiating political, military and economic contracts. Of course, they also brokered numerous concessions, including the dismantling of Libya’s nascent nuclear and the country’s abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction arsenal. But they did so without guaranteeing any significant improvements in the country’s human rights record – an inconvenient fact often overlooked and swept under the rug by those same Western powers responsible for the regime’s demise in 2011.
Still, whether it was personal bonds, gratitude or sheer politics that led Mandela to meet Gaddafi, at the core of his actions was a consistent philosophy: that no individual, no matter how sinister their transgressions, is beyond the pale; that no regime is beyond reform, diplomacy is always an option; and that we must at least try to negotiate with evil.
What is so admirable about Mandela’s approach was its integrity. It was a model of consistency. Indeed, he had employed precisely the same philosophy during South Africa’s transition. Mandela had every reason to seek vengeance against the guarantors and enactors of Apartheid. Some in his African National Congress party thirsted for vengeance. But he didn’t. Instead he negotiated with his adversaries and included them in the transition. In doing so, he likely avoided a miserable fate: the country falling into disrepair, chaos and retributive violence.
Deciding whether to negotiate with ‘evil’ has become one of the most pressing dilemmas in contemporary international politics. As it is often noted, the space to negotiate with sinister leaders and groups has shrunk in the last two decades. American legislation now prevents any non-governmental organizations from negotiating with groups proscribed as ‘terrorist’, making the crucial work of non-state actors in engaging in non-official negotiations with proscribed groups more difficult. At the same time, the arrest warrants issued by international tribunals are intended to delegitimize warring actors and cut them out of peace negotiations. One of the favourite stories amongst proponents of international criminal justice is that arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for Radko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic prevented them from being at the negotiation table in Dayton – and thus ensured the negotiations’ success. In short, proscription regimes and arrest warrants are both intended – at least to some degree – to demarcate who can and who can’t be negotiated with; who is ‘good’ and who is ‘evil’.
Whether to negotiate with ‘evil’ is an immensely difficult question. Was it right to negotiate with Gaddafi? Can we compare negotiating with the Libyan leader to negotiating with leaders of the Apartheid regime or other dubious actors? Is everyone a legitimate negotiating partner or are there simply some who can’t ever be negotiated with?
Reality probably lies somewhere between “everyone can be negotiated with, no matter what they’ve done” and “no one can be negotiated with if they’ve committed crimes or atrocities”. But the space to negotiate with unsavoury actors has closed more rapidly in recent years than our ability to reflect sufficiently on what that shrinking space means – for the achievement of peace as well as justice.
There has already been an explosion of articles and posts on what we can learn from the life of Nelson Mandela. Regardless of their content, that is a testament to his life in and of itself. Hopefully one of the lessons we glean is how to negotiate between ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
Update: This is a photo of Nelson Mandela visiting Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, whist serving his sentence in a Scottish prison. The photo is courtesy of Ghada Elmghrahi: https://www.facebook.com/gelmghrahi
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