The following was written for and initially published by the Global and Mail, in response to the ongoing scandal surrounding the Canadian government and the Canadian company, SNC-Lavalin.
Canadians have been battered with news about the SNC-Lavalin scandal. The Trudeau government wants to compel people to make a choice: Do we want jobs, or do we want to hold SNC-Lavalin to account for accusations of bribing officials in Libya? But this affair isn’t just about Canada, Canadians or jobs. Holding SNC-Lavalin to account represents an opportunity to challenge the status quo where states and companies can underwrite brutal dictatorships with impunity. It’s an opportunity to tell a different and all too rare kind of story about holding the enablers of autocracy to account.
I first came across SNC-Lavalin when conducting research into the 2011 civil war in Libya. The company’s name popped up in discussions about what (and who) had sustained the regime for so long. At that time, images of then Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi sharing the stage with world leaders were still fresh. A litany of states and businesses – including Western ones – had spent a decade rehabilitating a regime and lavishing it with contracts. Those entities have never been held accountable for their role in legitimizing a regime that would ultimately exchange its accumulated wealth for the weapons and mercenaries needed to commit atrocities against its own people.
What we tend to believe is Mr. Gadhafi went berserk in response to the 2011 uprising in Libya. This isn’t the whole story.
When conflict erupted in Libya, states sought to minimize scrutiny of the previous 10 years. But that decade is crucial to understanding the conditions which sustained the regime and created fertile ground for Mr. Gadhafi’s subsequent atrocities. From about 2002, countries engaged in a concerted effort to rehabilitate the regime in exchange for vague promises of democratization (which didn’t happen), dismantling a nuclear program (which was nascent at best and which Mr. Gadhafi did not fully comply with) and withdrawing support for terrorist organizations (which he did).
A coterie of Western leaders, including former prime minister Paul Martin and former British prime minister Tony Blair, embraced Mr. Gadhafi. Mr. Martin would later say that his visit was a reward for the Libyan leader’s “fundamental shift in position” away from sponsoring terror to being a responsible member of the international community. Britain and Italy (whose former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi “went gaga for Gadhafi”) signed lucrative oil deals with the Libyan leader, who, in turn, promised to tighten controls on immigration from Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean. France, the United States, the European Union and Russia had arms deals. Canada sold Libya almost $250-million in goods in 2010 alone, while SNC-Lavalin allegedly wooed regime figures for contracts.
As I wrote in my book, which covers the Libyan conflict, countries – especially Western ones – tethered the popular notion in the 80s and 90s of Mr. Gadhafi as the “mad dog of the Middle East” to the 2011 image of a lunatic lashing out at his own people. The inconvenient middle bit – the rehabilitation of Mr. Gadhafi and the political, military and financial investment into the regime – fell out the bottom.
This narrative was partially crafted by a United Nations Security Council decision to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC) but which restricted the ICC’s ability to investigate crimes committed in Libya to events after Feb 15, 2011. Typically, the ICC would have had jurisdiction stretching as far back as 2002. By confining the time period that the court could investigate, countries signalled that this was a conflict without roots in the misguided rehabilitation of Mr. Gadhafi or the millions lavished on him and his regime by states and business ventures.
All of this matters because Libya isn’t an isolated case of countries getting rehabilitation wrong. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are two other examples of countries with narratives of alleged progress in which the international community has invested heavily, yet which continue to abuse their own people. As Kate Cronin-Furman writes, “halfway isn’t good enough on human rights.”
If we are to effectively confront those who abuse human rights and commit atrocities, we must also hold to account those actors who enable such crimes. Sometimes that means looking closer to home, at companies or governments that invest in regimes, whether out of greed or because they’ve been duped by the promise of partial progress – or both.
Companies profiting from war and autocracy is nothing new. But they are too rarely held to account. The status quo is one where perpetrators of crimes brought to justice but the businesses and government backers whose actions prolong dictatorships are let off the hook.
By not only ensuring but also supporting the actions of our courts and prosecutors in the SNC-Lavalin case, the government has a rare opportunity to undermine that status quo.
It should take it.