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. Continue reading