It was a second return to Malta for Libyan ambassador SAADUN SUAYEH when presenting his credentials in August. He tells Kurt Sansone his country has come a long way on issues of concern for the West.
Immigrants tell shocking stories of abuse at the hands of Libyan security authorities in their attempt to reach Europe but the recently appointed Libyan ambassador will have nothing of that.
Dr Saadun Suayeh denies his country is guilty of human rights abuses and insists Libya feels “wronged” by the whole issue of illegal immigration.
Soft-spoken and an academic specialising in linguistics, Dr Suayeh does qualify his statement when pressed, insisting that “nobody’s record is perfect”.
He says Libya has “a huge problem” with immigration and his country is open to scrutiny on the matter.
“Libya is open to any independent investigation as far as immigration is concerned. We have borders with all sub-Saharan Africa, with many immigrants crossing over through the desert. We try to help by providing shelter and food,” he says, adding that most of them enter Libya to work – not to seek political asylum.
The claim that Libya is open to any independent investigation jars with a decision taken earlier this year to kick out the representative office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from the country.
Dr Suayeh is not deterred by the argument, insisting that Libya did not kick out the UNHCR, because “to begin with” the office was not operating legally.
“The UNHCR office had no official status and it was operating from within the United Nations Development Project office. For a while it was allowed to perform its activities for humanitarian reasons.
“However, it overstepped its limits, doing things it was not supposed to do in terms of Libyan sovereignty, and this was the reason the UNDP was asked to discontinue its presence in that office,” he says without going into the violations against Libyan sovereignty. However, Libya continues to cooperate fully with UNDP, he adds.
Dr Suayeh talks to The Sunday Times from his office on the first floor of the Libyan embassy in Balzan, which overlooks the valley between Attard and Żebbuġ that is covered in a luscious green carpet.
“I love the Maltese countryside in winter,” he says, looking out from the Moorish windows.
The stairs leading up to the office are dominated by a very large portrait of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in sunglasses – a reminder of the towering figure who still dominates Libyan politics more than 40 years after coming to power in a bloodless coup.
At 68, Mr Gaddafi still manages to shock with an eccentric foreign policy – a mixture of brinkmanship, shotgun diplomacy and wild statements – that often makes the headlines. The most recent, in August, was his request for €5 billion a year from the EU to help Libya tackle the problem of illegal immigration.
Speaking while visiting Italy, Mr Gaddafi underpinned his request by warning Europe that illegal immigration by Africans would reach frightening proportions and lead to “a black Europe”.
When asked whether the financial request was realistic and why the scaremongering, Dr Suayeh deciphers what he describes as Mr Gaddafi’s “symbolic message”.
“The issue is not whether the amount is realistic or not but that immigration is a problem. Leader Gaddafi was, in a symbolic way, emphasising the importance of the issue. Regardless of figures, what is being emphasised is that we need help,” he says, pointing out that the cooperation agreement reached with the EU set the right tone even if it watered down the financial claim to €50 million over three years.
The money will not be a direct cash injection but instead used to provide Libya with logistical support and resources.
But was Mr Gaddafi trying to frighten the European audience, which has to contend with its very own fears fanned by various mainstream far-right movements?
“There was no scaremongering at all. The leader wanted to sound the alarm. It may have been a little dramatic but he did sound the alarm and his words should be heeded,” Dr Suayeh says.
He admits that Libya is reconsidering its open border policy drawn up years ago when Mr Gaddafi had declared the country open to anyone who wanted to go there.
The policy was meant to be a gesture of goodwill, he adds, but Libya now has a huge problem on its hands.
“Do you send these people back, which we are entitled to do, or allow them to continue on their way to Europe, which we do not want to do because they do not have the proper credentials and documents?”
Putting his finger on the problem of human trafficking, Dr Suayeh admits there are “shady characters” in Libya, but he also says these people are found in Malta, Italy and elsewhere.
“The Libyan coast is over 1,800 km long. What we expect from the EU is more logistical help, material and personnel. Libya cannot deal with this problem alone,” he says.
Libya is not a party to the 1951 UN refugee convention (the Geneva Convention), which is a source of grave concern for human rights organisations.
Dr Suayeh will not delve into the reasons for Libya’s refusal to sign the convention; however, he diplomatically leaves the door ajar for any future developments.
“Libya has every intention of honouring any international obligations it may have vis-à-vis these people, and may consider at some point to sign that convention should it consider it appropriate to do so.”
Dr Suayeh says Libya has “a lot of concern” for immigrants and points out that his country is a member of the human rights council in Geneva.
“Human rights are a major concern for us, and nobody’s record is perfect,” he says, insisting the issue had social, humanitarian and political ramifications.
“Let us not quibble. Instead we should help these people and try to create the right conditions in their countries of origin,” he says.
Dr Suayeh argues that Libya and Malta share a common fate in that they are both destination and transit countries for immigrants and this should spur cooperation rather than division.
From the gunboat incident in the late 1970s when Libya prevented a Maltese-licensed oil company drilling in international waters south of the island to the early warning given by then Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici to Mr Gaddafi on the impending US airstrikes on Tripoli in the mid-1980s, the relationship between Malta and Libya has oscillated between animosity and friendship.
The closeness between both countries fostered during the Labour administration of the 1970s and 80s went cool after 1987 when Malta aligned itself with the Western world as it sought EU membership.
However, even because of the increased trade flows between both countries an often used argument during EU negotiations was that Malta could be Europe’s bridge to Libya.
The myth was burst after Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction programme, paving the way for its international rehabilitation, which saw countries like Italy, France and the UK rush to Libya without having to use the ‘Maltese bridge’.
The bridge analogy may have been an attempt at inflating Malta’s strategic importance to its northern and southern shore neighbours. However, from a Libyan perspective things were viewed differently, and Dr Suayeh diplomatically makes the point that Libya never needed a bridge, not even when UN-imposed sanctions in the 1990s attempted to isolate the country.
“Libya never really lost its direct links with Europe at any point in time, even during the unjust sanctions. The channels between Libya and Europe were open. It is true we had problems to travel, but Libya was not isolated in the true sense of the word and so it did not need a Maltese bridge or any other bridge to reach Europe.”
Dr Suayeh says Malta has always been perceived and is still perceived by Libya not so much as a bridge, but as “a crucial crossroad of cultures”.
“Malta has an important role to play as a bridge to cultures. Regardless of any relations with the rest of Europe, Malta has its special links with Libya, and as ambassador I would like to encourage these. Malta plays an important part in our strategic vision for the Mediterranean,” he says.
An issue of concern to Malta is oil exploration and for a number of years the country has sought to reach an agreement with Libya and Italy for joint exploration of areas that are claimed by the three countries.
Little progress has been reported, giving rise to doubts as to how willing and comfortable Libya and Italy are with such a proposal.
Dr Suayeh says that in principle Libya is not against the idea; however, he adds that the technical aspects are rather complicated.
“It was raised in some of the meetings I had with Maltese officials but there is more to it than meets the eye,” he says, pointing out that there are conflicting claims by Italy, Greece, and to a lesser extent, Tunisia.
The wealth at stake does not only include oil and gas deposits but also fishery management zones.
“I would leave it to the technical experts to discuss the matter, and the leaders to reach a political decision. I hope these neighbouring countries, will at some point get an equitable portion of the wealth of this mare nostrum,” Dr Suayeh says.
The single biggest issue, apart from immigration, that has seen the fate of Malta and Libya intertwine is Lockerbie.
The bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie killed 270 people. It was a brutal terrorist attack that shocked the world and one that saw Malta implicated as the point of departure of the bomb, which eventually destroyed the aircraft.
The blame was pinned down to two Libyan secret service agents, who at the time worked in Malta. Only one of them, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was found guilty at a high-profile trial conducted under Scottish laws in Camp Zeist, the Netherlands.
Mr Al-Megrahi was condemned to life imprisonment. However, he was released on compassionate grounds last year amid serious doubts that he may have been wrongly convicted.
Malta has long denied any involvement in the Lockerbie case, insisting that the luggage containing the bomb could have never left the island unaccompanied.
Only last week campaigners, who believe that Mr Al-Megrahi was wrongly convicted, presented a petition to the Scottish Parliament (see separate story on page 9) asking for an independent inquiry into the Camp Zeist conclusions.
The search for the truth continues 22 years after the attack but how does Libya feel today about the affair?
Dr Suayeh talks little about the Lockerbie saga. He considers it “a closed chapter” and an issue Libya wants to put behind it.
“We have dealt with Lockerbie very responsibly and transparently and we left it up to the Scottish authorities to decide on Mr Al-Megrahi’s release. We would like to leave it at that,” he says.
As for the campaigners who still seek the truth about what happened on that fateful December night, Dr Suayeh says they are entitled to take what action they deem fit.
In 2003, two years after Mr Al-Megrahi’s conviction, Libya formally accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials and agreed to pay billions in compensation to the families of the Lockerbie victims. It was perceived as an admission of guilt but many felt the underlying motive was Mr Gaddafi’s pragmatic attempt to normalise international relations. Libya has since maintained its innocence.
“We always felt that Libya was wronged by the Lockerbie affair. We always wanted to be law abiding, and all that we hope for now, with this chapter behind us, is to foster better relations with everybody, hoping that truth prevails,” Dr Suayeh says.
Having lectured at the Department of Arabic at the University of Malta between 1995 and 1999, Dr Suayeh has an insight into the Maltese psyche. He describes those years as very informative, having established friendships with people like Oliver Friggieri and Martin Zammit.
Indeed, he has even translated Prof. Friggieri’s poetry into Arabic.
Did he ever experience discrimination while in Malta?
The answer is a plain “no” and most people he came across viewed Libya in a positive light.
However, Dr Suayeh acknowledges that there is what he describes as “sporadic cases of misconception.
“I have heard stories of Libyans, especially young people, who are turned away for no obvious reason from places of entertainment. They feel it may have to do with the colour of their skin, or the fact that they are non-European, and not necessarily because they are Libyans,” he says, choosing his words carefully.
He also points a finger at the media: “We are a little dissatisfied with the way the press sometimes reports Libyans who may be involved in criminal activity, sometimes petty, by highlighting the nationality when other nationals may be reported differently.”
In the Western media Libya is almost always linked with the abuse of migrants’ human rights, Lockerbie, weapons of mass destruction, and not least, the antics of its leader. They are persistent issues that continuously crop up, but according to Dr Suayeh, Libya has to a large extent dealt with them.
“Libya voluntarily relinquished its weapons of mass destruction and it has not been rewarded enough for doing so, even though Libya did so on a matter of principle rather than to seek compensation,” he says, recalling the 2003 decision, which was taken in the wake of the Iraq war.
“Some people continue to raise these issues not with good intentions. But Libya views its future in a positive way. We feel we have gone a long way in human rights, and Libya is confident of its potential and capability to create a better future for its people and its neighbours,” Dr Suayeh says.
He then goes for the marketing pitch, extolling his country’s investment potential and highlighting the fact that many Maltese businessmen have realised this.
“The size of our trade exchange is a lot more than people may think,” he says.
The picture he paints is one of a vibrant country seeking to distance itself from a turbulent past and aiming to develop its economic potential that is not just driven by oil.
Within this context does Libya see itself as a big player on the world stage?
“Libya considers itself a significant player and a country that has some contribution to make,” Dr Suayeh says with a smile. His answer conveys a sense of realism as much as ambition.
Watch excerpts of the interview on timesofmalta.com.