It was oddly delicious watching a has-been dictator bask in the undeserved tribute of a Western host”s welcome, only to turn around and smack the host with the welcome mat. Do the French still love slapstick?
It isn”t difficult to tell French President Nicolas Sarkozy, “Serves you right,” for the spectacle of Libya”s Muammar el-Qaddafi in Paris – though Sarkozy no doubt thinks it all well worth the 10 billion euros he got from an ordeal attracting denunciation and derision from all sides.
Qaddafi once was a frightening dictator. In power 36 years – and so the third-longest serving dictator in the world – he used his country”s oil wealth to support many radical international organizations. As part of his rehabilitation on the world stage, he has had to pay compensation for two mid-air terrorist bombings: of a French airliner over Niger, and a U.S. airliner over Scotland.
But when the United States became mired in Iraq in 2003, Qaddafi realized that no one was scared of him anymore, and voluntarily gave up his weapons of mass destruction programs. Since then a succession of Western countries have tripped over each other to sign deals with him.
Although his decades in power have been marked by the torture and disappearance of political prisoners, the absence of a free press, the ban on independent organizations and a populace that remains desperately poor despite Libya”s oil wealth, rare is the Western leader who reminds Qaddafi that his international rehabilitation requires scrutiny and reform of his abysmal human rights record.
Perhaps Sarkozy”s secretary of state for human rights, Rama Yade, best responded to the deadly seriousness of Qaddafi”s record. “Colonel Qaddafi must understand that our country is not a doormat on which a leader, terrorist or not, can come and wipe the blood of his crimes off his feet. France should not receive this kiss of death,” she said.
Her eloquence was lost on her boss, working his deals with Qaddafi while busy fending off criticism from her and others in his cabinet, and human rights groups – all attacking him for hosting this dictator.
Then Qaddafi brandished the welcome mat, accusing European countries of abusing African immigrants. While it was already ironic that Qaddafi arrived in France on International Human Rights Day, his criticism of France”s treatment of immigrants added a surreal twist to the proceedings.
“We, Africans, are victims of injustice. They brought us here like cattle to do hard and dirty work, and then they throw us to live on the outskirts of towns and when we claim our rights, the police beat us,” Qaddafi said.
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. While there is little doubt that French men and women of immigrant descent face racism in housing and employment, migrant workers in France and other parts of Europe often arrive there from Libya – where they have been subjected to similar oppressions and worse.
Human rights groups have long complained that the Libyan government subjects migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to serious human rights abuses, including beatings, arbitrary arrests, and forced returns. So when Qaddafi told African immigrants, “Either you live respected here in Europe and enjoy the same rights and duties as Europeans or you return to Africa,” you have to wonder whose glass house was being smashed.
That wasn”t Qaddafi”s first go at smacking Sarkozy with the welcome mat. In an earlier interview with French television, Qaddafi denied that Sarkozy had discussed Libya”s human rights record with him. Sarkozy had insisted he would urge Qaddafi to improve his human rights record.
Qaddafi had earned Sarkozy”s scorn before. In July, the French opposition and media skewered Sarkozy for sending his then-wife, Cecilia, to Tripoli, to persuade Qaddafi to pardon six foreign medics who had been jailed and tortured for years over accusations that they had deliberately infected hundreds of Libyan children with the HIV virus.
Inviting Qaddafi to Paris rewarded the Libyan dictator for bringing this judicial farce to an end, but it also displayed the kind of Western political amnesia that serves to inject oxygen into decrepit dictatorships.
Although the six medics” freedom was long overdue, who spares a thought to those HIV-infected children, likely to die because of Libya”s decrepit medical system? Their absence from headlines or discussion in Paris is one indication of the lack of Western pressure on Qaddafi regarding the plight of Libyans and their human rights.
Qaddafi”s regime has used terrorism and sick children to get the West”s attention. And so, in Paris this week, he is rewarded with legitimacy and business deals. France is rewarded with 10 billion euros. Who said the price of Libyan human rights is cheap?
Mona Eltahawy is a journalist based in New York. Distributed by Agence Global. IHT