The UK government headed by John Major tried to derail “mad” US plans for new sanctions against Libya in the 1990s, fearing international divisions over tactics to confront Col Muammar Qaddafi, according to newly released documents.
The US in 1994 was putting pressure on the UK and France to back a new round of UN measures against Libya amid the continuing refusal of Col Qaddafi to hand over the suspects for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
The UN had from 1992 imposed sanctions on Libya after the downing of Pan Am jet 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, which killed 259 people, but the US was concerned about widespread breaches.
President Bill Clinton wanted tighter UN measures to head off congressional efforts to add Libya to a sanctions bill that primarily targeted Iran. Prime Minister John Major in November 1995 asking for his help but the British leader told aides to support international efforts to curtail US ambitions, according to the documents released on Wednesday.
British diplomats grappled with how they could prevent the UN sanctions move – while passing some of the blame for doing so on to France, the 110-page cache of papers covering 1994 to 1997 showed. The UK government was worried that any new round of UN sanctions would damage British businesses.
It also feared the failure to push it through the UN security council would be seized upon as a great victory by the Qaddafi regime. The UK wanted an alternative strategy of more rigorously enforcing existing sanctions, the papers suggest.
“It was always the Libyan aim to fracture the international consensus and break out of its isolation,” wrote Sir John Kerr, the UK’s ambassador in Washington, who had been “lobbying hard” against the planned US legislation. “Congress would be turning the spotlight on new divisions between allies, rather than Qaddafi.”
British officials said there was strong opposition to the moves from the UK’s finance ministry because of the direct impact of tighter UN sanctions on an estimated £230 million ($311m) of exports to Libya in 1995.
But they feared being painted as soft on Libya by the relatives of British victims of the Lockerbie disaster if they did not push for tougher sanctions. They wanted to enrol France in lobbying against the UN sanctions.
“The Foreign Secretary [Malcolm Rifkind] has decided that we should not support the US in going for a new resolution,” his personal secretary wrote in a letter dated February 1996.
“We do not want to get into unnecessary wrangles with the Americans, or provoke accusations that we are weak on Libya or on current sanctions. Ideally we would wish to ensure that the French take at least their share of the blame.”
“The Americans are mad to press this, but face huge Congress pressure,” wrote another member of Mr Major’s private office staff.
The British efforts failed to halt the US legislation targeting Libya but a new UN resolution in 1998 only reaffirmed previous restrictions after Libya’s refusal to have two suspects tried in Scotland.
The papers show that officials in 1995 believed the chances of the pair being handed over were “negligible”. Two years later Mr Major was out of office after a landslide election victory under Tony Blair.
Diplomatic pressure - and concessions by the UK and US - finally resulted in the pair being handed over for trial in the Netherlands in 1999, and the sanctions were suspended.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was found guilty in 2001 and jailed for a minimum of 27 years. But he was released in 2009 on medical grounds and died in Libya three years later. His family has made a posthumous appeal against his conviction.