Statement by A Omar Turbi, Libyan American Human Rights Activist|
Subcommittee on Africa Hearing
U.S. - Libya Relations: A New Era
Thursday, July 22, 1999
I am honored to have the opportunity to appear before your distinguished committee.
I am happy to take part in these hearings as an advocate of normalizing our relationship with the Libyan regime and the Libyan people.
In principle, I am in favor of a policy of dialogue and constructive engagement, that will provide an opportunity to serve the American and Libyan peoples’ interests.
The handing over of the two Libyan suspects charged for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and the suspension of the sanctions are positive steps toward that goal. I would expect that the two Libyans facing a trial in the Hague, Mr. Lameen Fhaima and Abdel-Basit Al-Megarhi, would be provided every legal opportunity and due process without any prejudices that may have existed vis-a-vis the Libyan regime, or any Media reports.
Ladies and Gentlemen: To put things in historical prospective, American history would remind us that we engaged the Libyans as early as in the year 1801. On April 27, 1805, Marine Corps forces lead by Marine Lieutenant Presely N. O’Bannon attacked and captured the fortress at Derna, Libya (then called Tripoli). The American flag was raised over the captured fortress. That was the first time ever the American flag had been flown over a territorial prize of war in the Eastern Hemisphere.
At the same time the United States of America treasury was paying as much as 1/5th of its total annual revenue to Tripoli and the Barbary Coast pirate states. This money was paid in part as ransom for captured American officials, and in part to allow the safe passage of American ships through the Mediterranean. The Basha (ruler) of Tripoli, unhappy about the amount of money Tripoli was receiving from the United States, declared war against the U.S. in May, 1801. A fleet of four ships was dispatched to patrol the waters around Tripoli and protect American shipping. However, their efforts were ineffectual. The battle of 1805 between Tripoli and American Marines and their Mediterranean allies, which almost ended in failure, resulted in replacing the Prince of Tripoli with his brother, who was more friendly to American interests.
The new Prince Karamali was so pleased with the American Marines; he awarded Lieutenant Presely O’Bannon a very special sword. This thin curved sword was the pattern for the current “Mameluke sword” carried by all Marine officers today as part of their dress uniform. As we all know our Marine Corp. March opening line “ From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.
This is an example, that demonstrates the historical and cultural ties that have existed between Americans and Libyans spanning 200 years.
Such ties would, in my opinion, justify that we embark upon a policy of constructive engagement. These policies have worked in the past and undoubtedly, they will work in the future.
Here are but a few examples of constructive engagement. Our dialogue with China resulted in a flourishing business relationship. Other examples are Vietnam, Cambodia, and South Africa. Let us not forget Mussolini Italy, Japan and Germany were our enemies in the 2nd world war, but now they represent our best trading partners.
The United Kingdom's recent move toward total normalization of relations with Libya provides a different prospective and a new era.
Ladies and Gentlemen: UN sanctions and embargoes have been imposed on the Libyan people since 1981, crippling the economic structure, and social fabric of the Libyan people, who endured severe hardships. The UN sanctions degraded the quality of life and exasperated human rights efforts in Libya.
The air travel embargo was brutal, and devastating in terms of human suffering. Libya lacks modern medical facilities to treat severe illnesses like heart disease, hypertension, and organ transplants. Thousands of people suffering from serious medical conditions, requiring emergency treatment, have died because they could not be flown abroad. Many who had to get to better medical facilities in Europe died while in route, because they had to endure long, dangerous and exhausting road trips of over 1000 miles to Egypt or Tunisia for further travel by air.
The sanctions have inflicted serious damage and caused great economic losses in the billions of dollars in health, agriculture and many other sectors of Libyan society. According to some statistics, the total losses in all sectors from April 15, 1992 through 1995 are estimated to be more than $18 billion.
An immediate lifting of the UN sanctions and a gradual move toward the eventual full and total normalization of relations with the Libyan regime, would serve the interest of both, the American and Libyan people. It would also make us more in harmony and consonance with the wishes of a broad sector of the world community. Therefore, we must heed the call for lifting UN sanctions by a large number of African nations, Arab League, and our friends in the Arab peninsula.
I would urge that we forge ahead with:
1. Immediate and permanent lifting of UN sanctions, and gradual normalization of full diplomatic relations with the Libyan regime.
2. Organizing of trade missions to and from Libya.
3. Supporting academic and scientific exchange between American and Libyan institutions.
4. Encourage student and cultural exchange programs.
I am confident that the Libyan American and Arab American communities can provide excellent academic, scientific and business resources and can play a positive and constructive role. It is an opportunity for genuine cooperation between Libyan Americans and their motherland. After all according to demographic studies, Arab Americans are considered in the top 5% highest achievers in American society.
A policy based on enlightened self-interest is far superior to one driven by strictly economic or political interests. Let our foreign policy be consistent with American values and democratic ways. The requirements of civil society, moral and human elements must supersede, narrowly defined endeavors.
The Libyan people are presently in a quandary: On one hand they suffered and barely recovering under crippling UN sanctions, that lasted nearly ten years, while, at the same time, they are oppressed by a brutal regime, which exhibits total disregard for human dignity, and has violated the most elementary tenets of humanitarian international law.
Freedom of speech, and expression are non-existent. Libya has no conventional constitution nor judicial system. A great number of the educated and intellectuals remain in prison. Thousands of young and bright minds are in and out of detention constantly. (Please refer to Amnesty International report 1997/1998)
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am here a living example of the many injustices experienced by Libyans at the hands of the Libyan authorities. My brother, Dr. Omran Omar Al-Turbi, is a respectable physician, father to two young children, very gentle, warm human being, and kind hearted, when you come in contact with him, he is sure to make you laugh with his great sense of humor. Dr. Omran has been in prison for more than fifteen years with absolutely no charge, and no trial of any kind. He is not clear at all on why he is in prison. Dr. Omran was even denied a request to attend his father's funeral. He has never seen his nieces and nephews.
There have never been as many Libyans seeking political asylum in as many countries of the world as at this time. The rise in applications around the world in Western Europe and many Arab countries, which began in early 1995, has reached unprecedented and alarming levels.
Libyans seeking political asylum in Arab countries, are not only denied political asylum, but they are never given the opportunity of standard procedures that are required by international conventions.
In the rare cases when a Libyan is allowed to stay in an Arab country, he or she is subject to deportation at a moments notice. Indeed, many Libyans were handed over by the Egyptians, Moroccans and Saudis to Libya where they met their fate.
It is evident from the 1951 United Nations Convention that the decision as to whether a Libyan asylum seeker is entitled to protection against forcible return to a particular country should be based on reliable assessment of the risk he or she faces in that country. It is not a decision that should be influenced by immigration, foreign policy, or economic considerations, given the severe consequences of a wrong decision.
In reviewing a Libyan political asylum applicant, the United States, or any given country, must recognize the following facts:
A. In almost all cases Libyans seek political asylum due to fear from persecution in Libya and not for economic opportunity.
B. In a history spanning nearly 25 years, Libyans that have been granted political asylum around the world have demonstrated excellent citizenship, zero crime rate, and without exception are high achievers: as professors in learning institutions, medical doctors, scientists, and successful businessmen.
Libyan dissidents have often fallen victims. A case and point: Mr. Mansour Kikhia, a prominent human rights activist, and former foreign minister, sought temporary political asylum in Egypt to attend a Human Rights Conference, ended up in Libya before the watchful eyes and the ears of the Egyptian authorities.
Ladies and Gentlemen: To move forward with full normalization without regard to the human rights dimension would be un-American. Lip service alone will not do. We must set specific conditions that include:
- The immediate release of all conscience and political prisoners in Libya.
- The establishment of a fact finding committee, to visit with conscience and political prisoners. The mission would include Libyan Americans and representatives from Amnesty International and other respectable human rights organizations.
- The call for gradual implementation of democratic reforms and the establishment of free institutions in line with freedom of speech, and assembly.
I believe that America's credibility as the guardian of human rights and the superpower is at stake. We must be consistent in our approach and in our promotion of human rights and democracy around the world.
I am confident that the American government and people are fair in engaging the Libyan regime as well as the people of Libya.
I believe that we are at a turning point in history. There seems to be marked improvements in the way we promote human rights in the Arab world. We are beginning to believe that Arabs are capable of building democratic institutions.
The notion that it is not in the interest of America to call for democracy in the Arab and the Muslim world through the promotion of human rights has no basis and it is a false presumption.
It is a fallacy to assume that the Libyan regime is a safeguard against radical Muslim movements in the area. In my opinion, the Libyan regime perceives the recent signals on the part of the United States and Britain, and perhaps rightly so, as a further approval of the regime in its current forms, and conducts toward its people. It is not necessarily understood by the Libyan regime that the signals are a gesture by either the U.S or Britain to improve the Libyan people's lives. For example, there has been no release of any conscience or political prisoners since England's recent change of policy of normalization with the Libyan regime.
I do not believe that the Libyan regime will on its own initiative take the step to release prisoners. If we make the assumption that it will do so through a moderating policy, I am gravely concerned and afraid that it will not happen.
It is a mistaken policy to assume that the Libyan regime fends against Islamic radicals in the area. The Libyan regime jails religious and non religious alike so long as they are perceived to be a threat to its existence.
It is in the best interest of America and the Libyan people to call on the Libyan regime with the conditions outlined above now. If we do not aggressively pursue these goals, in the same manner we do in China, or we did in the Soviet Union, the Libyan regime will assume that we acquiesce its ill treatment of its people. And that would be a tragedy.
A Omar Turbi
2 Massachusetts Avenue N.E., Box 2535
Washington D.C. 20013-2535, USA