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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
U.S. Refuses to Lift Sanctions Against Libya
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Paul Kerr

Citing concerns about Libya’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the United States will continue bilateral sanctions on Tripoli despite the UN Security Council’s Sept. 12 decision formally to lift similar decade-old sanctions.

The UN sanctions were initially imposed in 1992 in response to the bombings of a Pan Am flight en route from London to New York in 1988 and a French flight over Niger in 1989. The sanctions were lifted by a 13-0 vote, with the United States and France abstaining, after Libya agreed to take formal responsibility for the attacks and compensate the families of the Pan Am flight victims.

The UN had suspended the sanctions in 1999 after Libya handed over two officials for trial in the Pan Am bombing and following France’s acknowledgement that Libya cooperated with French officials investigating the 1989 bombing.

Department of State deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said Washington abstained from the UN vote because it did not want action on the resolution “to be misconstrued as a decision to modify” U.S. bilateral sanctions on Libya and because the Bush administration has concerns about Libya’s “pursuit of weapons of mass destruction” as well as “other aspects” of the country’s behavior, including its poor human rights record and “history of involvement in terrorism.”

The United States maintains a series of sanctions against Libya that prohibit a wide range of economic activities. Under the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, the United States can punish foreign companies for providing goods or services that contribute to Libya’s ability to acquire chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

In recent months, the Bush administration has stepped up allegations that Libya is trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction. During a Sept. 16 hearing before the House International Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton identified Libya as one of four “rogue states”—along with Iran, North Korea, and Syria—attempting to “acquire or develop WMD and their means of delivery.” In what could be construed as a veiled threat, Bolton in April said the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq should signal to Libya that “the cost of [its] pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is potentially quite high...the determination of the United States…to keep these incredibly dangerous weapons out of the hands of very dangerous people should not be underestimated.”

That said, so far Libya’s WMD capabilities appear to be relatively modest. In February, CIA Director George Tenet told Congress that “Tripoli has been able to increase its access to dual-use nuclear technologies” since the 1999 suspension. (See ACT, March 2003.) An April CIA report to Congress covering the first half of 2002 expresses concern over “Libya’s continued interest in nuclear weapons” since the UN sanctions were suspended in 1999. A 2001 Pentagon report, however, assesses that “Libya has made little progress” on its nuclear program because the program “lacks well-developed plans, expertise, consistent financial support, and adequate foreign suppliers.”

Additionally, the CIA assesses that Tripoli is seeking to “acquire” the capability to develop and produce biological weapons agents. The Pentagon report states that the suspension of UN sanctions will improve “Libya’s ability to acquire biological-related equipment and expertise” but Libya’s biological weapons program “has not advanced beyond the research and development stage.”

The CIA report also states that Libya appears “to be working toward an offensive [chemical weapons] capability” and has “reestablished contacts with sources of expertise, parts, and precursor chemicals abroad” since the UN sanctions were suspended.

According to the Pentagon report, Libya maintains an “aging Scud missile force,” and the missiles are probably poorly maintained and their operational status “questionable.” Tripoli will probably be able to build a medium-range ballistic missile “with continued foreign assistance,” the CIA warned.

Libya has ratified the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Biological Weapons Convention and subscribes to the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. It has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.

A Libyan official denied the country is attempting to develop weapons, according to a Sept. 15 report from Jana, Libya’s official news agency.