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Libyan State-sponsored Terrorism

Volume 481: debated on Wednesday 22 October 2008

It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess. I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate this important subject.

State-sponsored terrorism has been and remains one of the most alarming trends in international terrorism. It is not a new phenomenon. On 11 September 2001, the western world experienced the nightmare of international terrorism on a scale that had never been seen before. Unfortunately, such action was not a new phenomenon. For many decades, Ulster has suffered from the appalling consequences of IRA terrorism, which has been heavily funded and sponsored by rogue states, such as Libya. Fuelled by a hatred of all things British, Colonel Gaddafi supplied the Provisional IRA with weapons and cash for many years.

One of the most lethal weapons in the IRA arsenal was the deadly Semtex explosive, which made one of its first appearances in Enniskillen in that deadly and tragic bombing in November 1987. For decades, it has been used to bomb towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland. It was used to tear out the heart of the City of London and it left a trail of death and destruction in Omagh in 1998.

As a result of Libya’s prolonged and persistent support for the IRA, many innocent men, women and children are dead, and their relatives physically and psychologically scarred. While we are living in more peaceful times in Northern Ireland today—and we are all grateful for that—the scars of the victims will never heal, and the victims must never be forgotten. We are faced with the threat from Islamic terrorism. The western powers have worked towards the restoration of diplomatic relations with Libya and towards bringing Colonel Gaddafi and his regime in from the cold.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree with me that this is a matter of concern to many people and not just those in Northern Ireland? Libyan-donated Semtex explosives were used in bombs at Bishopsgate, Canary Wharf and Manchester, and in other cities in Great Britain. The Government have an obligation not just to Northern Ireland but to citizens throughout the United Kingdom who were the victims of IRA violence as a result of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He makes an extremely valid and important point. Last week, he helped to organise a visit to this place for victims and the relatives of those who were injured and killed in incidents across the United Kingdom. I know that other hon. Members here have had constituents killed in incidents in which Libyan-supplied Semtex was used. The matter affects not just Northern Ireland, but many people right across the United Kingdom. It is a United Kingdom issue.

While progress towards the abandonment of terror and support for terrorism by Libya is welcome and to be encouraged and supported, we must not allow that to prevent Libya from being forced to face up to its responsibility to make reparation for its past involvement in terrorism. Michelle Williamson, whose parents Gillian and George were murdered by the IRA in 1993 in a fish shop in Belfast’s Shankill road, two years ago said:

“Libya can’t wash its hands of responsibility. It’s like the pub owner who knowingly supplies drink to a customer knowing he or she is going to drive home drunk. If that driver kills someone, the person who plied him or her with drink bears some responsibility.”

She was quite right.

In 2006, almost 200 British survivors of IRA terrorism—most of whom were from Northern Ireland including Michelle Williamson and Jim Dixon, who was seriously injured in the 1987 Remembrance day bomb in Enniskillen—joined a very small number of American victims in taking a class action against Libya, which was filed and pursued through the courts in the United States. The aim was to ensure compensation along the lines of the Lockerbie air disaster in Scotland. Those who took the action were representing not only themselves, but thousands of others murdered and maimed by Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism. That was a crucially important and highly symbolic legal action, and those who have suffered so much at the hands of the IRA were surely deserving of the support and encouragement of our Government.

The Government, however, have seemed reluctant—to put it mildly—to become involved, and we were told that that was because of the legal proceedings. None the less, the Government have seen fit to become involved in a number of other matters relating to Libya and Libyan actions towards individuals and foreign citizens. For example, the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, intervened in relation to the legal actions in Libya against Bulgarian nurses. The Government have rightly intervened on behalf of British and foreign victims of the Lockerbie air disaster, including criminal proceedings in the Netherlands and civil proceedings in Scotland and the United States.

Other European Governments, such as France and Italy, have taken a proactive approach and have secured adequate compensation for their citizens who have suffered as a result of Libyan-supported terrorism. For example, the French Government intervened in litigation brought by their own and foreign citizens against Libya regarding the French flight UTA 772, which exploded in mid-air over the Sahara desert in September 1989.

The inactivity of our Government in seeking to support the victims in their just quest for compensation and justice as a result of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism contrasts sharply with the various precedents that they themselves have set. It also contrasts sharply with the activities of other Governments, particularly with the proactive approach of the US Government. I commend the American Administration for their determination to see right done by their own citizens. Sadly, in the case of the legal action that has been brought by UK citizens, such determination has turned out to be something of a two-edged sword, for the US Administration have taken the view—and espoused some of the reasons for it—that they can only look after their own citizens. That approach means that, two years on, the case mounted and initiated in the US has hit a massive brick wall.

The US Administration concluded that it was in their best interests, in both security and economic terms, to engage in a process of rapprochement with Colonel Gaddafi. However, as the US Government engaged in negotiations with Gaddafi’s regime, they were also acutely aware of the demands of Congress and victims that any rapprochement could take place only in the context of ensuring compensation for US victims in their courts. In order to secure a successful outcome to the negotiations, the American Government unashamedly interfered in domestic litigation and recommended a stay of civil actions on the basis of agreeing a compensation settlement for US citizens only.

The American deal with Libya was enshrined in the Libya claims settlement agreement of 14 August 2008, and was settled last month when the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Libya. The deal means that three Americans—the only US claimants—will be well compensated, and rightly so, but the remaining 139 UK claimants and the class action of some 3,500 British claimants are now back to square one. That cannot be right or just. It is a travesty of justice that has caused considerable dismay and anger among those who now find themselves no better off than they were when they embarked on their just case.

One of the other people who came to the House last week was Willie Frazer of the Northern Ireland-based pressure group, Families Acting for Innocent Relatives. He said:

“We tracked down the American victims to allow us to take the case in the first place. They will now be entitled to get compensation. I don’t begrudge it to them. We have been working on this for six years, to hold Colonel Gaddafi responsible. We thought there was some justice in the world.”

That view is common. It is felt not just by him but by many victims in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom in relation to how matters have proceeded. The Government’s stance on pursuing compensation appears to be to do nothing. That approach can only infuriate victims further. If it was important for the Government to intervene proactively before, it is imperative that they do so now that the case has come to such an abrupt and unsatisfactory stalemate.

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Government must rise to the challenge. I ask them on behalf of the victims what they will do to ensure that Libya and Colonel Gaddafi are made to face up to their responsibility to compensate the victims of Provisional IRA terrorism. Her Majesty’s Government cannot afford simply to sweep the matter under the carpet. However Gaddafi and his regime in Libya are regarded today, we cannot allow them literally to get away with murder.

Unfortunately, the legal correspondence between the victims’ representatives and the Government does not fill one with great confidence that the Government are inclined to change their position. In a recent letter of 7 October, the Prime Minister said to the victims’ representatives that

“the UK Government does not consider it appropriate to enter into a bilateral discussion with Libya on this matter. Thus remains the Government’s position”.

He went on to say:

“I assure you that the UK in no way condones Libya’s past sponsorship of terrorism…It is, however, important that we recognise the fundamental changes Libya has made in recent years. It has dismantled its weapons of mass destruction programme and renounced its support for international terrorism, including the IRA. With the support of the UK, Libya has returned to the heart of the international community”.

That is all very well, but it will bring little comfort to the British citizens who suffer daily as a result of IRA atrocities sponsored and aided to a considerable extent by the same Libyan regime. It appears that the Government’s attitude is “Let’s not rock the boat. Let’s not do anything that will unsettle things diplomatically.” That approach is of course not adopted by other Governments, most notably those of the US, France and Italy; it appears to be the unique attitude of the UK Government. To their shame, they sit alone in that attitude, betraying and letting down the victims of terrorism.

This country has suffered more from terrorism over the past 30 years than any other nation in Europe, and perhaps the world, in terms of the length and intensity of violence inflicted. Recently, there has been unprecedented intervention in the banking and financial sectors. It has been all hands to the pump. I do not disagree with many of the actions taken in the current emergency, such as the setting aside of billions, but many victims have said to me recently that it is simply not tenable for the Government to say that they can and will do nothing to achieve justice through compensation for the victims of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism. In my view and that of many victims, the Government must fulfil that moral obligation. Such action will help bring closure to the deep and long-standing tensions between the United Kingdom and Libya and smooth the way to improved trade and business relations, but the issue must be dealt with. It will not go away.

As right hon. and hon. Members will know, a process is under way in Northern Ireland to consider how to deal with issues from the past. An awful lot of time and effort has been put into recognising that such issues will not simply disappear; they must be addressed. Just as that must be acknowledged, the issue of compensation and justice for the victims injured by the Libyans’ actions in supporting the IRA cannot be swept under the carpet. It must be addressed. We will have no closure or settlement of the issues until that boil is lanced. If it is not dealt with properly, the spectre of the victims and their suffering will continue to haunt us. It will not simply go away.

There are precedents for Government intervention, as I said. The new special relationship with Gaddafi and Libya has not prevented the US, French and Italian Governments from addressing victims’ needs in their recent agreements with Libya. The run-up to a proposed visit to this country by Colonel Gaddafi is an opportunity. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm what the arrangements are for any such visit. Who will Gaddafi meet? Will the issue of facing up to his responsibility for IRA terrorism be addressed with Ministers? Will there be an opportunity for victims and their representatives to meet him and put the case directly? It is essential that that should be taken on board.

It is vital to ensure that justice is done and is seen to be done for the victims. We welcome the Libyan regime’s progress in normalisation and the fact that it has taken its place in the international community, but this country cannot say, uniquely and alone, that we will do nothing as far as the victims are concerned. Others have done it; it can be done. It is imperative that this Government act on behalf of the victims.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds). I congratulate him on securing this debate on an issue that I know he and his colleagues feel strongly about on their constituents’ behalf. I know that the matter is of considerable concern to his constituents and groups representing the victims of IRA terrorism, and of course to the victims and their relatives and friends. The Government are acutely aware that many thousands of people have suffered terribly as a result of IRA terrorism. They continue to have the Government’s deepest sympathies and my own.

The hon. Gentleman’s central question, as I understand it, is whether the British Government will pursue a bilateral settlement with Libya to obtain compensation for the victims of IRA terrorism who have brought claims before the US courts. Before addressing that important and complex question in detail, I assure him and the victims of IRA atrocities that the Government recognise that it is essential to acknowledge and address victims’ suffering as a necessary element in the reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. The Government, along with the Northern Ireland Executive and others, including many non-governmental, community-based organisations, have already taken many steps to provide support and services for victims of the troubles.

Since 1998, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have invested more than £20 million in victims’ initiatives. Over the past few years, in line with the reshape, rebuild, achieve strategy, responsibility for most initiatives relating to victims has passed to the Northern Ireland Executive, as is right and proper. Central to that responsibility are the four commissioners for victims and survivors, recently appointed by the First and Deputy First Ministers, whose statutory remit will include representing the interests of victims and survivors and reviewing the services provided for them. That is a welcome development.

As well as associating myself 100 per cent. with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), I remind the Minister that the atrocities were not confined to Northern Ireland, although they were particularly intense there. They were United Kingdom atrocities. I lost a constituent in 1992 in the City of London; I think it was at the Baltic Exchange. The Minister refers to what is happening in Northern Ireland, but the remedy sought is for United Kingdom citizens from Essex to Warrington as well as in Northern Ireland.

I take that point firmly on board. The IRA attacks were upon all UK citizens.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that the United States and Libya signed a comprehensive claims settlement agreement on 14 August. The important point is that that followed an explicit approach by Libya to the US to resolve outstanding compensation claims in order to improve their relations. Under the agreement, compensation will be paid from a humanitarian fund to several categories of victims. Libya’s sovereign immunity before the US courts will be restored, and terrorism-related legal action, prior to June 2006, before the US courts will be barred.

It is true, however, that those who will receive compensation will be of either US or Libyan nationality, with the exception of those involved in the Lockerbie case. Although the provision of the outstanding compensation to the families of the 52 British victims of Lockerbie is welcome—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that—I am of course disappointed that the agreement between the US and Libya could not provide compensation for all British claimants in the US proceedings regarding Libyan-sponsored terrorism.

I assure the hon. Gentleman, and all others with an interest in this issue, that the UK Government recognised the importance to the UK victims of their US legal claims, which is why we made real efforts to raise their interests with the US Government. When it became clear that the negotiations were taking place between the US and Libya, the UK Government made a number of diplomatic representations urging the US Government to include, on the list of recipients of any compensation package, UK claimants who had brought cases in the US against Libya. We attempted to do that, but regrettably it did not prove possible for the UK claimants to be included in the US-Libya agreement. A key reason for that, as the Prime Minister explained in writing to H20—the law firm representing the claimants—was the US view that international and US law did not permit the US Administration to espouse as its own the claims of non-US nationals. The US Administration was precluded by law from espousing the claims of UK nationals as part of the compensation agreement. Also relevant to the US decision was its assessment—I must underline that it was its assessment—of how likely the cases were to succeed in the US courts.

Why Lockerbie and not the IRA victims? Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the inclusion of British Lockerbie victims among the recipients of compensation, it is worth emphasising that they have been able to benefit from this agreement because of the unique circumstances of the case. Unlike Libya’s support to the IRA, the Lockerbie bombing was subject to a UN Security Council resolution that required Libya to accept responsibility and pay victims’ families appropriate compensation. Libya agreed to do so in 2003 following negotiations between the victims’ families and Libya. The sums paid to the Lockerbie families under the US-Libya agreement represent the last unpaid tranche of previously agreed settlement payments. Regrettably, no such mechanism, settlement or court judgment is in place in relation to the legal actions regarding the supply of arms by Libya to the IRA. I wish that things were different, but those are the facts of the case.

The hon. Gentleman has urged the Government to open bilateral negotiations with Libya to seek compensation for the British victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism. The Government considered that very carefully at length and on a number of occasions, and we understand that it is a difficult and sensitive matter for those involved. Although the Government made diplomatic representations to the US Government about their agreement with Libya, the Government’s position remains—I respect his view, of course—that we will not seek to enter into a bilateral discussion with Libya on this matter.

Will the Minister stop relying on others to do something that the British Government should do? What action will our Government take on behalf of our citizens to defend their rights and bring them justice?

We have taken action on behalf of UK citizens. A claim was made about the Italian Government, but actually the Italian Government compensated Libya—not the other way round—for past colonial actions.

I wish to make it absolutely clear, however, that in reaching this position the Government in no way, shape or form condone Libya’s past sponsorship of IRA terrorism, nor—this is crucial—underestimate the suffering caused by IRA atrocities during the troubles. However—this touches on the key point that the hon. Member for Belfast, North raised—it is correct that in addition to the US, France secured a compensation agreement for victims of the bombing of the Union des Transports Aériens flight in 1989, although the circumstances were much more analogous to the Lockerbie bombing than to IRA-supported terrorism.

That was an aside. We have delivered for the victims of Lockerbie on exactly the same basis as the French Government delivered for the citizens.

We do not believe that we can negotiate a bilateral settlement with Libya, for reasons that I shall explain. Although there can be no doubt that Libya’s financial and material support to the IRA added significantly to its paramilitary capabilities, both the situation in Northern Ireland and our relations with Libya have been fundamentally transformed in recent years to the benefit of everyone concerned. Libya has dismantled its weapons of mass destruction programme and—crucially—renounced its support for international terrorism, including for the IRA.

Is the Minister aware that the Semtex explosives supplied by Libya were used in a device fired at police officers in Lisnaskea, County Fermanagh, just a few weeks ago, and that Gaddafi’s arming of the republican movement is still having consequences for police officers on the streets of Northern Ireland?

I do not absolve Libya from its responsibilities for its past actions, but it is incontestable that there has been a transformation in our relations with the Libyan Government to the benefit of people throughout the UK. Libya has renounced its support for international terrorism.

In 1995, Libya explained to the UK Government the extent of its support to the IRA. It has also complied with UN Security Council resolutions and handed over the Lockerbie suspects for trial, in return for which all UN and EU sanctions against Libya have now been lifted. With the support of the British Government, Libya has now returned to the international community—that is in everyone’s interest—and has built normal co-operative relations with those countries to which it was formerly hostile, and we believe that it is right to seek to build on this improvement in relations. Libya is now an essential partner for the UK on wide-ranging issues, in particular in the fight against today’s terrorist threats. It is vital for the UK’s present and future security that that co-operation continues.

For its part, Libya considers this matter closed. [Interruption.] Let me continue. In 1995, Libya explained to the UK Government the extent of its support to the IRA. We should not underestimate the significance of that explanation, because it helped the Government accurately to assess the true material capacities of the IRA. Without that agreement and information, it would have taken us longer to make progress in Northern Ireland. The Libyan Government have subsequently made it clear to us that they now consider this matter closed and that they would be strongly opposed to reopening it. It is therefore this Government’s considered assessment that Libya would not support a bilateral settlement of these cases with the UK Government. That is an important point given that in the US, Libya actually initiated the agreement.

I understand the concerns expressed forcefully by the hon. Member for Belfast, North on behalf of his constituents. We have taken action and I think that the situation has improved. Relations have been transformed to the benefit of citizens throughout the UK, including in his constituency. Nevertheless, I understand the force and conviction with which he put forward his arguments and congratulate him on securing this debate.

Sitting suspended.