On New Zealand’s links with Muammar Ghaddafi

As Libya’s dictator Muammar Ghadaffi continues to murder and terrorise his people in an attempt to cling onto power, surely Education Minister Anne Tolley will sometime soon – but don’t hold your breath – move to annul the deal she signed with the Ghaddafi regime last October, on behalf of the New Zealand government.

This deal – reportedly worth $30 million annually – entails Libyan students coming here to study, and would make New Zealand one of only five countries accepting students officially selected and assisted by the Ghaddafi regime. The expectation was that the education deal would open the door for co-operation between the Key government and the Libyan regime on a number of fronts:

The agreement outlined the basis for New Zealand’s engagement with Libya over the next five years in the educational and scientific fields in both compulsory and tertiary education sectors.

Mrs Tolley said many New Zealand education providers saw big potential in increasing engagement with Libya. Conservative estimates were that New Zealand stood to get over 300 students a year in fully-funded scholarships worth up to $30m, she said.

“Libya is an emerging education market for New Zealand. It is a nation coming out of a period of international isolation and ready to re-engage with countries like ours.”

The agreement was the first government to government memorandum between the two countries and gave the opportunity for collaboration in joint research projects, joint academic programmes and student and faculty exchange.

Tolley signed the pact with Libyan Education Minister Dr Abdulkabir al -Fakhri, a regime insider promoted by Ghaddafi in a Cabinet reshuffle in 2009.

Al-Fakhri has signed similar education-based deals with Ireland and with Canada in recent years.

There is usually a price to pay for any educational institutions that gets involved with the regime in Libya. The London School of Economics, for instance, has taken a significant credibility hit from the money it took for conferring a doctorate on Ghaddafi’s son, Saif. The sorry story (with related clarifications and corrections) is here.

Although the LSE had accepted £1.5m from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, an organisation headed by Saif – some of which was to finance “a virtual democracy centre” – the university stressed that it was to be paid over five years, and only £300,000 has been received to date. “In current difficult circumstances across the region, the school has decided to stop new activities under that programme,” the statement said. The LSE has also received scholarship funding [ my emphasis] in return for advice given to the Libyan Investment Authority in London. “No further receipts are anticipated,” the university said.

Hitherto, Saif al-Ghaddafi had been the suave and acceptable face of the regime, internationally. Yet there he was on an Al Jazerra relayed broadcast the other night vowing that rivers of blood would flow among his father’s opponents. All of which makes the content of his LSE doctorate seem grimly amusing. In Saif’s own words:

The core aim of the thesis, then, is to explore the potential for the concept of Collective Management to develop a more democratic, morally justified system of global governance that recognises the rights of individuals … and is particularly focused on empowering civil society organizations (CSOs) to give a stronger voice to those currently under-represented in the existing system

So far, Foreign Minister Murray McCully has been far more forthright about events in Libya than he was over the Mubarak regime’s actions in Egypt. McCully has denounced the violence inflicted by the Libyan government on its civilian opposition as ‘disturbing and unacceptable’

New Zealand supports the right of the Libyan people to peacefully protest and seek greater democratic freedoms. We are receiving reports of the military using heavy weapons and aerial bombardment against protesters. This is deeply disturbing and unacceptable. We call on the government to refrain immediately from the excessive use of force,” Mr McCully said.

Clearly, it would lend some substance to this moral condemnation if the Key government suspended last October’s government-to-government exchanges outlined above. International sanctions and not mere words, may be all that can save the civilian population in Tripoli and elsewhere from being slaughtered. While the east of the country, and some towns close to Ghaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli have gone over to the rebels, the balance of firepower on the ground still appears strongly in Ghaddafi’s favour. His willingness to use violence indiscriminately has already led to an estimated 1,000 deaths at least, among the civilian population. Do Anne Tolley and our schools and universities still plan on taking blood money for teaching the elite students handpicked by such a regime?

The prospect is that things may get worse in Libya, not better. As some rebels have already complained, many army units that have nominally defected have shown no subsequent appetite for taking on either the African mercenaries who support Ghaddafi, or his crack Khamis brigade. Instead, many appear to have decided – as one exile Libyan opposition leader put it – to ‘sit down and watch what happens next.’ Even the experts can’t seem to agree on the significance of the wave of denunciations of the Ghaddafi regime being issued by tribal and clan leaders.

Juan Cole sees the tribal defections as highly significant. Yet the BBC is not sure that tribal leaders will hold much sway when it comes down to the actual fighting.

What does seems inevitable is that there will be a prolonged disruption of oil supply from Libya, the world’s 12th largest exporter. If oil prices head towards $US120 a barrel this would have flow-on effects to the global recovery, and this – directly and indirectly – means bad news for a New Zealand economy already sliding back into recession even before the Christchurch earthquake. As always in a crisis, pressure has come onto the Saudis to make up the shortfall, and to smooth out any price spike created by the crisis in Libya.

Already, Saudi assurances have helped oil prices to ease but this action is unlikely to provide a lasting solution. Earlier this month, diplomats cited in the Wikileaks cables indicated that the Saudis have consistently overstated the size of their reserves and related ability to keep a lid on global prices. Moreover, the political ferment spreading across the Middle East will soon reach the gates of the House of Saud itself. On Facebook, March 11 has been announced as a “Day of Rage” in Saudi Arabia. To try and defuse the planned March 11 protest, King Abdullah has just announced a multibillion dollar package of sweeteners:

On Wednesday….King Abdullah introduced a package of social and economic overhaul amounting to USD 10.7 billion. He also granted pardon to some prisoners indicted in financial crimes and ordered the implementation of a 15-percent pay hike for state employees as well as an increase in the cash available for Saudi housing loans.

Analysts believe the huge hike in benefits introduced by the Saudi King is actually intended to avert an uprising in the country.

Watch that space.


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