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International Relations of Libya

Libya under Qadhafi a staunch proponent of pan-Arab unity, both in theory and in practice. Libyan regional policy predicated on intractable opposition to Israel and support of Palestinian cause.


Libya is keen to shake off its pariah status and rejoin the international community. Libya's foreign policies have undergone much fluctuation and change since the state was proclaimed on December 24, 1951.

The government was in close alliance with Britain and the United States; both countries maintained military base rights in Libya. Libya also forged close ties with France, Italy, Greece, and established full diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1955.

Since 1969, Qadhafi has determined Libya's foreign policy.  His principal foreign policy goals have been Arab unity, elimination of Israel, advancement of Islam, support for Palestinians, elimination of outside--particularly Western--influence in the Middle East and Africa, and support for a range of "revolutionary" causes.

Libya has pursued activist and aggressive foreign policy, which includes alleged support and sponsorship of numerous terrorist and guerrilla movements throughout world.

As a Kingdom, Libya maintained a definitively pro-Western stance, yet was recognized as belonging to the conservative traditionalist bloc in the League of Arab States (Arab League), of which it became a member in 1953.

After the 1969 coup, Qadhafi closed American and British bases on Libyan territory and partially nationalized all foreign oil and commercial interests in Libya.  He played a key role in introducing oil as a political weapon for challenging the West. Qadhafi rejected both Soviet communism and Western capitalism, seeking an allegedly middle course.

In 1980s, Qadhafi made bid for worldwide recognition and Third World leadership by espousing normative philosophy known as Third Universal Theory, which rejects both communist and capitalist models of government and calls instead for nonalignment, "people's power," and "new economic order" based on more equitable division of wealth between developed and underdeveloped countries.

In addition to using oil as leverage in his foreign policy, Qadhafi's principal tactics have been destabilization of weaker governments and terrorism.  Libya continues to harbor and finance groups all over the world that share Qadhafi's revolutionary and anti-Western views, including the Japanese Red Army and such radical Muslim groups as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Abu Nidal's Fatah Revolutionary Council.

Its support for terrorist activity against U.S. citizens and interests resulted in U.S. air strikes against Libya in April 1986; the precipitating event for this U.S. action was the bombing of a Berlin discotheque which killed an American serviceman and for which evidence of Libyan complicity had been discovered.

While supporting terrorist groups, Qadhafi also has attempted to undermine other Arab and African states by supporting coups, funding and training opposition political parties and guerrilla groups, and plotting assassinations of rival leaders.  He also has sought involvement in Asia and Latin America through support for various subversive groups.  Use of such methods has strained Libyan relations with many nations.

Qadhafi's foreign interventions included a bid to prop up former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 1979; incursions and intermittent war with Chad throughout the 1980s; continued claims on territory in Chad, Niger, and Algeria; and alleged support of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Sudan, Algeria, and Egypt.

Libya withdrew its forces from the disputed Aouzou Strip in mid-1994, after the International Court of Justice ruled Libya's presence an illegal occupation of Chadian territory.

Libya's relationship with the former Soviet Union involved massive Libyan arms purchases from the Soviet bloc and the presence of thousands of its advisers.  Libya's use--and heavy loss--of Soviet-supplied weaponry in its war with Chad was a notable breach of an apparent Soviet-Libyan understanding not to use the weapons for activities inconsistent with Soviet objectives.  As a result, Soviet-Libyan relations reached a nadir in mid-1987.

Since the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, Libya has concentrated upon expanding diplomatic ties with Third World countries and increasing its commercial links with Europe and East Asia.

Libya recently has made substantial investments in international financial institutions and petroleum refining and marketing operations.  These foreign investments, however, have been the target of varying enforcement actions under UN Security Council Resolution 883, which imposed a limited freeze on Libyan assets abroad.

Merger Attempts with Neighbors

In pursuit of his goal of Arab unity, Qadhafi has tried unsuccessfully at various times to merge with Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, and Syria.  In August 1981, he signed a treaty with Ethiopia and the then-People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) that attempted to provide a framework for coordinating the foreign policies of the three countries.  In 1984, Libya concluded a treaty of union with Morocco.

Morocco abrogated this treaty in August 1986.  In 1987, Libya once again proposed a bilateral union, with Algeria.  Algeria then called on Libya to join a 1983 tripartite pact linking Algeria, Tunisia, and Mauritania.

Qadhafi rejected this offer.  Libya and Tunisia subsequently re-stored diplomatic relations in December 1987, as did Egypt and Libya in 1989.

Libya also joined in the 1988 establishment of the Arab Maghreb Union that linked Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, in addition to Libya, in a grouping modeled on the European Union.

U.S. - Libyan Relations

The United States supported the UN resolution providing for Libyan independence in 1951 and raised the status of its office at Tripoli from a consulate general to a legation.  Libya opened a legation in Washington, DC, in 1954.  Both countries subsequently raised their missions to embassy level.

After Qadhafi's 1969 coup, U.S.-Libyan relations became increasingly strained because of Libya's foreign policies supporting international terrorism and subversion against moderate Arab and African governments.

In 1972, the United States withdrew its ambassador.  Export controls on military equipment and civil aircraft were imposed during the 1970s, and U.S. embassy staff members were withdrawn from Tripoli after a mob attacked and set fire to the embassy in December 1979.  The U.S. Government declared Libya a "state sponsor of terrorism" on December 29,
1979.

In May 1981, the U.S. Government closed the Libyan "people's bureau" (embassy) in Washington, DC, and expelled the Libyan staff in response to a general pattern of conduct by the people's bureau contrary to internationally accepted standards of diplomatic behavior.

In August 1981, two Libyan jets fired on U.S. aircraft participating in a routine naval exercise over international waters of the Mediterranean claimed by Libya.  The U.S. planes returned fire and shot down the attacking Libyan aircraft.  In December 1981, the State Department invalidated U.S. passports for travel to Libya and, for purposes of safety, advised all U.S. citizens in Libya to leave.

In March 1982, the U.S. Government prohibited imports of Libyan crude oil into the United States and expanded the controls on U.S.-origin goods intended for export to Libya.  Licenses were required for all transactions, except food and medicine.  In March 1984, U.S. export controls were expanded to prohibit future exports to the Ras al-Enf petrochemical complex.  In April 1985, all Export-Import Bank financing was prohibited.

Due to Libya's continuing support for terrorism, the United States adopted additional economic sanctions against Libya in January 1986, including a total ban on direct import and export trade, commercial contracts, and travel-related activities.

In addition, Libyan Government assets in the United States were frozen.  When evidence of Libyan complicity was discovered in the Berlin discotheque terrorist bombing that killed an American serviceman, the United States responded by launching an aerial bombing attack against targets near Tripoli and Benghazi in April 1986.  Since then, the United States has maintained its trade and travel embargoes and has sought to bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear against Libya.

In 1988, Libya was found to be in the process of constructing a chemical weapons plant at Rabta, a plant which is now the largest such facility in the Third World.  Libya is currently constructing another chemical weapons production facility at Tarhunah.

Libya's support for terrorism and its past regional aggressions made this development a matter of major concern to the United States.  In cooperation with like-minded countries, the United States has since sought to bring a halt to the foreign technical assistance deemed essential to the completion of this facility.

In 1991, two Libyan intelligence agents were indicted by federal prosecutors in the U.S. and Scotland for their involvement in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103.  In January 1992, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 731 demanding that Libya surrender the suspects, cooperate with the Pan Am 103 and UTA 772 investigations, pay compensation to the victims' families, and cease all support for terrorism.

Libya's refusal to comply led to the approval of UNSC Resolution 748 on March 31, 1992, imposing sanctions designed to bring about Libyan compliance.  Continued Libyan defiance led to passage of UNSC Resolution 883--a limited assets freeze and an embargo on selected oil equipment--in November 1993.

International Organization Participation:

ABEDA, AfDB, AFESD, AMF, AMU, AU, CAEU, COMESA, FAO, G-77, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICRM, IDA, IDB, IFAD, IFC, IFRCS, ILO, IMF, IMO, IMSO, Interpol, IOC, IOM, IPU, ISO, ITSO, ITU, LAS, MIGA, NAM, OAPEC, OIC, OPCW, OPEC, PCA, UN, UN Security Council (temporary), UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNIDO, UNWTO, UPU, WCL, WCO, WFTU, WHO, WIPO, WMO, WTO (observer).

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008