Echoing US, Britain recognizes Libya's rebels: What do they gain?

Britain officially recognized Libya's rebels as the country's legitimate authority. The move is expected to give the rebels access to some, but not all, of Libya's British-held assets.

Kerim Okten/AP
British Foreign Minister William Hague address the media during a news conference at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, on July 27, recognizing Libya's main opposition group as the country's legitimate government.

Britain officially recognized Libya’s rebel government as the country’s sole legitimate governing authority on Wednesday – following a similar decision the United States made earlier this month.

The British decision, like that of the US, is primarily aimed at paving the legal path for the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC) to begin receiving some of the billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets held in Western countries.

But by recognizing the rebel organization as Libya’s legitimate governing body, Western governments are transforming what they initiated as a humanitarian intervention into a regime-change operation.

Also on Wednesday, the rebel council’s leader withdrew an offer to allow Muammar Qaddafi to remain on Libyan soil after leaving power.

Foreign Secretary William Hague, who announced Britain’s new policy, said his government will now deal exclusively with the TNC on Libyan matters.

In line with that decision, the British government also summoned the top remaining official representing Mr. Qaddafi’s government in London and ordered him and other diplomats representing the Qaddafi regime to leave the country.

“We no longer recognize them as the representatives of the Libyan government,” Secretary Hague said.

As part of his comments on Libya, Hague also expressed the current British government’s disgust at seeing convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi in television news reports participating in a pro-Qaddafi rally in Tripoli. Mr. Megrahi was released from a Scottish prison in 2009 on humanitarian grounds based on supposed medical reports that he had only three months to live.

Hague said the sight of Megrahi publicly rallying for Qaddafi two years later was “further reminder that a great mistake was made” by the previous British government, and that the medical advice at the time was “pretty worthless.”

In Washington, Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey said it was “gratifying” to see the British government acknowledge that the medical report on Megrahi was bogus.

Senator Menendez, who failed to get cooperation from the British government when he held a hearing last year on Megrahi’s release, said in a statement that he interpreted Hague’s comments as acknowledgment that “pressure from the UK government on the Scottish government was a factor in the convicted terrorist being let go.”

Menendez said he would “work to ensure that any new government in Libya cooperates with efforts to extradite Mr. Al-Megrahi to the US to pay for his crimes.”

Britain’s decision to recognize the TNC is expected to allow the government to unfreeze the British-held assets of the Libyan oil company Agoco, estimated to be about $150 million. But the rebels will still not have access to the additional hundreds of millions of dollars the official Libyan government has deposited in Britain.

It is also not clear how much of the $34 billion in Libyan assets that the Treasury Department says are held in the US will become accessible to the TNC as a result of US recognition.

Some scholars of international law and diplomatic practice say it is unusual for governments to take the step of recognizing a rebel government – an action some have described as tantamount to taking sides in a civil conflict.

John Bellinger, an adjunct senior fellow for international and national security law at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, says recognition of the TNC is especially unusual given that the rebel government controls only a portion of Libyan territory and is unable to claim representation of all Libyan people.

“As a general rule, international lawyers have viewed recognition of an insurgent group, when there is still a functioning government, as an illegal interference in a country’s internal affairs,” Mr. Bellinger wrote recently on the CFR website.

Indeed, it is this unusual recognition by major governments of a rebel group that has led some regional experts to conclude that the NATO operation in Libya has now openly become what it really always was but which NATO leaders long denied: a regime-change operation.

The US and now British recognition of the TNC as Libya’s sole governing authority may have also played a role in stiffening the rebels’ spine and led them to withdraw an offer to allow Qaddafi to remain in Libya.

On Wednesday the rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said in Benghazi that an offer made about a month ago to allow Qaddafi to remain in Libya “is no longer valid.”

Earlier in the week in London, Mr. Jalil had said his council would accept a nongoverning Qaddafi on Libyan territory, and Foreign Secretary Hague had backed Jalil’s comment.

But in Benghazi Wednesday, Jalil said the offer had been part of a proposal – no longer on the table – that would have ended the war with a power-sharing deal based on a governing council of two Qaddafi loyalists and two rebels, with an unspecified fifth person as council chair.

Diplomatic sources close to the rebels said the about-face on the offer to Qaddafi represented a hardening rebel view that defeating the Qaddafi regime militarily is their only option.

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