(DER SPIEGEL) Libya’s “Auschwitz in the sand” once produced tons of deadly chemical weapons. Now, Gadhafi wants to use the same factory to produce life-saving AIDS medicine. He’s got one cheerleader: US President Bush. But he needs more.
It’s a story that sounds like a Hollywood screenplay: The president of the United States of America, struggling to establish peace in the world, leads one of the world’s most notorious villains back to the path of virtue. To pay for his past transgressions, the reformed villain invests millions of dollars to convert his chemical weapons factory into a pharmaceutical plant that can produce medicine to treat Africa’s myriad diseases.
In fact, this is not a Hollywood fairy tale. The missionary is US president George W. Bush, and the repentant sinner is Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Since the Libyan colonel abandoned his secret nuclear weapons programs and shipped his blueprints and high-tech equipment to the United States, the US president is more convinced of his mission than ever before. Enemies can be turned into friends — all you have to do is be forceful enough. One of Bush’s favorite campaign stories was about how the desert leader was convinced to change his ways.
Now US diplomats are busy making sure the happy end becomes a reality. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a watchdog group similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, is expected to give its seal of approval to the conversion of Gadhafi’s notorious chemical plant into a medicine manufacturing facility. Built in the 1980s with the help of unscrupulous German businessmen, the factory in Rabita was dubbed “Auschwitz in the sand” by the New York Times in the mid-1980s. In the future, the plant will produce drugs to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and will distribute those drugs to the poor for little money. All part of Gadhafi’s promise to help alleviate suffering on the African continent.
Libya has already had the plans drawn up for converting the factory — which the United States had once planned to bomb to pieces — and has submitted them to the OPCW in The Hague. The conversion is certainly feasible from a technical standpoint, say the inspectors who were permitted to examine the formerly top-secret industrial complex 70 kilometers south of Tripoli. The Libyan government has also awarded the construction contract to an Italian company specializing in such conversions, and now all it needs is the world community’s approval.
But getting the go-ahead isn’t quite that easy. The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, currently ratified by 167 countries, imposed a moratorium in April, 2003 on such conversions. At that time, however, Gadhafi was still in image rehab. Even though Gadhafi, unlike Saddam Hussein, understood that the United States would soon go to war after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the negotiations with American and British intelligence officials over Libya’s WMDs dragged on. Libya only became a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention in February of this year at which time the government acknowledged that it had produced 23 tons of mustard gas in Rabita, and that it had already purchased 1,315 tons of ingredients to make sarin, a highly toxic substance. The materials are now under the control of the OPCW, which used bulldozers to destroy 3,300 bombshells intended for deployment of the gases.
In truth, Rabita should have been destroyed completely. However, the United States now sees itself as Gadhafi’s probation officer and is also betting on doing a lot of business with Libya, an oil-producing state. Washington is urging the Chemical Weapons Convention signatory states to make an exception and extend the moratorium for Libya, which would allow it to convert the plant. “After all,” says one US diplomat, “we’re not talking about the production of camel hair shampoo here.”
The OPCW Director-General, Rogelio Pfirter, is now in favor of the conversion because, as he believes, it “serves urgent humanitarian needs.” However, he also believes that other repentant countries should be given opportunities like that given to Libya. Syria, a potential candidate, has already received the US government’s approval.
The German ambassador in The Hague is also likely to approve the exception. The German government doesn’t want to be seen as a spoilsport when it comes to Bush’s pet project. However, one doesn’t get the sense that Berlin is particularly enthusiastic, especially in light of painful memories of the tremendous blow the Rabita affair dealt to Germany’s reputation. “It would be best,” says one administration spokesman, “never to hear another word about the whole thing.”