Friday 30 August is the 11th anniversary of the treaty signed by Libya and Italy on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation bringing to an end a long, turbulent chapter of relations between Rome and its former colony. It is not just another pact between two countries; it is an exceptional bilateral deal about the touchy issue of colonialism. While covering many areas, it was primarily intended to heal wounds and compensate for the losses that Libyans suffered under Italy’s occupation between 1911 and 1947.
Article 8 of the treaty sets out detailed, Italian-funded financial reparations to the tune of $5 billion, paid over 20 years, to finance infrastructure and medical, educational and agricultural projects. These include about 2,000 kilometres of road linking Libya’s eastern and western borders, and a railway network linking some Libyan cities. Furthermore, article 10 obliges Italy to return all artefacts and historical documents stolen from Libya during the occupation. The treaty also spells out future Italian-funded projects such as establishing the Libyan Academy in Rome, scholarships for Libyan students in higher education and retirement pensions for Libyans forced to fight alongside the Italian occupiers.
Italy’s recognition, as a former colonial power, of the pain and suffering it inflicted on Libya is what makes the treaty really ground-breaking. For the first time, a former coloniser admitted responsibility for its actions, apologised and sought forgiveness from the entire nation it once conquered.
Arriving in Benghazi to sign the treaty with the late Muammar Gaddafi, the then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi handed over an ancient statue of Venus, the headless Venus of Cyrene, which had been taken to Rome in colonial times. “In the name of the Italian people,” said Berlusconi, “as head of the government, I feel it [is] my duty to apologise and express my sorrow for what happened many years ago and left a scar on many of your families.”
This is the greatness of the treaty; it provided an apology for Italian colonialism. There have been some colonial apologies for specific atrocities committed under occupation, such as Britain saying sorry for killing a few thousand Kenyans, and Japan’s similar apology to the people of Korea. However, neither country actually apologised for colonialism itself, and nor did they pay reparations to their former colonies.
Libya did not get Italy to commit to an apology and reparations easily. It took years of negotiations and political pressure which saw Libya, on occasion, suspend economic ties with Italy. The late Libyan leader repeatedly turned down invitations to visit Italy unless it apologised and compensated Libya; that is what happened a year after the treaty was signed.
On 10 June 2009, Gaddafi arrived in Italy wearing the emblem of Libya’s famous anti-colonialist fighter, Omar Al-Mukhtar, and was accompanied by Al-Mukhtar’s son. Ignorant of the symbolism of this, the Western media mocked Gaddafi throughout his visit. The media also misinterpreted the Libyan leader’s meeting with about 200 business and professional women during his second visit to Rome in November of that year. Known to read history extensively, Gaddafi believed the story that a top Italian general, probably Benito Mussolini himself, visited Libya, met a group of women and handed them copies of the Bible. When Gaddafi met his group of women, he repaid the compliment and invited them to accept Islam before handing over copies of the Qur’an. This was his way of answering what had happened decades earlier. One of his advisors later confirmed the story to me. At the time no one had any idea why the meeting took place and Gaddafi’s inner circle kept quiet about it.
In 2008, Libya thus achieved the unthinkable and showed the world that those responsible for the colonial era can and should be punished as severely as possible so that it cannot be repeated. Yet apologies and reparations from former colonial powers still elude victims such as India, which endured the worst of British imperialism for nearly 200 years. The best that Algeria — colonised by France for 130 years — managed to get was recognition of certain atrocities committed by the French during the colonial era.
Even the UN has so far failed to condemn colonialism plainly and forcefully, let alone eradicate it. The world body recognises 167 days every year as international days for almost every issue from World Tsunami Awareness Day to World Cities Day. June has the highest number of such days, currently 28, starting with the Global Day of Parents on 1 June and ending with International Asteroid Day on 30 June.Curiously, the list does not include any international day for the eradication of colonialism or a world day for reparations for colonial victims. Of course, as long as major former colonisers and their allies are permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto powers ready to kill any such proposal, it is unlikely to happen. Even more puzzling is that all resolutions designating the 167 special days are adopted by the UN General Assembly and not by the Security Council. The General Assembly, of course, has no power and its resolutions are non-binding on UN member states.
Yet the UN found it relatively easy in 1991 to revoke its 1975 Resolution 3379, which considers Zionism to be “a form of racism and racial discrimination.” It has also failed to end the longest occupation in modern history, that imposed by Israel across historic Palestine.
In his book Wretched of the Earth, French anti-colonialist writer Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), wrote that, “Colonialism and imperialism have not settled their debt to us once they have withdrawn from our territories. The wealth of the imperialist nations is also our wealth. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.” How right he was, and his statement stands true even today.
According to well-known Indian writer and politician Shashi Tharoor, the issue of Britain paying reparations to India is “less important than the principle of atonement.” A simple apology is more important to people than money. “I… would be happy to accept a symbolic pound a year for the next two hundred years, as a token of apology,” he added. Colonial powers like Britain and France, as well as the others, should follow the Italy-Libya example by accepting their historical responsibilities towards their former colonial victims.
The world would be a better place states and global institutions, including the UN, find ways to reconcile their horrible history of conquests and invasions, and seek a prosperous and peaceful future for all. Reparations for Africa, for example, would help to reduce the flow of migrants from south to north, and possibly end it altogether. If Spain compensates its former colonies in Central and South America, they would be likely to be able to protect the Amazon for the betterment of all human beings everywhere, Spain included. Such a step would save the rich countries their entire aid budgets which they claim to spend on helping African counties every year.
The most important lesson we can learn from the Italy-Libya treaty is that cruelty cannot be forgiven unless dealt with objectively; and that colonialism is cruel by nature and so should be punishable.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.