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Opinion: Gadhafi holds Switzerland hostage

The traditionally neutral state has lost more than its honor in the years-long dispute with Libya.

Libya's leader Moammar Gadhafi stands during the closing session of the 23rd Arab League summit in Sirte, Libya, March 28, 2010. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

ZURICH, Switzerland — Switzerland’s neutrality has always ensured the Alpine nation a place in world diplomacy. But, increasingly, it’s the Swiss who are in need of a mediator in disputes with other nations instead of being called upon as one.

Over the past 20 months Switzerland has been embroiled in a feud with Libya that involves trade embargoes, visa and travel restrictions, and the jailing of a Swiss business man in Tripoli.

The dispute with Libya started in the summer of 2008 over the arrest of Moammar Gadhafi’s son Hannibal on charges, later dropped, of allegedly assaulting two domestic employees at a local hotel in Geneva.

While Gadhafi junior has repeatedly run into trouble with the law in various European cities, he was always able to invoke diplomatic immunity and avoid any repercussions (except for in France, where he received a four-month suspended prison sentence for allegedly beating up a female companion). But in Geneva, Hannibal and his wife were imprisoned for two nights.

Libya retaliated by cutting oil supplies, withdrawing billions of dollars from Swiss bank accounts and canceling most commercial flights between the two countries. Last year, Gadhafi senior urged the United Nations to abolish Switzerland and divide it up between Germany, France and Italy.

Nearly two years later the Swiss are downplaying the effect of the Libyan boycott. In 2008, Switzerland exported $263 million to Libya, mainly in machinery. This was only 0.13 percent of total Swiss exports. Switzerland’s main import from Libya is oil. In 2008 Switzerland's imports were worth some $3 billion, a third of the country’s crude oil imports. In 2009 they had fallen to $0.7 billion.

"We had enough time to import oil from other states,” said Philippe Cordonier of the Swiss Petroleum Association, "Libya has played its game and it didn’t have an impact.”

Business also continues at Libyan company Tamoil, which owns and runs an oil refinery near Lake Geneva and some 300 filling stations in Switzerland.

But the main casualty in this dispute is Max Goeldi, a manager with Swedish-Swiss Firm ABB in Tripoli. Goeldi has been prevented from leaving Libya since July 2008 over violating immigration rules. In February, he started a four-month prison sentence.

Amnesty International is campaigning for his release and said he is a victim of a diplomatic dispute.