(Not) in the national interest | Tonio Borg

After months relegated to the sidelines by the Libya uprising, Wikileaks has returned to the fore with a vengeance: this time, regaling us with leaked cables from the US embassy in Malta.

Caught in the middle of the resulting controversy was foreign minister Tonio Borg, over private conversations he had had with former US ambassador Douglas Kmiec in which a proposal for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) was apparently discussed in some detail.

In a country whose Constitutional neutrality has already been called into question recently, the notion of a potential ‘military agreement’ with the United States is bound to raise eyebrows. Borg however plays down the proposed agreement, and brushes off any suggestion from the Opposition about anything ‘secretive’ about the matter.

“This is diplomacy, and certainly what we as government discuss formally or informally is done through conversation, and notes sent to respective embassies. Whoever doesn’t know that, doesn’t know how things work,” Tonio Borg says.

But as he goes straight to the point on explaining what a SOFA agreement is, Borg makes it clear that the US proposal evolved over jurisdiction for prosecution of US personnel while on Maltese soil.

“This has nothing to do with establishing a military base, but simply a wish by the US to secure jurisdiction over their servicemen while in Malta on visiting ships,” he says, adding however that the informal discussions ended some six months ago after there was no agreement reached on the crucial matter of jurisdiction.

“I engaged in talks with the US ambassador after I was asked by the Prime Minister to see what could be done to accommodate a SOFA agreement with the US, given that US navy ships were finding it difficult to enter Malta due to the absence of such an agreement. In fact we only had a few visiting assets in harbour over the past years.”

Borg explains that SOFA agreements are in force in many countries, but Malta wanted to secure an agreement which would safeguard its own national interests, property and citizens.

He refers me to an incident some years ago when a Maltese national was knifed by Chilean cadet Hernán Sepúlveda Mery during a brawl in Paceville. The marine sought refuge on board his ship and was never handed over to the Maltese authorities for prosecution.

“It is in this spirit that I, on behalf of the Maltese government, insisted that should a similar incident involving US servicemen happen on Maltese soil, then Malta would have jurisdiction over the case.”

According to another cable – also revealed by Wikileaks – Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s chief of staff Edgar Galea Curmi allegedly told former US Ambassador to Malta Douglas Kmiec that the PM was “ready to go forward” on a US request to consider a SOFA, two years after rejoining the Partnership for Peace (PfP) in 2008.

“What remained to be determined was what parameters the SOFA needed, and how Malta could meet US ‘expectations’,” Kmiec paraphrased Galea Curmi as saying.

The cables strongly hinted that Lawrence Gonzi would “move broad SOFA legislation quietly through parliament without formal debate” or increase NATO presence gradually through diplomatic notes.

While SOFA negotiations were never opened after informal talks were held, the cables quote Galea Curmi describing Borg as having opposed the SOFA proposal.

But Borg rejects the ‘sceptic’ label given to him by Galea-Curmi.

“Call me a nationalist, but I will not cede an inch on what is in the national interest,” he says. “There is no way that I will cede my jurisdiction for prosecution should harm be inflicted on a Maltese national or damage be done to Maltese property.”

Borg adds that, contrary to any other suggestion, “even if we were to reach an agreement, this would need parliamentary approval.”

And what weight does a SOFA agreement have on Malta’s participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme?

Borg explains that Malta’s present involvement in PfP is in search and rescue and anti-pollution operations, as well as planning for UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.

But the publication of the US cables have triggered anger from the Opposition benches, with foreign affairs spokesman George Vella suggesting that government has ‘overstepped’ parliament by reactivating PfP without invoking Malta’s Treaties Act.

“Did the Labour government, which pulled Malta out of PfP in 1996 ever come to Parliament to debate the move? No. So what difference did it make when a Nationalist administration in 2008 reactivated Malta’s participation in PfP?” Borg replies.

Asked if Malta’s neutrality status was hindering government’s foreign policy plans, or perhaps prompting some form of re-think with regard to keeping neutrality in check – given the obsolete references to the superpowers in the Constitution – by proposing any NATO bases on the island, Borg was adamant to respond that Malta will remain a neutral state.

“We are not after NATO membership, we are not after changing the Constitution at all,” he replies, adding that any changes would however require a two thirds vote in the House of Representatives.

But irrespective of Malta’s neutral position, the country’s participation in PfP has granted Malta access to classified NATO information which has proved useful to the Armed Forces, which has its personnel engaged in important humanitarian missions around the world.

“Such information would include security reports on the countries where our troops are serving, and could be vital for decisions to be made on whether to pull out our officers,” Borg explained.

“You see, while some talk about PfP, we have quite a number of soldiers within the AFM C-Company who are itching to go on such missions.”

Malta’s neutrality came into discussion just six months ago when the Libyan uprising began. While lamenting that government was initially faced with criticism from who insisted that Malta should engage in providing military assistance to Libya, others stressed that the country should remain neutral.

“I am satisfied today that there exists a general consensus that Malta took the right decision, and rather than participate militarily in the Libya uprising, it chose to provide strategic humanitarian assistance,” he observed.

Tonio Borg added that although the UN resolution would have permitted Malta to be militarily involved in the Libya uprising, it was wise of the government to ensure that the country served as a “life-line” to the Libyan people.

Talking about a life-line to the Libyan people, Tonio Borg tells me about an instance where the TNC Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril telephoned the Prime Minister a month ago, asking for his help in evacuating a number of Libyans from Tunisia and take them to Benghazi.

The Prime Minister he said, took a “calculated risk” and chartered a Virtù Ferries boat that took Maltese doctors and civil protection personnel to evacuate some 620 civilians. “As the word spread that a boat was coming to pick up refugees, some 2,500 people turned up at Sfax harbour and attempted to storm the boat.”

Tonio Borg goes on to explain that there were heartbreaking scenes at Sfax harbour, when mothers would come up to the boat with small children, and beg to be taken to Benghazi.

“They were flooding the harbour from various refugee camps, all desperate to be taken to Benghazi,” Borg says, and adds that there were times that desperate Libyans tried to climb the ropes that moored the catamaran to the quay.

“That mission was a courageous one by the Maltese, which received recognition from the Transitional National Council,” he said.

But how does Tonio Borg respond to the suggestion that Malta may have been ‘close’ to the Libyan regime led by Muammar Gaddafi?

Borg rejects that notion.

“During all my meetings with the Benghazi-based Transitional Council, not even one member ever made that suggestion to me.

To the contrary, they all appreciate the efforts made by Malta to alleviate the suffering of the Libyan people throughout the conflict.”

Borg explains the ‘clear’ differences between the rapports that PN-led administration and Labour governments had with Gaddafi.

“It was Labour that brought Gaddafi over on different occasions to address mass meetings, whereas Gaddafi never visited Malta under PN-led governments,” he replied.

Borg explains that shortly after his election to power in 1987, former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami immediately sought to change the ‘military agreement’ that existed between the previous Labour government and Libya.

“That agreement led Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici to telephone Libya in 1986 and alert Gaddafi on the US-led attack on Bab Aziziya, allegedly saving the Libyan dictator’s life,” Borg says.

“In 1987, Fenech Adami removed the military agreement to one of friendly neighbourly relations,” he said.

But asked what frustrated him as foreign minister or the government when dealing with the Gaddafi regime over the years, Tonio Borg replies that the Libya’s political system was divided into too many governmental structures.

“What you agree with Minister X is suddenly blocked by Y and so on...” he recalls. “In fact, one of the Transitional Council’s representatives, who defected from Gaddafi’s regime, told me recently that the Colonel would insist with all his ministers never to close a file with a country, except with the US, in order to create an almost absolute dependency on Libya for a solution to the matter in question...”

Borg says that the culmination of the Libyan revolution characterised by the storming of the Bab Aziziya compound in Tripoli on August 20, came as no surprise to him, as he had been reliably informed that the rebels advance on Tripoli was to happen during the Ramadan.

“I was tipped off well, and I had shared this information with my European colleagues, who agreed that the information was correct.”

But Borg defends his choice to keep the Maltese embassy in Tripoli open and never shut, although with just a handful of local personnel.

“I needed to have an interlocutor while I was also keeping an eye on Benghazi,” Borg explained, adding that there was a time when he had summoned the Libyan ambassador to Malta and formally protested with him over the evidence collected by the police that senior Libyan military officers were behind the influx of African migrants to Malta.

According to Tonio Borg, a number of migrants who arrived on Maltese shores during the conflict told investigators that they had been put onto boats by uniformed men in Zawiya, which was still in the hands of Gaddafi forces and loyalists.

Government is now seeking to restore diplomatic activity at the Maltese embassy in Tripoli, as the new government is to set in.

Meanwhile, finance minister Tonio Fenech is to leave Malta next week for Benghazi, leading a business delegation made up of a number of professionals who held businesses in the North African country.

“Malta is seeking to strengthen its ties with the Libyan people, and look forward to working with the new government.”

Borg meanwhile is working to overcome hurdles when it comes to handing over frozen Libyan assets by UN resolution.

“It is not an easy task, because there are so many legal technicalities involved, which the EU and the UN are working on.”

There are State assets and personal assets belonging to a number of Gaddafi family members which are frozen under the EU and UN sanctions, which are quite distinct from each other.

Borg explains that the TNC cannot put their hands on State assets given that they are in trusts which need to have formal changes to the names of the trustees.

“I have asked the TNC to appoint new trustees to these funds in order to facilitate the transfer, but we just cannot release them as easily as one may think.”

On the other hand, the TNC must also prove that assets in the name of Gaddafi family members or people close to the regime who have had sanctions imposed on their names, had been stolen from the Libyan state.

“Until this evidence is produced, those assets cannot be released to the Libyan state.”

Borg is cautious to respond to calls on the expulsion of Libyan diplomats who are said to be Gaddafi loyalists.

“I have already asked the TNC to identify the diplomats they want to have accredited to Malta.

“Should there be names to be excluded and called back to Libya, then these will be stripped of their diplomatic immunity and sent back to Libya.”

If the Foreign Minister has done what was expected of him in representing the wishes, needs, and desires of the Maltese population why report the SOFA story ad nauseum. Given the knee-jerk lemmingism of many, the repetition of this story is unessarily provocative and can only serve to damage Malta's diplomatic interests and increase political tension.