Global Policy Forum

Hariri Trial a Bellwether of Mideast Clout


By Nicholas Blanford

Christian Science Monitor
April 19, 2007

The fight over the tribunal for the killers of the former Lebanese prime minister is pitting Western powers against Syria and its allies.

The United Nations' top legal envoy faces a tough challenge this week: forging a last-ditch agreement among feuding Lebanese to form an international criminal tribunal. His success is being seen as pivotal to Lebanon's deepening political impasse.

As the crisis has steadily worsened here, the tribunal has morphed from an instrument of international justice to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri into the nexus of a regional struggle over Lebanon's future played out in the Mideast and the corridors of the UN headquarters in New York. The fate of Lebanon - and possibly neighboring Syria - could hang on the creation and powers of the tribunal. "The tribunal . is no longer merely aimed at putting those responsible for the assassination of Rafik Hariri on trial.. Today, the tribunal acts as a compass for the superpowers' relations with one another and with the region's nations and their collective and individual wars," wrote Raghida Dergham in the Arabic Al Hayat daily last week.

Nicolas Michel, the UN's legal adviser arrived in Beirut late Tuesday for a round of talks with the government and opposition leaders to try and reach a consensus that would allow the joint UN-Lebanese tribunal to be established. Mr. Michel has said that he does not intend to interfere in Lebanese affairs but will clarify any outstanding questions either side might have. "We want the tribunal to be a real judicial organ, and not a political instrument," he said.

Hariri killed Feb. 14, 2005

The tribunal is intended to try those accused of carrying out several assassinations, attempted killings, and bomb attacks since October 2004, the most prominent being Mr. Hariri's murder in a truck bomb blast two years ago. Although the government and the UN have approved forming the tribunal, its ratification by the Lebanese parliament has been held up by Nabih Berri, the speaker and opposition leader, who has refused to table a vote.

Analysts in Beirut doubt that Michel's mediation will resolve the crisis and suspect that the UN Security Council will resort to sidestepping the Lebanese parliament by adopting the tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which allows for the use of sanctions and military force to implement resolutions. "Michel is coming with some explanations and guarantees for the opposition, but they won't accept it," says Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with Lebanon's As Safir newspaper. "His mission will be a failure and he will propose Chapter 7."

The ruling March 14 coalition, named for the 2005 uprising against Syrian influence, last week petitioned the UN to adopt Chapter 7 to trump what they believe is a bid by the Hizbullah-led opposition to block the tribunal to protect its ally, Syria. A UN investigation into Hariri's murder has indicated high-level Syrian involvement. "I think we are in for a long stalemate and we can't wait indefinitely for the tribunal. [Chapter 7] might help change Syria's attitude," says Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze and leading member of the March 14 coalition. However, opposition figures have warned that resorting to Chapter 7 could plunge the country into civil war.

A political tool against Syria?

Hizbullah charges that the tribunal no longer represents international justice, but has become a political club wielded by the US to threaten Washington's enemies in Syria and Lebanon. "The Americans are pushing the political conflict in Lebanon," says Nawaf Mussawi, Hizbullah's foreign affairs adviser. "The Americans and Israelis are dreaming of pushing Lebanon into a civil war to beat us." Certainly, the US and France are powerful champions of the Hariri murder investigation and reportedly have urged a hesitant China and Russia not to veto a Chapter 7 tribunal. Analysts say Washington is gambling on Syria being held responsible for Hariri's murder, believing that indictments against senior Syrian officials will effectively cripple the Damascus regime, even if the Syrian leadership refuses to hand over the suspects.

On Monday, French President Jacques Chirac, a personal friend of the slain Hariri, implicitly endorsed the use of Chapter 7, saying that the UN Security Council would have to "take responsibility" for the tribunal's creation if the Lebanese parliament failed to ratify it. "It's a very powerful political tool against the Syrians and their allies," says Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "Had it been some ally of the US that had been suspected [of Hariri's murder] I may not be surprised if they had vetoed it."

Still, supporters of the tribunal insist that the internationalization of the Hariri investigation was inevitable given the weakness of Lebanon's judiciary. "If the Lebanese judicial process were capable of handling it, it should go to it, but since we can see it is incapable of doing so, the resort to international justice becomes necessary," says Chibli Mallat, visiting professor of international law at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson Center.

The chief UN investigator into Hariri's murder has requested an additional year to continue the commission's work, which formally began in June 2005, but shows little indication that it will issue any conclusions soon. Michel said in Beirut that the tribunal would not begin working for "at least one year" after it is adopted. However, legal experts say that the tribunal can begin working as soon as it is formally adopted, a location is set for the court and a panel of Lebanese and international judges are selected. Suspects can be indicted and tried before the court, even as the main UN investigation continues its work, legal experts say. The March 14 coalition hopes that the creation of the tribunal will cow whomever is behind the sporadic assassinations that continue to take a toll of Lebanese politicians and journalists.

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