Global Policy Forum

Chirac, Hariri and the International Court


By Patrick Seale*

Middle East Online
April 30, 2007

As Chirac prepares to leave office, his hope for an international court on the Hariri assassination dims. The issue intensifies disputes between Lebanon and Syria, and stalemates Lebanon's governance, says Patrick Seale.

President Jacques Chirac of France, who leaves office on May 16, may be about to lose the last battle of his 12-year presidential career. He had vowed that the assassins of his close friend, former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, would be tried and sentenced by an international tribunal created specially by the UN Security Council and endorsed by the Lebanese government. Hariri and 22 others were killed on 14 February 2005 in downtown Beirut by a vast explosion. When Chirac went to Beirut to attend the funeral, he is thought to have given a private pledge to Hariri's family to punish the killers. On that very day, he put forward the idea of setting up an international tribunal, and has been campaigning for it ever since.

But time is running out. With barely two weeks to go before Chirac leaves the Elysée Palace, a violent controversy over the proposed tribunal has for months paralysed not just the Lebanese government, but the whole Lebanese political system. Meanwhile, a divided Security Council has so far failed to act as Chirac would have liked.

Hariri's murder has led to a bitter feud between Chirac and the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which he suspects of complicity in the crime. Some would say that Chirac's personal obsession with Hariri and his anger at Syria have affected his judgement. He seems to have refused to recognize that, so long as the Arab-Israeli conflict remains unresolved, Syria has vital security interests in Lebanon, where it cannot tolerate a hostile government, or the influence of a hostile external power.

Syria's Lebanese allies have denounced the tribunal as a political machination aimed at bringing Lebanon into the sphere of influence of the United States and Israel. Accordingly, they have sprung to Syria's defence. Cabinet members representing Hezbollah and Amal - two predominantly Shi'a movements close to Syria - have withdrawn from the government, thereby making its decisions invalid. President Emile Lahoud, another of Syria's allies, has refused to put his signature to the text setting up the tribunal. Yet another Syrian ally, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, has refused to call the chamber into session to approve the project, while opposition members have for weeks been camping in large numbers outside the seat of government in Beirut in an attempt to bring down the government of Fuad Siniora.

Conversely, Syria's opponents in Lebanon - backed by France and the United States - see the proposed tribunal not simply as a means to avenge Hariri but also as a way to assert Lebanon's sovereignty by excluding Syrian influence altogether from Lebanese affairs. The controversy is, therefore, political rather than legal. It is as much about the ambitions of external powers as it is about the internal struggle for power.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was recently in Damascus in an attempt to persuade Syria to help resolve the Lebanese crisis by giving way on the tribunal. President Bashar is thought to have answered that the matter was a purely Lebanese affair. On a recent visit to Beirut, Mr. Ban's legal adviser, Nicolas Michel, also failed to persuade Lebanese politicians to patch up their quarrel and end the paralysis of their country. To break the impasse, French diplomacy has been attempting to persuade the Security Council to override local objections and set up the international tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter - the Chapter which allows the Council to resort to coercive measures if it determines that the situation constitutes a threat to international peace. But a number of Council members, notably Qatar, China and Russia, have indicated their disagreement.

The trouble is that the assassination of Hariri - heinous though it was - cannot in law be credibly described as a grave international crime requiring judgement by a UN-created tribunal, on the model of the tribunals set up to try the perpetrators of the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, or those guilty of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Nor can the quarrel between pro- and anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon be described as a menace to peace of global proportions. It will be recalled that on 7 April 2005, shortly after Hariri's murder, the Security Council passed Resolution 1595 setting up an independent commission to investigate the crime. This, in itself, was a bold departure from international practice. Moreover, the commission's first chairman, the German magistrate Detlev Mehlis, failed to provide convincing evidence to support his allegations of Syrian guilt. His successor, the Belgian judge Serge Brammertz, has been notably more prudent and less provocative in his recent reports. He has requested a further year in which to continue his investigations.

In the meantime, President Chirac and his wife Bernadette are preparing to move from the Elysée Palace to an apartment in Paris loaned to them by the Hariri family - only the latest example of the close ties between them. Last February 25, at a ceremony in memory of Rafik Hariri, President Chirac described his friend as a 'visionary statesman' whose death had left an "incurable wound." Friends of Lebanon can only hope that the wound to Lebanon's institutions can be cured and that the crucial question of Lebanon's relations with Syria - of vital importance for both countries - can be settled on a basis of mutual understanding and respect.

About the Author: Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

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