Global Policy Forum

A UN Betrayal in Beirut

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By Michael Young

February 13, 2010

FIVE years ago today, the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon was killed, an assassination that set off the "cedar revolution" and forced Syria, the principal suspect in the crime, to withdraw its army from the country. Meanwhile, global public outcry led the United Nations Security Council to initiate an international investigation, the first of its kind.

Half a decade later, however, the Hariri case has made little progress toward justice. Lately, Syria has reasserted its power in Beirut after years of trying to destabilize a government dominated by its political foes. In December, Saad Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister and Rafik's son, met with Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, acceding to the reconciliation between his own political sponsor, Saudi Arabia, and Damascus - making Lebanon less likely to point the finger at Syria for the killing.

But the more significant problem actually lies within the United Nations investigation itself. While it has been upgraded to a special tribunal, sitting near The Hague, it has suffered from questionable leadership, lost key members and last year had to release suspects for lack of formal indictments.

The United Nations investigation team was set up in 2005 by Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor who had investigated the 1986 La Belle discotheque bombing in West Berlin. Mr. Mehlis had few doubts about Syria's involvement, and said so in his first report. He asked for President Assad's testimony (over Syrian protests), interviewed Syrian intelligence officers in Vienna and arrested suspects. When Mr. Mehlis stepped down from his position in December, 2005, he felt he had enough to arrest at least one of the intelligence officers.

However, the investigation wilted under his successor, the Belgian judge Serge Brammertz. Mr. Brammertz issued uninformative reports and displayed a lack of transparency that discouraged potential witnesses, unsure of whether he had solid evidence in hand, from coming forward; he wasted time by reopening the crime scene to determine the kind of blast that had killed Mr. Hariri, which three earlier specialist reports had already established; he failed to follow through on the interviews with the Syrian officers; and though he met with President Assad, he apparently did not formally take down his testimony.

He also brought in more analysts to examine the technical details of the crime, rather than more police investigators with the experience to compare testimonies, make arrests and unravel the perpetrators' chain of command. After two years, Mr. Brammertz failed to identify any new suspects beyond those Mr. Mehlis arrested, notably four senior Lebanese security officials (whose continued detention he nevertheless reconfirmed).

"The investigation has lost all the momentum it had in January 2006" when Mr. Brammertz took over, Mr. Mehlis told me in 2008. "Unfortunately, I haven't seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward. When I left we were ready to name suspects, but he seems not to have progressed from that stage."

Mr. Mehlis wasn't alone in his concern. Two senior Lebanese government officials closely involved with the United Nations investigation also later expressed their misgivings about Mr. Brammertz to me; one of them said that he had "taken the public for a ride" and echoed criticism that his investigation was top-heavy with analysts.

Mr. Brammertz, who stepped down at the end of 2007, declined my request for a response to Mr. Mehlis. More disturbing, the United Nations itself has remained silent, even though Mr. Brammertz's successor, Daniel Bellemare of Canada, has suffered his own setbacks. Last April, despite having acquired prosecutorial powers, he was forced by the tribunal's bylaws to release the imprisoned suspects pending an indictment. Mr. Bellemare deserves blame for taking on such a weak case in the first place, effectively legitimizing his predecessor's shoddy work. But the onus surely lies with Mr. Brammertz, and with those at United Nations headquarters who never held him to account.

The tribunal has also suffered from the departures of key officials. The first registrar (the equivalent of senior administrator for the tribunal), Robin Vincent, left because of differences with Mr. Bellemare. His successor, David Tolbert, will step down later this month. The costliest exit, however, will be that of the chief investigator, Naguib Kaldas, a respected Australian policeman, officially because his contract has ended and he has been promoted at home - though word has it he was expected to renew.

At the least, these developments raise doubts about the prosecutor's capacity to lead a complicated investigation and to get along with colleagues; they also indicate that indictments aren't forthcoming, which may explain why top officials are finding it so easy to depart from a landmark tribunal.

Any murder case takes time, but there's reason to believe that investigative incompetence or international political pressure, or a combination of both, has played a role in slowing down, and even rolling back, the search for Mr. Hariri's killers. Whichever it is, the United Nations has done little to ensure success. In our interview, Mr. Mehlis recalled that the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, had warned him that "he did not want another trouble spot."

The impetus to identify Mr. Hariri's assassins is gone; not only has Lebanon sought rapprochement with Syria, but the Lebanese public's expectations, after years of an inconclusive inquiry, have hit rock bottom. Foreign governments fear the instability that might ensue if Mr. Bellemare issues indictments, so few will regret it if he doesn't. But the United Nations pushed for the Hariri investigation; its integrity is tied up with a plausible outcome. If that's impossible, there is no point insulting the victims by letting the charade continue. Better to send Mr. Bellemare home.


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