Hariri trial a bellwether of Mideast clout
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.