The Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) is a local non-profit, non-partisan Lebanese human rights organization in Beirut that was established by the Franco-Lebanese Movement SOLIDA (Support for Lebanese Detained Arbitrarily) in 2006. SOLIDA has been active since 1996 in the struggle against arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and the impunity of those perpetrating gross human violations.

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March 26, 2010

March 26, 2010 - Now Lebanon - Is Lebanon scared of the Hariri tribunal?

By Michael Young

Tawhid Movement leader Wiam Wahhab has sent Lebanon and the Special Tribunal a message from Syria. (Archive)
If there were lingering doubts that it was Syria that leaked information to the German magazine Der Spiegel last year indicating that Hezbollah had participated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, they were dissipated when the preeminent Syrian megaphone in Beirut, Wiam Wahhab, informed us this week that an investigating team from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon had interviewed Hezbollah members.

Wahhab’s message was simple: Accusing Hezbollah in the killing of Hariri could have dire consequences for Lebanon, as it might provoke a confrontation between Sunnis and Shia. While Lebanon officially continues to support the work of the tribunal, you will hear more frequently these days that many Lebanese officials quietly agree with Wahhab. They really just want the Hariri case to go away.

That has long been the calculation of the Syrians. In a meeting between Bashar al-Assad and the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in April 2007, Syria’s president implicitly linked Hezbollah to the Hariri crime. His words were leaked to the French daily Le Monde, where Assad was quoted as saying that instability in Lebanon “will worsen if the special [Hariri] tribunal is established. Particularly if it is established under Chapter VII [of the UN Charter]. This might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites [sic] from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea ... This would have serious consequences beyond Lebanon.”

The exchange told us many things. First, that if Syria was so keen to prevent a tribunal under Chapter VII, that meant it had something to hide. It also told us that Assad was aware that Hezbollah might have participated in the assassination of the former prime minister, since why else would he have brought up, completely out of the blue, the possibility of a Sunni-Shia civil war? In turn, this might explain why, when Assad was ignored and the tribunal formed under Chapter VII anyway, the Syrians perhaps decided that everyone needed a stronger dose of reality and leaked the information to Der Spiegel.

What Wahhab did, doubtless at the instigation of Damascus, was to bring the message home once more, now that the prosecutor of the Lebanon tribunal, Daniel Bellemare, has decided to take more witness statements, including those of Hezbollah members. For what the Syrian regime fears most is that an accusation against the party might take a roundabout route that eventually leads in its own direction.

After all, the Syrians have carefully read the reports of the UN investigators over the years. Recall that in his first report in March 2006, the then-head of the United Nations commission, Serge Brammertz, atypically provided interesting information when he wrote: “The Commission believes that there is a layer of perpetrators between those who initially commissioned the crime and the actual perpetrators on the day of the crime, namely those who enabled the crime to occur.”

In other words, there was a suicide bomber; there was a group of individuals who surveyed Hariri’s movements, and this appears to be where Hezbollah comes in; and there were those who commissioned the operation, and it doesn’t take much to guess who they were. But when Brammertz failed to initiate an aggressive police investigation in Syria, the UN was left to focus on Lebanese participation in the crime.

Criticism has been directed at the UN investigation for Brammertz’s unwillingness to conduct a real police investigation in Syria when he was at his post between 2006 and 2008. However, that should not mean the Lebanese are off the hook. If Bellemare does manage to put out an indictment against Lebanese parties, will the government in Beirut be willing to bear the consequences? After four years during which the tribunal was front and center in the political debate, especially in the rhetoric of the March 14 coalition; during which people were killed or injured on the tribunal’s behalf; is Lebanon today getting cold feet?

News reports suggest that Hezbollah has allowed a small number of its members summoned by Daniel Bellemare to be questioned. That’s interesting in itself. But what about the others who have not been made available to the prosecution? If they refuse to come forward, Bellemare has the option of compelling the Lebanese to bring them in. And if the Lebanese fail to do so, he has the latitude to go to the Security Council. He may choose this path, or he may not. But sooner or later the Lebanese authorities will have to take a clear position on the tribunal.

The Lebanese political class is happy only when floating in ambiguity. Yet that’s not acceptable in the case of a major political crime that led to the formation of a landmark tribunal. The UN, for all its faults, took Lebanon seriously in 2005 by creating an independent investigation of the Hariri assassination. The Lebanese must now show they deserved it.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

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