Thursday, November 22, 2007

Place the Hariri trial on a fast track

Place the Hariri trial on a fast track
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Those of us who welcomed the naming of Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister of France are wearing a hair shirt in penance. We deserve no better for having believed in a man with a scaffolding of recklessness to prop up a towering ego. Before his latest return to Lebanon - we've lost track of how many - he said this: "I realized that arriving at the last minute would be insufficient and that Lebanon merits more, even if this comes at the expense of my personal rest and my family life."

Super Kouchner to the rescue, and defying France's 35-hour working week on top of it! If only the minister were here to rescue Lebanon from a mess that he and his boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy, have been so instrumental in helping create (bizarrely, with Washington's bland acquiescence). On Monday, Kouchner held back from blaming the Syrians for blocking the French initiative on the presidency, but his government has made two critical mistakes in recent weeks in its dealings with Damascus, which Lebanon will pay dearly for.

The first was to formally bring Syria back into the Lebanese presidential election process, when United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 (which France co-sponsored) was designed to do the exact opposite. France pleaded with Syria to be flexible on the presidency, offering normalized relations in exchange. Syrian President Bashar Assad saw a golden opportunity to jack up his price on the panicking French, and we are where we are today, with Syria not only looking to capitalize on French eagerness, but also working to use that eagerness as leverage to bring in one of their favorites as Lebanese president.

The second mistake remains to be confirmed, but if confirmed it would be very dangerous. According to sources in Paris, when Sarkozy's envoys, Claude Gueant and Jean-David Levitte, met with Syrian officials, including Assad, in Damascus two weeks ago, they reportedly agreed that the Hariri tribunal was one of the issues that could be discussed if Syria fulfilled what was required of it in Lebanon. One version of the story is that the French made no specific commitments on the tribunal, merely affirming that if Syria satisfied certain conditions in Lebanon, including allowing a presidential election and other concessions that were less clear, then the matter of the tribunal would not be off the table. A second version was that the sides were more specific when it came to the tribunal.

The first version may be the more accurate one. By upping the ante on the French initiative, the Syrians have implied that any discussion of the tribunal, and doubtless much else, remained too vague to earn France a Lebanon deal. Nor would Sarkozy risk making commitments on an international tribunal over which he has little real power. However, even if this minimal interpretation of what the French allegedly said is true, it would be alarming, showing Assad that all Syria needs to do is pursue its destabilization of Lebanon to make the international community fold. If the thought of accepting a bargain on the tribunal is taken seriously, even though Syria has conceded nothing on Lebanese sovereignty and independence, then expect a return of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon.

What of the Hariri investigation and tribunal, which will be soon be headed by one Daniel Bellemare? The appointment is welcome but not reassuring. Bellemare has never managed a major international terrorist investigation and you have to wonder whether the UN could not find better than a former Canadian assistant deputy attorney general to handle so highly complex a political crime. That said, Bellemare deserves the benefit of the doubt and might surprise, given that Serge Brammertz passed through the Hariri investigation like a submarine, leaving little behind but an array of dry "technical" reports that, until now, have failed to name names. Why Brammertz agreed this month to become prosecutor of the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when he should have prosecuted the case he has spent two years investigating may remain a mystery. However, it does make you wonder what the Belgian is all about.

For some time Brammertz has had his critics, while many journalists - present company included - have defended his discretion. It's time to give belated credit to the critics to ensure that Bellemare, whom Brammertz recommended, won't hesitate to name names soon. Rafik Hariri's elimination involved a wide array of means, both local and international, as Brammertz has argued many times. The investigator has implicitly pointed the finger at Syria on dozens of occasions in his reports, not least in his description of the motives for the assassination. Yet he has never mentioned specific states or individuals. But people somewhere did commit the crime and they need to be arrested. This elusiveness cannot continue without grave damage being done to the UN's credibility.

The international lawyer and presidential candidate Chibli Mallat probably put it best in a column written for this newspaper: "After two years of reports, the Lebanese and Syrian publics, and the world, are entitled to know more. Either the investigator has no evidence of the involvement of the Syrian leadership and its Lebanese allies - in which case [former UN investigator Detlev] Mehlis and the initial UN investigator of the case, Peter Fitzgerald, were wrong, and Brammertz should say so publicly ... or Brammertz thinks the conclusions of his predecessors were correct, and he must say so publicly."

However, even more withering is the assessment of a former official involved in the Hariri investigation. Describing the results of the two Brammertz years as "meager," the official noted that "apparently out of lack of professionalism" the current Hariri investigation team has actually fallen much behind what the previous Mehlis commission found. The official is equally critical of the UN (as well as the Lebanese judicial system and media) for "tolerating" Brammertz for so long and fears that there is a lack of international will to see the Hariri case through, as well as a more general absence of international interest in Lebanon.

So severe a verdict hardly implies that Syria is out of the woods. But it is a needed warning shot. The Brammertz reports, while bureaucratically safe, have all pointed at a single overriding culprit. The Belgian may not have wanted to take risks, but Bellemare will find that unavoidable if he prosecutes the case. Mehlis and Fitzgerald made it clear whom they thought were behind Hariri's murder, and nothing in Brammertz's reports has contradicted their findings. If anything, the information from the UN commission in the past two years has confirmed previous assumptions.

That's why the UN must ensure that Bellemare has what it takes to carry the Hariri trial to a satisfactory conclusion. The tribunal's legal framework is such that it can begin operating while the investigation continues, in the event the latter is still not over. There is no need to wait for the investigation to end before handing down formal accusations. No one will stop the tribunal, but it can be delayed and has been; its effectiveness can be watered down and has been; its judges and staff can be swayed or threatened. Hopefully, when it's all over, the international community will not have spent hundreds of millions of dollars just to get something like the Lockerbie deal that exonerated Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

However, it's difficult to relax when a central player in the final chapter of that international whitewash was Nicolas Sarkozy. Even though Syria has been trashing France's Lebanon plan, Sarkozy called Assad on Tuesday and is still sending his men to Damascus to chat up the Syrian president. Assad is fast learning just how boneless his Western counterparts can be when negotiating with Arab dictators.

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