Thursday, November 27, 2008

Is the UN leading the Lebanese on?

According to press reports, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will set March as the deadline for work to begin at the Hariri tribunal. The latest extension will be referred to as "technical" by the Security Council, an insincere notion concealing the fact that in the past three years, from one extension to the next, the UN investigation has moved forward with remarkable, even suspicious, lethargy.

It's long past the time to begin wondering what really happened in the two years when Serge Brammertz was UN commissioner. What investigation file did he leave in the hands of his successor, Daniel Bellemare, who, if that is at all possible, has been even more silent than the mute Belgian? It's a matter of record that Brammertz wasted valuable time by reopening the Hariri crime scene and repeating the work of the first commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, and others, only to reconfirm their findings. It's also virtually a matter of record that Brammertz shied away from using the authority granted by the Security Council to its fullest in his interrogations in Syria - most prominently in his interview of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad. That's why this latest extension, technical or not, leads us to believe that Bellemare was left with so incomplete a dossier, that by March he will have needed more than a year to fill in the blanks.

On top of that comes disturbing information that the investigation has stalled. The information may be correct or it may not be, but for such doubts to dissipate, both Bellemare and the UN will have to tell us more than they have until now. If the Canadian commissioner soon offers up an update report as devoid of content as the last one, indeed as insulting as the last one, then it's the UN's credibility that will be at stake. Bellemare has already indicated he will not name names. Fine; but if the Security Council is taking the trouble to use the term "technical extension," that means that come January we will be entering into a new phase of the investigation. A new phase requires a more substantial UN update.

What should the next report contain? First of all a reassurance that Bellemare actually has something in his briefcase to make a persuasive case in court. The commissioner has been more open in private with officials than he has been in public, and that poses problems. The implementation of justice, if that is where we are headed, is not a private matter to be discussed between UN and Lebanese officials and foreign ambassadors; the Hariri murder was a national affair, and not since Detlev Mehlis has a commissioner actually considered that relevant.
Bellemare must also take a clearer position on several issues left hanging thanks to his and to Brammertz's wishy-washiness. Now that we will soon be entering a pre-trial phase, Bellemare must bolster the Lebanese judiciary when it comes to the detention of the four generals, not just throw the burden onto Lebanese shoulders. More is also needed indicating that Bellemare knows who ordered the Hariri assassination and those taking place afterward. Both Mehlis and the first official tasked by the UN to throw light on to the crime, Peter Fitzgerald, were much more affirmative on this issue, so why has Bellemare opted for the bewildering opaqueness of Brammertz? He needs to explain how the public interest is served by such an attitude, particularly when a public trial looms.

If Bellemare's files are not airtight by March, what happens? What kind of charge can he put together, bearing in mind that the Syrians have a highly competent legal team waiting in the wings to do battle? Some pessimistic legal minds point out that any court can be established, but that it need not necessarily implement its mandate - notably the special tribunal for Sierra Leone, which today lies dormant. That seems less likely with the Hariri tribunal, given the potential backlash in Lebanon, but a vital question is who Bellemare decides to accuse given what he has in hand. If he has hard evidence against some suspects, but not others, might that force him to reduce the scope of the accusation the court will then submit? Or might the court decide that there is simply not enough material to go on, before sending Bellemare back to work to strengthen his case?

Then there are the politics. There is no center of gravity anymore at the Security Council to inject new life into efforts to unmask Hariri's killers. In 2005 and 2006, the French president, Jacques Chirac, and the American president, George W. Bush, provided that center of gravity. China, Russia, and the United Kingdom were in no position to oppose muscular resolutions bolstering the UN investigation. Today, we have Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, and soon Barack Obama in Washington, neither deeply committed to the Hariri tribunal. Indeed, Sarkozy has invested too much into his relationship with Syria to allow the tribunal to disrupt that. The same holds for Russia, which was never enthusiastic about the tribunal in the first place, while the UK is now publicly vaunting its intelligence cooperation with Damascus. As for China, it is indifferent.

International bodies are only as effective as the actors backing them up. Under the best of scenarios, the five permanent members of the Security Council will simply leave the Hariri tribunal alone, to advance or hang depending on its evidence. But even that can lead to its atrophying. During the Brammertz years, the wide latitude afforded the commissioner, much like his lack of accountability for the slow pace of work, arguably deadened the investigation process. As the tribunal picks up speed, limited interest from the permanent five, not to say the active hostility of some of them, may actually render the body ineffective.

To avoid that outcome, Bellemare will have to prepare a compelling case. It makes no sense yet to doubt the commissioner's intentions. But we must be realistic: Bellemare, like his predecessors, isn't operating in a vacuum. If he has evidence that some powerful states do not want released; if there are fears that such evidence might generate instability or worse in Lebanon, then we might have to start preparing ourselves for an unsatisfying, even a failed, trial ahead. Then again this reading may be too dark. However, at this late hour we're entitled to insist that Ban Ki-moon and Daniel Bellemare at last prove it wrong.

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