Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's Security Council time for Bellemare

We can say of Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, that he is like the proverbial ostrich. His head is stuck firmly in the sand while every day now the rest of his feathered body is being carved up for the feast.

It was, plainly, Saudi resolve that forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri to declare to the Saudi daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat this week that the accusations directed against Syria for the murder of his father, Rafik Hariri, were “political.” More significantly, Hariri affirmed that so-called “false witnesses” were responsible for tensions between Beirut and Damascus. The prime minister knows who killed his father, but that’s of no concern to his political sponsors, who have been squeezing Hariri every which way recently to ease a Syrian return to Lebanon, which Riyadh imagines will help contain Hizbullah.

The phrasing of Hariri’s statement was revealing. After making his remarks about the politicized accusations against Syria, the premier added that the tribunal was continuing its work, lending it some legitimacy. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to dissatisfy Hizbullah. What Hariri did, or tried to do, was to implicitly repeat the Der Spiegel line from last year (which more than ever appears to have been the consequence of Syrian manipulation), namely that Damascus is innocent but that the tribunal is ongoing, therefore its conclusions, even if Hizbullah is named, are worth considering.

Hariri’s calculation was probably to retain some semblance of leverage over Hizbullah. The Syrians, playing both sides of the aisle in order to advance their own interests in Lebanon, have been encouraging their Lebanese megaphones to discredit the tribunal and call for its dissolution, even as they have avoided putting direct pressure on Hariri to end cooperation with the institution. The Syrians are still thinking of using an indictment in ways that expand their power, but they, like Hizbullah, ultimately want the tribunal to be killed from the Lebanese side, so that it won’t harm them.

It is difficult to see how Hariri can come out of this convoluted maneuvering with anything in hand. His comments this week, particularly on the “false witnesses,” were early steps on a slippery slope that can only wreck the tribunal’s effectiveness. The prime minister may want to retain leverage, but his chances of succeeding are diminishing by the day, and the Syrians win either way. What weakens Hariri helps them; what weakens Hizbullah helps them; and a dispute between Hariri and Hizbullah helps them, too. Indeed, today they find themselves indirectly, and agreeably, mediating between the prime minister and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah through Walid Jumblatt, whose reference point in Damascus is Mohammad Nassif, one of the late President Hafez Assad’s closest collaborators.

This brings us back to Daniel Bellemare. With admirable blitheness, the prosecutor continues to insist that he will not allow politics to enter his investigation. However, he is also an official in a mixed Lebanese-international tribunal, and to ignore the fact that Lebanese politics are steadily overwhelming his work, as they most definitively are, is a sign of his inexperience. Lebanese state institutions form the implementation arm of the tribunal; Lebanese judges sit on the panel; Bellemare’s deputy, Joyce Tabet, is a Lebanese magistrate. Of course the Canadian prosecutor can sit in a remote office and craft an indictment, as he should, but if the Lebanese state is not on board, his work could well end up being an empty intellectual exercise.

What can Bellemare do? That the Lebanese prime minister should cast doubt on his investigation by challenging the testimony of “false witnesses” is not something to be silently sucked up. Prosecutors, quite reasonably, avoid getting ensnared in the politics of their cases, but that doesn’t mean they don’t play a form of politics to build up indictments, protect their investigation, and keep the guilty on the defensive. A successful prosecutor in political crimes is one who can shape the legal environment in his or her favor. This requires a competent communications strategy, the astute handling of information, and a willingness to confront those trying to derail the investigation.

Don’t expect much. Bellemare’s communication skills have been appalling. His understanding of Lebanon and its complexities has been no less unimpressive. Three months after the departure of his spokeswoman, Radhia Achouri, Bellemare only yesterday named Henrietta Aswad as her replacement. In the interim, he ceded that role to Fatima Issawi, the tribunal spokeswoman, who often represented different institutional interests than the prosecutor’s.

Bellemare’s options in addressing Hariri’s comments are limited, but that doesn’t mean he can afford to do nothing. When a prime minister interferes in your inquiry, it’s really time to threaten to resign, and say so publicly. Of course, there is nothing that Hizbullah would like more, and it would be a mistake for the prosecutor to actually carry through on the threat, at least initially. But what Bellemare must do is cause a stink, then compel the Security Council to take a position and perhaps issue a resolution affirming confidence in his investigation.

At this stage, Bellemare is out of his league. His only hope for salvation is to return to the international body that created the special tribunal in the first place, and use that as a stick to warn the Lebanese of the consequences of failing to cooperate with his efforts. He should also fly to Beirut and verify on the ground, and publicly, where his Lebanese interlocutors stand, above all the president, the speaker and the prime minister. And Bellemare should use his new spokeswoman far more proactively than he did her predecessor.

The prosecutor can no longer pretend that there is an isolated, unadulterated judicial process on the one side and politics on the other. The two are bleeding into each other, and the politics are decisively contaminating Bellemare’s investigation. The trial process will be doomed unless the prosecutor acts. And the only card he really holds is to make the Security Council assume its responsibilities.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What Bellamare needs to do is to release his long overdue indictment ASAP. This move will overturn regional politics and reshuffle all the cards. It's about time.