Amid Arab diplomacy, whither the tribunal?


So unreliable have Syrian commitments to Lebanon’s normalization been in recent months, that almost no one anticipates success for the Arab League plan to resolve the Lebanese presidential crisis. Yet that reaction may be short-sighted. Something is taking place behind the scenes – it’s still not apparent what – that might encourage Syria to play along with the Arab consensus, if only for tactical reasons. And if that happens, you have to wonder whether the Hariri tribunal will be part of any package.

The United Nations investigation of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, previously so central to political life in Lebanon, has been pushed to a twilight zone. One commissioner, Serge Brammertz, has gone and another, Daniel Bellemare, this week officially replaced him. Bellemare is reportedly no more willing to name names than Brammertz was, because he wants to prepare a legally spotless case. That’s good news, but it also means we will return to the absurd situation where the UN commission tells us that Hariri was killed for political reasons related to the 2005 parliamentary elections, then stops short of declaring that the only actor with an interest in eliminating him on that basis was Syria.

What happens next with the Hariri tribunal? Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that there had been progress in establishing the body, and that he would announce the names of the judges “at an appropriate time in the future.” The secretary general added that the judges would assume their functions “on a date I will also determine soon.” The nomination process for judges is tricky, particularly with regard to the Lebanese judges, who are more vulnerable to domestic political pressures. But Ban was also waffling. Not all the pieces are yet in place, and in late December the municipal council of The Hague issued a statement saying the tribunal would only begin operating in 2009. Even by the glacial standards of the UN, that’s disturbingly slow.

One reason for the delay is money. The tribunal will need $120 million for three years of operation, but it’s not at all clear where things stand today. Some countries have pledged money, but have not yet paid. A key question is whether Saudi Arabia has given anything, or will, which would open the door to other Gulf funding. There were unconfirmed reports that at the donors meeting for the Palestinians last month in Paris, the Saudis pledged to match the French contribution to the tribunal. After this, Future TV suggested in a news item that financing had been secured. At around the same time, the American ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, said that the UN’s top legal man, Nicolas Michel, had informed him that the tribunal had received the needed monies. But there never was an official announcement to that effect from New York, and Ban’s ambiguous remarks on deadlines imply that something is not right.

We must watch Saudi behavior very closely in order to get a better sense of how the Arab states in general will deal with the Hariri tribunal. Whoever puts money into the tribunal has valuable political leverage over Syria. However, if the Syrians first agree to compromise in Lebanon, the funds might never be forthcoming. That is why pledging money is very different than paying up. A pledge can be indefinitely postponed.

Which brings us back to the Arab League plan for Lebanon. Nothing suggests that the Arab states are discussing the tribunal with Damascus. But the tribunal is the elephant in the living room whenever one talks to the Syrians. Sooner or later the topic must make its way to the table. While the Arabs don’t have the power to derail a UN Chapter VII decision, they can do two things: delay the tribunal by holding back on payment (if that’s indeed what is happening); and help create a political context that somehow rehabilitates Syria, making it much more difficult for the international community to push the Hariri trial to its logical conclusion.

Can we presume, then, that the Arab plan for Lebanon is partly an opening shot to retrieve Syria? That’s not to say that a presidential election in Beirut is one facet of a cover-up to save the Assad regime. However, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa has consistently avoided blaming Damascus for the stalemate in Lebanon, and while that’s normal for the head of a pan-Arab organization, it has also left him with room to maneuver on a broader agreement between the Syrians and their Arab critics. Once that logic kicks in, it’s time to start asking questions.

The Arab states never had a liking for the Hariri tribunal. Even the Saudis were not convinced by it in late 2005, only coming around after President Bashar Assad strengthed his alliance with Iran, pursued his destabilization of Lebanon, embarrassed the Saudis on the Palestinian front, and escalated his rhetoric against the kingdom. But all that really means is that the Saudis view the tribunal as a useful political instrument – one that can be calibrated depending on the Syrian response – not a medium to dispense justice. Fair enough, international legal cases are a lot about politics, but we have no guarantees that the kind of arrangement the Arabs might find acceptable with Damascus is one that truly enhances Lebanese sovereignty.

For the moment, the Syrians and the Saudis are still too far apart to reconcile. Damascus is also too greedy, wanting total hegemony over Lebanon – backed by tanks if it could manage that – not a more detached form of Finlandization. This makes compromise with the Assad regime difficult. But we can assume that Moussa will keep the door open to the Syrians whatever happens, and in this he will have the support of most Arab leaders. At some stage, expect the Hariri tribunal to enter into the toxic bargaining that spawns inter-Arab political settlements.

In Beirut, however, there is still too much silence. The parliamentary majority has ceded the initiative on the tribunal to outsiders, as if March 14 has no domestic stake in its outcome. But many in the international community and the Arab world just hate the tribunal because it threatens to overturn the way they do business. So don’t be surprised if one day the tribunal suddenly is only half as effective as it was supposed to be.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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