U.S. Aims to Establish International Tribunal in Hariri Assassination

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

UNITED NATIONS, May 15 -- The United States will introduce a draft Security Council resolution as early as this week to establish an international tribunal that would try alleged perpetrators of the 2005 car-bomb assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 22 others, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Khalilzad's announcement came one day after Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora asked the 15-nation council to help break an impasse in Lebanon over the creation of an international court. But Siniora, who supports a tribunal, faces stiff domestic opposition, including from Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, who warned Tuesday that the establishment of such a court could lead to civil violence in Lebanon.

Siniora's request marked a critical new phase in the U.N. investigation of the February 2005 assassination that has implicated senior Lebanese officials and top Syrian officials linked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And it set the stage for a Security Council confrontation between the United States and Russia, which has sought to accommodate Syria's concerns in the council.

"It's very important that people who have participated in political murder be brought to justice," Khalilzad told reporters outside the Security Council chamber. "We understand that there are some risks with regard to taking action, but we believe the risks of not taking action are greater."

A Russian official said that Moscow had no formal reaction to Siniora's request but that the government believes a tribunal requires support from all major parties in Lebanon. Moscow fears that a decision to move forward with a court might plunge Lebanon into civil war, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment on the letter.

The United Nations and Siniora's government agreed in November 2006 on a draft statute to create a new court, which would be modeled on war crimes tribunals in Sierra Leone and in Cambodia. The court enjoys the backing of a majority in Lebanon's pro-Western parliament.

But Lahoud and lawmakers loyal to the country's Shiite militant group, Hezbollah, say that Siniora's government lacks constitutional legitimacy -- and they resigned en masse in November to protest Siniora's refusal to grant them greater power over national affairs. Lebanon's parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, leader of the Shiite Amal movement, has refused to convene the parliament to vote on whether to establish the court.

Lahoud warned that a council decision to set up a new court would "imply a full bypass" of Lebanon's constitution and would "threaten Lebanon's stability," according to a Reuters report. He charged that Siniora was "falsifying fact" to persuade the council to back one side in an internal Lebanese dispute.

Assad has suggested that his government may not cooperate with the court. "We consider that the international tribunal concerns only Lebanon and the U.N. and that we are not directly concerned," he said in a speech this month. "Any cooperation requested from Syria which could compromise our national sovereignty is rejected."

Nicolas Michel, the United Nations' top legal expert, traveled to Beirut last month seeking to break the deadlock. After his return, he said that the talks produced "no progress" and that Lebanese opposition figures were unwilling to negotiate the terms of a tribunal.

"For all practical purpose, the domestic route to ratification has reached a dead end," Siniora wrote in his letter. "The Lebanese government believes that the time has come for the Security Council to help make the Special Tribunal for Lebanon a reality."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon briefed the Security Council on Siniora's plan during a luncheon at U.N. headquarters on Tuesday. He urged them to support Siniora's request to establish a new tribunal, saying further negotiations would not resolve the issue.

"It is absolutely necessary to send a strong message that there should no impunity for perpetrators who committed crimes and particularly for political assassinations," Ban said after the luncheon.

The tribunal statute calls for the appointment of an international prosecutor, backed by a Lebanese deputy, to try suspects who would be identified by U.N. chief investigator Serge Brammertz of Belgium. The court would consist of a pretrial chamber; a trial chamber, headed by two international judges and one Lebanese judge; and an appeals chamber, with three international judges and two Lebanese judges. The court might also gain jurisdiction over attacks against Lebanese journalists and opposition political figures that occurred between October 2004 and December 2006. A venue has not been chosen, but the court would probably be established in Cyprus, U.N. officials said.

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