U.N. Council Backs Tribunal For Lebanon

By Colum Lynch and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 31, 2007

UNITED NATIONS, May 30 -- A sharply divided U.N. Security Council voted Wednesday to create an international criminal tribunal to prosecute the masterminds of the February 2005 suicide bombing that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 22 others.

The vote will lead to the creation of the first U.N.-backed criminal tribunal in the Middle East, raising expectations that Hariri's killers will be held accountable. But that has stoked fears among Lebanese authorities and some council members that supporters of Syria -- which has been linked to the assassination -- will plunge Lebanon's fledgling democracy into a bloody new round of internal strife.

Fearing unrest, authorities imposed a partial curfew in Beirut, leaving the streets deserted. Lebanese placed lighted candles on boulevards and balconies to celebrate the outcome and sent congratulatory text messages countrywide.

Lebanon's political leaders are deeply split over the ongoing pursuit of justice by a U.N. commission that has implicated senior pro-Syrian military officers in Lebanon, as well as Syrian officials close to President Bashar al-Assad. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora urged the council to establish the court, while Lebanon's pro-Syrian opposition leaders opposed the initiative and in March blocked parliamentary approval for such a court.

The U.N. resolution, which will take effect June 10, was approved 10 to 0 by the 15-nation council. China, Indonesia, Qatar, Russia and South Africa abstained from the vote, saying that it bypassed the Lebanese parliament's constitutional role in approving international agreements.

The Security Council "cannot be seen to be taking sides in internal Lebanese politics," Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa's U.N. ambassador, told the council. He said there is a danger that the council's "imposition" of the court on Lebanon's divided political leadership will undercut "the political stability of an already fragile Lebanese state."

Despite their reservations, China and Russia stopped short of voting against the resolution, indicating that they support its aim of holding Hariri's killers accountable. But they said that all key Lebanese political forces should agree on such a momentous decision.

"We believe the perpetrators of that crime must be prosecuted," said Vitaly I. Churkin, Russia's U.N. ambassador. But he said the U.S.-backed resolution contains considerable legal shortcomings and encroaches on Lebanon's sovereignty.

A senior Lebanese envoy praised the council's action, saying it represents a victory for the nation's quest for justice. "This is the path of the salvation of Lebanon," Culture Minister Tarek Mitri told the council, adding that the tribunal will deter further "terrorist activities."

The United States also hailed the decision. "People who have committed political assassination need to be brought to justice," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "They cannot have impunity."

Khalilzad acknowledged that the council's action might trigger a violent reaction, but he said that "many of us believe that the risks of not moving forward are greater."

Hariri's assassination transformed Lebanon and its relations with Syria. Many Lebanese suspected Syrian involvement from the outset, and massive protests soon compelled Syria to end its 30-year military presence in Lebanon. Syria has denied involvement in violence in Lebanon, but it has signaled that it is not prepared to cooperate with the new U.N.-backed court.

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