U.N. to establish Lebanon tribunal

Times Staff Writer

A divided Security Council decided Wednesday to establish an international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon, whose death in a massive truck bombing has roiled relations between that country and Syria for more than two years.

The resolution to set up the special court won 10 votes, just one more than necessary for approval. Russia, China, Qatar, Indonesia and South Africa abstained. Russia and China said they feared U.N. “interference” would worsen tensions in Lebanon.

A U.N.-sponsored investigation has tentatively linked Syrian officials to the crime. But Syria denies responsibility and has refused to cooperate fully with the international court, calling it “politicized.”

Hariri, who served two terms as prime minister, was killed in Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005, by the bombing, which took 22 other lives. His supporters accused Syria of masterminding the killing and staged widespread demonstrations against the government in Damascus. The protests led Syria to withdraw its troops from a nation it had dominated since the 1970s.


“By adopting this resolution, the council has demonstrated its commitment to the principle that there shall be no impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon or elsewhere,” said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

The Bush administration, along with Britain and France, had pushed for the tribunal. But by raising tensions with Syria, the administration’s victory could prove costly on other fronts.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently held the first high-level talks with Syrian officials in more than three years in the hopes of gaining cooperation in Iraq. American commanders there have accused Syria of providing passage for fighters to enter the country. U.S. officials have also accused the Syrians of sponsoring terrorist groups.

The tribunal is designed to culminate the U.N.-sponsored investigation of Hariri’s killing and 14 other political slayings that appear to be related. But the issue of the tribunal has deadlocked the Lebanese parliament for months, reflecting the struggle for political control of the country between factions close to Syria and those who want to forge independence from the powerful neighbor.

Lebanon’s prime minister, Fouad Siniora, has pushed for the tribunal. The country’s president, Emile Lahoud, opposes it. Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim group supported by Syria, also opposes the tribunal. Hezbollah holds 14 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member parliament and has organized mass protests to oust Siniora.

Gunfire and fireworks broke out in several parts of Lebanon within minutes of the decision.

Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Jaafari, said the vote amounted to interference in Lebanon’s affairs.

“Definitely this is something that goes against the interests of the Lebanese people and Lebanon as a whole,” he said after the vote.

In Lebanon, Saad Hariri, a lawmaker and son of the slain prime minister, thanked the Security Council for its decision in a televised address to the nation.

“This tribunal is for all of you,” he said. “It’s the gate to redemption from this long line of crimes. This is a moment for unity.”

Hariri also called for resumption of national dialogue. “I extend my hand. We had enough division,” he said.

Tearing up, he also invoked the memory of his father. “You will be with me in every decision,” he said. “I will follow in your footsteps, your line of defending the future of Lebanon. Long live the truth and long live Lebanon.”

Siniora also appeared on TV, saying the court is “not aimed at our sister Syria.”

French Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere said it may take a year to establish the tribunal, which involves finding international judges, a prosecutor, financing and a venue outside Lebanon. Many of the details about the tribunal’s implementation will be left up to the Lebanese, he said.

The resolution established the tribunal under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which deals with threats to international peace and can be enforced militarily.

The Russians, Chinese, South Africans, Indonesians and Qataris argued that Chapter 7 was unnecessary because all Security Council resolutions are legally binding. But the U.S., Britain and France, the main sponsors of the resolution, insisted that Chapter 7 be invoked.

China’s U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, warned that the Chapter 7 resolution “will create a precedent of the Security Council interfering in the domestic affairs and legislative independence of the sovereign state.”

The U.S.-Russia disagreement over Lebanon spilled over into a diplomatic summit near Berlin on Wednesday.

During a news conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov and Rice got into a brief but testy exchange over U.S. weapons shipments to the Lebanese army, which is battling Islamic militants at a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli.

When asked about the arms shipments, Lavrov spoke of the “necessity of avoiding weapons supplies that could destabilize the situation.”

Rice, who was sitting next to Lavrov during the briefing, sharply responded. “We are supporting the Lebanese army, which is an all-Lebanese institution. This is not a matter of interfering in Lebanese affairs. It’s an effort to help Lebanon defend its own sovereignty.”


Times staff writers Louise Roug in Beirut and Jeffrey Fleishman in Berlin contributed to this report.


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Back story

Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and billionaire construction magnate, served as prime minister from 1992 to 1998 and from 2000 to 2004. He resigned in 2004 in a dispute over Syria’s troop presence in Lebanon.

Hariri was killed Feb. 14, 2005, in a truck bombing that left 22 others dead in Beirut.

Massive protests led to the collapse of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government, and to the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April 2005, ending their nation’s 29-year military involvement in Lebanon.

A U.N. report in 2005 implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services in the bombing. The U.N. investigator accused Damascus of complicity in the killing and said Syria had interfered with his inquiry.

The Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora last November approved a special international tribunal to prosecute the case, reigniting political infighting with the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah.

Syria has denied any involvement.


Source: Times reports