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Lebanon held hostage

Lebanon is in a state of full political paralysis, a stalemate engineered and enforced by its overlord, Syria. It has been without a president since Nov. 24. U.S., U.N., French and now Arab League diplomats have failed to broker a solution. It’s easy to understand why: Syria does not want a Lebanese political solution. What it wants is to stop the U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri from indicting and prosecuting senior Syrian officials. And it appears willing to fight to the last Lebanese to do so -- even at the risk of igniting a second civil war.

To ensure that the U.N. tribunal cannot operate, Syria has to control at least one-third of the Lebanese Cabinet, which must authorize the tribunal. It also would help to have a friendly president, and Syria has lost enthusiasm for the front-runner, Gen. Michel Suleiman, apparently concluding that he’s not quite the pliant patsy it had expected. Meanwhile, the assassinations continue, broadening from politicians and journalists to independent-minded military and security officials. An attack on a U.S. Embassy convoy on Jan. 15 missed its suspected target, Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, but killed three others and wounded at least 22. Ten days later, a car bomb killed Lebanon’s top security official, Capt. who was involved in investigating the Hariri assassination as well as the recent spate of bombings.

It’s intolerable for international justice -- and Lebanon’s future -- to be held hostage to Syrian political expediency. And the best remedy is swifter justice. Though painfully slow by U.S. standards, the U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission, which is setting up the tribunal, has made enormous progress in the last seven months. Security for judges, witnesses, the accused and the host country are real worries, but the Netherlands has nevertheless donated its former intelligence headquarters to house the tribunal. A Canadian prosecutor has been hired, U.N. members have given most of the funds needed for the tribunal’s first year, and 11 international judges, including four enormously brave Lebanese, have agreed to hear any cases that result.

The world had hoped that the mere decision to establish a tribunal would be sufficient to deter future assassinations. Instead, it seems to have provided a perverse incentive to murder and mayhem. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must rally the Security Council to authorize the tribunal to begin operating and issue indictments as soon as possible. Syrian retaliation is to be expected -- including possible attempts to sabotage the nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That is the price of Lebanese freedom.

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