This blog of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) aims at granting the public opinion access to all information related to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon : daily press review in english, french and arabic ; UN documents, etc...

Ce blog du
Centre Libanais des droits humains (CLDH) a pour objectif de rendre accessible à l'opinion publique toute l'information relative au Tribunal Spécial pour le Liban : revue de presse quotidienne en anglais, francais et arabe ; documents onusiens ; rapports, etc...


July 21, 2010 - Al Ahram Weekly - Risks of escalation in Lebanon

With tensions mounting in Lebanon over a number of national and regional issues, international efforts should remain focussed on avoiding conflict, argues Paul Salem*

Despite overall calm and a record tourist season this summer, Lebanon's political system has been struggling to manage a number of major issues. These include skirmishes with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the south, escalating rhetoric with Israel over oil and gas exploration, the renewal of debate over Palestinian civil rights in Lebanon, and concerns that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) will soon issue its preliminary findings in the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

Although UNIFIL forces and local inhabitants have had run-ins before, confrontations this summer were more serious than previously and left a number of people on both sides injured. UNIFIL says that it met organised civilian resistance during normal exercises and patrols in its area of deployment. Other sources say that UNIFIL did not adequately coordinate its exercises with the Lebanese army and local communities, and that they were unnecessarily showy and provocative. Both UNIFIL and its French contingent have new commanding officers, and they may have misread the local situation and gone further than previous commanders.

The Lebanese army command and UNIFIL moved quickly to defuse the situation. Nevertheless, the reaction from local inhabitants -- many of whom are influenced by Hizbullah -- was unusually combative, and statements from pro-Hizbullah leaders have also been somewhat threatening to UNIFIL. While Hizbullah has generally accommodated UNIFIL's presence on the southern strip to help it avoid another war with Israel, the organisation regards UNIFIL generally as an observer force and has previously resisted UNIFIL's attempts to flex its muscles or conduct effective operations and searches in its zone of operations.

Given Hizbullah's links to Tehran, the new tension with UNIFIL could reflect Iranian responses to the new wave of sanctions against it, and send a signal to European countries -- including France, Italy, and Spain -- not to add to the UN and US sanctions already in place.

The tensions with UNIFIL have also raised concerns that it might become a hostage to regional events, or that the UNIFIL mission could begin to unravel. If any major contingent withdraws and UNIFIL indeed dissolves, then the calm that has prevailed on the Lebanese- Israeli border since 2006 will disappear and the two countries could slide quickly back into war. National, regional and international officials should move quickly to contain this crisis and maintain UNIFIL's buffer role.

The recent discovery of a major gas field off the shores of Israel (the Tamar field, with estimated reserves of six trillion cubic feet) has also catapulted energy to the forefront of political and security concerns. The find has the potential to transform Israel into an energy independent nation and indicates that gas and oil reserves under the eastern Mediterranean Sea might be more significant than previously thought.

While Lebanon has agreements with Cyprus and Egypt over offshore exploration zones, it does not have any such agreement with Israel, and the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border is not properly delimited. Lebanese officials have warned Israel not to drill close to Lebanon's maritime waters, and Hizbullah has issued warnings that it will protect Lebanon's offshore rights if necessary. Israel has responded with stiff warnings of its own.

Both Israel and Cyprus started to organise oil and gas exploration off their shores years ago. The Lebanese government -- belatedly realising that such resources might exist in significant amounts and could help pay down the country's debt -- is trying to push an oil and gas bill through parliament this summer. This law would establish an energy authority to manage exploration contracts and a Lebanese sovereign wealth fund to receive the proceeds if and when they materialise. Even if the law goes through, however, the process of contracting, exploring, extracting and generating revenues from the reserves will take years.

In the meantime, the issue of offshore energy resources is just one more point of contention between Lebanon and Israel and adds to an already fractious relationship. It is in both Lebanon and the region's interests to indirectly mediate in the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border disputes and to make sure that offshore drilling does not become another cause of armed conflict.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian issue returned to the scene on June 15, when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt caused a minor political earthquake by tabling a law to grant Palestinian refugees long overdue social and economic rights. The proposal immediately polarised the Lebanese political scene along old civil war lines, with Christian leaders opposing it and Muslim leaders favouring it. That response may have been just what Jumblatt intended, allowing him to weaken both Sunni-Christian and Shia- Christian alliances and rebuild the old alliance systems -- grouping Sunnis, Shias and Palestinians against a mainstream Christian coalition -- of which he (and previously his father) was a key component.

The draft proposes granting Palestinian refugees the right to buy property in Lebanon, the right to work, and the right to receive social security and medical coverage as well as end-of- service insurance from the Lebanese social security fund. Proponents argue that it is a humanitarian necessity and will help ease tensions in the overcrowded refugee camps.

However, opponents argue that it will put new burdens on already deeply indebted public finances, that it should be preceded by the disarming of the Palestinian militias, and that it is a prelude to the effective naturalisation of the Palestinian refugees. Opponents also say that the welfare of the refugees is the responsibility of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and argue that international and regional donors are not funding their fair share and are trying to transfer the burden onto refugee host countries. The draft law is now in parliamentary committee and is unlikely to pass in its current form. A watered-down version, however, might eventually see the light of day.

The timing of the proposal is interesting. While it could be just another one of Jumblatt's attempts to shuffle the political deck, the proposal is unlikely to have proceeded without Syria's knowledge and/or approval. As US envoys continue to try to revive the Israeli- Palestinian peace talks while largely ignoring Damascus, Syria might be indicating that its influence in Lebanon can be relevant in addressing the Palestinian refugee question. Although Syria would oppose full naturalisation in Lebanon and Syria because it would dramatically affect sectarian balances in both countries, it could support the granting of social and economic rights to refugees in Lebanon.

Unfortunately, the sectarian reactions to the proposal indicate that Lebanon has not moved beyond the discourse that prevailed during the civil war. While the Palestinians urgently need these social and economic rights, the matter needs to be handled in such a way that it does not ignite another civil war in Lebanon. And it also should not be used as an excuse to rob the Palestinians of their right of return, regardless of whether that right is eventually exercised or compensated.

Moreover, the findings of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon could also spur violence in the country. Although the work of STL investigator Daniel Bellemare is still secret, there has been increasing speculation that his investigation is close to submitting its findings to the Special Tribunal. If the investigation fingers Syria, Hizbullah, or both, it could lead to unforeseen and unmanageable consequences. Of course, the investigation may be inconclusive or find another party guilty.

Yet, the shadow of the tribunal has returned to Lebanon. Former minister Wiam Wahhab, who is close to both Syria and Hizbullah, has warned the Lebanese government to stop cooperating with the Tribunal and said that its decisions could affect "UNIFIL and other UN institutions in Lebanon." The recent troubles with UNIFIL might be a prelude to this. Israeli army chief Gabi Ashkenazi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that Israel expects tensions to increase in Lebanon following the indictment of Al-Hariri's assassins "in September".

It is worth noting that the political situation has changed dramatically since the UN investigation was launched. Syria is no longer isolated or targeted for regime change by the international community, and Hizbullah is a full partner in a national unity government led by the assassinated former prime minister's son, Saad Al-Hariri.

If the investigation had concluded in 2006, the United States, France and Saudi Arabia might have used the results to seriously undermine the regime in Syria or to go after Hizbullah. Today, the major regional and international powers have rebuilt -- or are rebuilding -- relations with Syria, and would want to ensure that a guilty finding does not undermine the regime. This is similar to the approach that was eventually taken with Libya and Muammar Gaddafi over the Lockerbie bombing. If the indictment points at Hizbullah operatives, Saudi Arabia and others are aware that if they push the issue against Hizbullah, the party may counterpunch violently and possibly trigger a brief civil war. If this were the case, the Sunnis of Lebanon would be the bigger losers.

In other words, most of the players have an interest in downplaying the results of the investigation, but the shock of large-scale revelations could trigger reactions and events that are beyond any party's control.

War erupted in Lebanon days after the last World Cup ended in 2006, and gallows humour in Lebanon had it that another war was coming after the end of this year's tournament. While the country might have escaped imminent war, the gathering crises indicate that tensions in the country and the region are high and getting higher, and that any one of the above issues could trigger local or regional conflagrations.

Until real progress is made in achieving regional peace or in resolving the nuclear issue with Iran, regional and international diplomacy should remain focussed on conflict management. Although peace might not be at hand, war must be avoided.

* The writer is a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut.

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Background - خلفية

On 13 December 2005 the Government of the Lebanese Republic requested the UN to establish a tribunal of an international character to try all those who are alleged responsible for the attack of 14 february 2005 that killed the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others. The United Nations and the Lebanese Republic consequently negotiated an agreement on the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Liens - Links - مواقع ذات صلة

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, David Schenker , March 30, 2010 . Beirut Spring: The Hariri Tribunal Goes Hunting for Hizballah

Frederic Megret, McGill University, 2008. A special tribunal for Lebanon: the UN Security Council and the emancipation of International Criminal Justice

International Center for Transitional Justice Handbook on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, April 10, 2008

United Nations
Conférence de presse de Nicolas Michel, 19 Sept 2007
Conférence de presse de Nicolas Michel, 27 Mars 2008

Département d'Etat américain
* 2009 Human Rights report
* 2008 Human Rights report
* 2007 Human Rights report
* 2006 Human Rights report
* 2005 Human Rights report

ICG - International Crisis Group
The Hariri Tribunal: Separate the Political and the Judicial, 19 July, 2007. [Fr]

HCSS - Hague Centre for strategic studies
Hariri, Homicide and the Hague

Human Rights Watch
* Hariri Tribunal can restore faith in law, 11 may 2006
* Letter to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, april 27, 2006

Amnesty International
* STL insufficient without wider action to combat impunity
* Liban : le Tribunal de tous les dangers, mai 2007
* Jeu de mecano

Courrier de l'ACAT - Wadih Al Asmar
Le Tribunal spécial pour le Liban : entre espoir et inquiétude

Georges Corm
La justice penale internationale pour le Liban : bienfait ou malediction?

Nadim Shedadi and Elizabeth Wilmshurt, Chatham House
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon : the UN on Trial?, July 2007

Issam Michael Saliba, Law Library of Congress
International Tribunals, National Crimes and the Hariri Assassination : a novel development in International Criminal Law, June 2007

Mona Yacoubian, Council on Foreign Relations
Linkages between Special UN Tribunal, Lebanon, and Syria, June 1, 2007