U.N. Set To Approve Lebanon Tribunal

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, holds a join press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, right, at the government house in Beirut, Lebanon Friday, March 30, 2007.
AP Photo/Hussein Malla
Russia warned that the Security Council resolution authorizing an international tribunal to try those suspected of killing Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could have serious repercussions.

The main sponsors — the U.S., Britain and France — scheduled a vote Wednesday, anticipating the measure would pass despite Russia's objections to language making it clearly binding and subject to enforcement.

"There are still some differences of view but I believe there are now sufficient votes in the council to move forward," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the current Security Council president, told reporters Tuesday.

U.N. investigators have implicated top Syrian and Lebanese officials in the suicide truck bombing in Beirut that killed Hariri and 22 others in February 2005. Syria denied involvement but was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year presence.

Lebanon's politics have since been snarled in a standoff between the pro-Western government and groups allied with Syria that have blocked Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's request for creation of a tribunal to try the Hariri case. The conflict has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone and erupted into street battles, killing 11 people in recent months.

Meanwhile, heavy clashes between the Lebanese army and al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants broke a weeklong truce as Lebanon's government stressed its determination to defeat the terrorists but said it was willing to give mediation a chance to end the fighting at a Palestinian refugee camp.

Lebanese army artillery on Tuesday pounded positions on the northern edge of the camp and near the Mediterranean coastline, apparently seeking to prevent any attempt by some militants to flee, reporters at the scene said. One rocket apparently fired from Fatah Islam militants in the camp started a fire on the edge of the camp.

Orange flames and white smoke shot up from at least two locations in the camp, according to television footage.

Sporadic gunfire exchanges have continued daily since the truce halted three days of heavy fighting. But the renewed fighting that began before sundown and lasted 1½ hours was the worst outbreak in violence in a week.

Acknowledging the impasse over establishing a tribunal in his country, Saniora asked the Security Council earlier this month to act without waiting for parliamentary approval. He cited the refusal of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to convene a session to ratify statutes to create the tribunal that have already been approved by his government and the United Nations.

The resolution would create a tribunal outside Lebanon with a majority of international judges and an international prosecutor under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which makes the measure unambiguously binding and allows enforcement, including the possibility of military action.

The Russians, Chinese and South Africans argue the Chapter 7 reference is unnecessary.

"We have no problem with the idea that things must move ahead with the tribunal," said Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador.

But Russia believes "there are better legal ways to do it which would avoid a number of very serious legal and possible political repercussions and consequences."

A revised text late Tuesday would give the Lebanese a June 10 deadline to ratify the U.N.-approved statutes. Otherwise, the resolution would "enter into force," or take immediate effect.

"The Lebanese prime minister has taken substantial risks to ask for this to happen," Khalilzad said. "If you give a lot of time to it, there is all kinds of opportunities for mischief-making and for negative effect on the situation in Lebanon."

Moscow objects to the "in force" language overriding the Lebanese parliament.

"'In force' is something that parliaments do, and never before has the Security Council ratified agreements on behalf of a parliament of a foreign country," Churkin said.

To be adopted, the resolution needs at least nine "yes" votes in the 15-member council and no veto by a permanent member — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France.

Council diplomats said they do not expect a veto, but they do expect at least five abstentions — Russia, China, Qatar, Indonesia and South Africa.

France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said the resolution will help the Lebanese overcome their deadlock over the tribunal, noting it could take a year to find a location and funding for the tribunal.