Crisis-hit Lebanon Cabinet presses on with UN plan
Lebanon’s Cabinet is to meet on Saturday for the next step towards approving a United Nations plan for an international court to try those accused of murdering ex-premier Rafiq al-Hariri, in a move set to trigger a showdown with the pro-Syrian opposition.
Ministers are to hold an emergency meeting on the plans just two days after they laid to rest slain colleague Pierre Gemayel in a mass funeral at which coalition leaders openly blamed Syrian opposition to the court for the murder.
A UN commission of inquiry has implicated several senior Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies in al-Hariri’s February 2005 assassination and is now providing assistance to the Lebanese investigation of Gemayel’s murder.
The UN Security Council endorsed the tribunal plans just hours after Tuesday’s shooting ambush on the outskirts of Beirut in which one of Gemayel’s bodyguards was also killed. These plans must now be ratified by Lebanese authorities for the tribunal to be created.
The anti-Syrian Cabinet has long championed the blueprint, and its approval is not in doubt.
The Cabinet had been left on a knife-edge by Gemayel’s murder, which came hot on the heels of the resignation less than two weeks ago of six pro-Syrian ministers.
Down to just 17 ministers from the 24 it began with last year, it barely mustered the statutory quorum of two-thirds plus one of its original complement stipulated by the Constitution, and the loss of one more minister could have triggered its fall.
But its numbers were bolstered on Friday by the announcement of a fellow Damascus critic, Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa, that he was returning to his duties after a nine-month absence.
The six pro-Syrian ministers said they were quitting to protest against the failure of cross-party talks on their demands for a national unity government, including allies currently in opposition.
But the governing anti-Damascus coalition charged that their real intention was to torpedo the approval of the international court at the behest of Damascus.
The six included representatives of Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, which fought a devastating summer war with Israel.
They also included its Shi’ite ally Amal, whose leader Nabih Berri is Speaker of Parliament and will now have a key role in the UN blueprint’s progress.
Only he can put the necessary legislation on Parliament’s agenda once the Cabinet has renewed its approval of the blueprint, even though Syrian critics hold a majority of the seats in the legislature.
However, Berri has publicly rejected all decisions of the rump anti-Syrian Cabinet as “unconstitutional”, including its November 13 decision to submit the draft to the UN Security Council for endorsement.
“Any [Cabinet] session held now is unconstitutional because it would be in breach of Lebanon’s national pact,” he said last week, referring to the unwritten arrangement providing for all of the country’s myriad religious and ethnic groups to be represented in the government.
The letter approved by the Security Council on Tuesday invites UN chief Kofi Annan “to proceed, together with the government of Lebanon, in conformity with the constitution of Lebanon, with the final steps for the conclusion of the agreement” on the court.
The sole Arab country on the Security Council, Qatar, said it believes the court’s approval “requires a constitutional process in Lebanon consisting of many stages, not the least important of which is the approval of the [pro-Syrian] president and the Lebanese Parliament”.
But both France and the United States made clear they believe that is an issue for the Lebanese to resolve and that the council will not get embroiled in a dispute over the constitutionality of the Lebanese cabinet.
The need for ratification by Lebanon’s pro-Syrian head of state, President Emile Lahoud, is a subject of heated debate between Damascus’s friends and foes.
The government’s supporters argue that the Constitution gives ministers the authority to override the president if he refuses to ratify a treaty agreed by both the Cabinet and Parliament twice in the space of a month. But opponents, and some lawyers, argue that that is a breach of the national pact and therefore unconstitutional.
However, no one disputes that only the speaker can put draft legislation on the parliamentary agenda, so all eyes will now be on Berri next week.—Sapa-AFP