Talking To: Chibli Mallat

Chibli Mallat is a human rights lawyer, scholar of Islamic law and a Lebanese presidential candidate.  He is currently a professor of law and politics at the S.J. Quinney School of Law at the University of Utah and EU Jean Monnet chair in European law at Université St. Joseph, Beirut.  Professor Mallat has played an integral role in several major international legal campaigns, including the Sabra and Shatila case in Belgium that indicted Ariel Sharon for crimes against humanity.

For decades, Mallat has also been a vocal advocate of Lebanese sovereignty and democracy.  He played an active part in the Cedar Revolution of 2005, and has consistently pushed for the reform of the Lebanese political system and the prosecution of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassins.  Professor Mallat speaks exclusively to NOW Lebanon about his views on the international tribunal and the aims of his presidential campaign.

NOW Lebanon: Have you been disappointed with the progress made under Serge Brammertz, in investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri?
Chibli Mallat
: Mr. Brammertz has failed in his professional duties. I have documented his errings and pusillanimity in a full chapter of my book on the Cedar Revolution. I am glad he's finally out, but sorry that he is shielded from accountability. He ought to be prevented from exercising any legal profession, so deleterious his performance has been in Lebanon over a full two years.

NOW: Can you expand on your criticism of Brammertz?  How did he fail to live up to his professional duties?

Mallat: The short dimension is that the last report of Mr. Mehlis lists eighteen suspects, and Brammertz failed to address that list negatively or positively throughout two years.  He also failed to present any indictment of any person that is a suspect in the investigation.  He produced reports in which he expressed gratefulness to the Syrian government, when it was evident that the Syrian government was opposed to the international investigation, and continues to be opposed to the international investigation.

There’s a further reason, which is contrary to the opinion of Mr. Mehlis.  You cannot hold those four former security chiefs without bringing them before a court.  That’s the failure of Mehlis.  Either he should have openly requested their release, or he should have pushed for their trial.

NOW: Are there any indications that Daniel Bellemare is an improvement as an investigator?
No. Let's see his first report next month, it had better be a qualitative improvement on the vacuous reports of his predecessor.

NOW: What could a UN investigator do differently in the current day?

Mallat: Well, we’re expecting indictments.  You have to produce indictments so that we know if the investigation has produced results.  There are victims who are expecting those who are responsible for the crime to appear before a court and to be indicted and arrested.  [Brammertz] has nothing, so what has he done for two years?

NOW: Some Lebanese political leaders have suggested that the presidential vacuum could extend into 2009 – do you share their pessimism?  Currently, what are the primary obstacles to reaching a solution?
Of course. So long as Mr. Berri closes parliament as if it were his private property, and the majority continues to bow to his unconstitutional diktat, nothing happens. I have been relentlessly calling for parliament to convene, for two years now, first to confirm – or reject – the current government in a vote of confidence, then to vote in a competitive manner for a new president from amongst the declared candidates. The majority has betrayed the trust of the people, and the country languishes. Things remaining as they are, not only will we not have a new president in 2009, but there will be no electoral law and no elections. The street, and the regional contradictions adding to it, will then regulate public life. We know what this means.

NOW: Did you envision your campaign in 2008 as a protest campaign meant to elevate the political discourse, or did you believe that you have a chance to be elected president?

Mallat: There are two dimensions.  There is one, which is a matter of principle.  I promised those who supported me, across the world, in Beirut and elsewhere, that my campaign was not a shell campaign.  It was not designed merely to elevate the quality of the debate, which I think it did to some extent.  It was a campaign to win.  I committed to remain in the race until the end.  So, I want to be consistent with this. 

Now practically, there is no doubt that the fact of my being outside Lebanon, even though I go back very regularly – but I’m outside of Lebanon for clearly security reasons, because one cannot campaign decently and say what one thinks in Lebanon without being at risk of assassination.  So, even though this distance obviously weakened my campaign and my objective to be president, I think this is the only way one can continue to say what one thinks, and carry on the campaign.  I know it has been very frustrating for me, but I do what I can. 

Today, there is no doubt that the situation is deadlocked.  I predicted this deadlock.  How will it be unlocked, I really don’t know.  But I’m trying to help to get the situation unlocked by a continued campaign, to the extent that I am able to do so from here.  And that is partly through the campaign, and partly through a very intimate connection with the leaders of mostly March 14, and the international players.  That’s why I’m in touch with the UN leaders, including in particular [Undersecretary-General for Legal Affairs Nicolas] Michel. 

I have advocated an idea, which is developing, which is that if the parliament is prevented from meeting by force, that is by way of assassinating our colleague MPs, then the MPs should be invited to meet elsewhere, and preferably in my view in New York to give them the legitimacy.  This is an idea that is developing.  Unfortunately, most of my predictions have come true.  It seems to me that there must be a legitimate competition in parliament – so that parliament meets not to agree simply on a preordained candidate.  This seems to me a terrible failure particularly of my March 14 colleagues, to the principles of democracy that I believe our revolution has forced onto the Middle East.  If there is a competitive candidacy, I certainly am in the competition.  And then at that time, I think the three-year campaign will sway quite a lot of MPs, if they are ready to listen to a democratic argument, in my direction.  But I concede that it is not easy to do it from abroad, but I also think that the Lebanese are mature enough to know the constraints, because they deal with them every day.

NOW: Would you support changing the system to allow the popular election of a president?

Mallat: That is one specific proposal I have made.  But I have always been careful with this.  Because we know to change the sectarian system, it has to be a serious proposal.  And a serious proposal is not like Mr. Aoun is presenting.  Suddenly, he thinks the way out is to elect himself as president.  It does not work like this.  You can’t do it, without a proper constitutional convention.  Because the question will be, for instance, should we also elect our prime minister by the people?  And then what happens with the speaker of parliament?  And what about the sectarian balance?  We could have a dual ticket, as I think would be a useful way forward, which would include a president and vice-president without a particular denomination, so that we naturally move away from the sectarian system while preserving the balance between Muslims and Christians, which is the hallmark of Lebanon.

So these are very complicated questions that require a lot of thought.  As a matter of principle, the people should be allowed to elect their president.   That is an absolute requirement in the 21st century for democracy, but in order to do that in a country which is as delicate as Lebanon, it has to be serious.    And it is a pity to see the immense enthusiasm that was carried by my proposal, and my campaign spread to the people for support rather than just to the MPs, being undermined by cheap populism that we hear from Mr. Aoun.