Shane Farrell

Is the cabinet on thin ice with the international community?

The international community has some serious questions to grapple with now that the Lebanese cabinet is headed by the Iran- and Syria-backed March 8 coalition. 

The United States and United Kingdom specifically have taken issue with the cabinet, which they call “Hezbollah-led” even though the party only holds two seats. (The US calls Hezbollah a terrorist organization, while the UK feels the same about the party’s military wing.)

A significant concern for the international community is the Lebanese cabinet’s response to the recent indictment of four Hezbollah members by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), the court established to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and over 20 others in 2005.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah rejected the tribunal numerous times, stating earlier this month that no Lebanese government will be able to carry out arrest warrants in “even 300 years.”

Nevertheless, a spokesperson for UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in a press conference on July 1 that “The secretary general expects the new government of Lebanon to uphold all of Lebanon's international obligations and to cooperate with the Special Tribunal.” Others seem less convinced.

EU Foreign Affairs minister Catherine Ashton expressed her “concern” in a July 7 statement with the cabinet’s recently-released ministerial statement, which included the ambiguous clause that the cabinet would “follow up” on the tribunal in a manner that does not negatively impact on the country’s “stability, unity and civil peace.” 

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office shares Ashton’s reservations, according to an FCO spokesperson contacted by NOW Lebanon.

The French ambassador to Lebanon also criticized clause, saying it did not meet France’s expectations, while a US State Department spokesperson said the US will judge the new government according to its international obligations and commitments, including the tribunal.

In the event that the Lebanese government fails to carry out its obligations under international law, what recourse does the international community have to punish the cabinet?

Military measures aside, foreign governments could take economic measures to pressure the Lebanese government.

This appears to be most relevant to the US due to an ongoing debate in Congress regarding the continuity of American aid. The Hezbollah Anti-Terrorism Act (HATA)  proposes to continue aid to Lebanon but with tighter controls to ensure that aid money does not reach the Party of God. Others, such as House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, hope for a complete halt to aid to Lebanon.

The US has given around $240 million to Lebanon annually in direct assistance in the past two years, and has earmarked $246.3 million for 2011, as is outlined in a Congressional report

According to economist Sami Nader, however, halting international aid from the US to Lebanon will not have a significant impact. “What would be more harmful would be restrictions on the banking system because some banks are involved in some illicit transactions, [or] visa restrictions on Lebanese... All of this could result in withdrawal of capital from our banking system and put pressure on the whole financial [stability of the country].”

Lebanese American University Political Science professor Imad Salemeh holds a different view.

“[Financial aid] can become [a tool] of pressure on Lebanon’s government. A serious economic embargo would mean economic and political collapse in the country. There are many ways [for the US] to pressure the government to collaborate and cooperate. [However,] whether the government cares is another question.”

Former UNIFIL spokesperson Timor Goksel believes that it is extremely unlikely that Lebanon will face any significant punishment from the international community if it fails to arrest the indicted parties, especially if the government demonstrates that it has taken measures to find them. Moreover, he does not expect aid flow to Lebanon to be affected. “If the government doesn’t make radical changes to its foreign policy or its attitudes, which it doesn’t seem to be doing so far, I don’t think it will be punished,” he told NOW Lebanon.

“For the [international community], it’s a legitimate government and it will be given a chance,” he said.

When asked whether UNIFIL’s role and composition might change because of Lebanon’s failure to fulfill the requirements of the UN-sanctioned tribunal, Goksel responded, “Absolutely not.”

“[The] UN is extremely careful. They are never ever going to get involved in the issue of the STL and everything else. As a UN force they will stay away from it no matter what happens,” Goksel said.

Meanwhile, for Turkey, another country that plays an important role in the region, the STL is not the real issue, according to Oytun Orhan, a Middle East expert at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies. Instead, Orhan told NOW Lebanon, Turkey wants national dialogue and stability in Lebanon. Moreover, he believes that the Turkish government views the tribunal as “highly politicized” and as a “pressure tool [by international actors] on Hezbollah and Syria.” Consequently, “Turkey actually does not support the indictment process.”