Lebanon cabinet to decide whether to pay UN tribunal bill



BEIRUT // Lebanon's cabinet will decide whether to pay the country's bill to the special United Nations court trying the killers of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's current premier has said.

Under the UN Security Council resolution in 2007 that established the tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon agreed to pay 49 per cent of its operating budget.

Lebanese support for the Netherlands-based court has become a contentious political issue, however, especially since prosecutors in June indicted four supporters of Hizbollah for their alleged involvement in the killings of Hariri and 22 others, allegations the powerful Shiite movement denies.

Ending weeks of speculation, Lebanon's current premier, Nejib Miqati, said this week that his ministers would take up the matter of the country's US$32 million payment to the tribunal, which was due at the end of October.

"The issue of financing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will be raised in the cabinet to take the appropriate decision," Mr Miqati said during a meeting in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

According to a statement issued by his office, Mr Miqati also cautioned against selective adherence to UN Security Council resolutions, an clear reference to Lebanese opponents of the court.

"We can't be selective in asking the international community, the Security Council and the UN to support the full implementation of 1701 [the resolution to cease hostilities following the 2006 war with Israel] in southern Lebanon and at the same time say that we don't want to implement another resolution," he said.

The government, which is dominated by the Hizbollah-led March 8 coalition, is split on whether to support the tribunal. Consultations between the various factions are reportedly ongoing.

If the issue is put to a cabinet vote, some analysts believe it is unlikely to pass. Michel Aoun, who heads the largest single bloc in the 30-member cabinet, is against funding the STL, as is Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hizbollah.

The opposition coalition, March 14, led by the late premier's son, Saad Hariri, has pledged support for the court.

Mr Miqati has come under increasing international pressure to ensure that Lebanon pays its bill, with Maura Connelly, the United States ambassador to Lebanon, recently warning of "serious consequences" if the country does not.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also sent a "payment due" letter to the Lebanese government at the end of September.

If Lebanon fails to pay the tribunal, it could be reported to the Security Council for possible sanctions, said Oussama Safa, a political analyst and former director of the Lebanese Centre for Political Studies.

"Lebanon definitely doesn't want to go down that route," Mr Safa said.

Omar Nashabe, the head of research at Al Akhbar newspaper who has written extensively on the tribunal, said he believes a final decision on funding will be made by the end of the year.

"There are discussions going on and some want to pay to get out of trouble," he said. "The UN should be flexible and put some effort into convincing the Lebanese people that this [tribunal] is a true quest for justice."

Mr Safa believes some way will be figured out to meet Lebanon's financial obligation to the tribunal.

"I think one way or another they will find a compromise. Lebanon cannot afford not to pay," Mr Safa said. "Miqati is finished if he doesn't find a way and the government will be doomed."

While financial support for the court is debated in Beirut, officials at the tribunal, which is based in The Hague, note that contributions from "more than 25 countries" guarantee that their work will continue, with or without Lebanon's money.

Still, they are awaiting the check.

"We are in constant contact with the Lebanese officials, and there are steps that we will be taking in due course to inquire about the status of the funding," said Marten Youssef, a tribunal spokesman.

"Our expectation is that Lebanon should have already paid $32,198,170, but clearly that is not the case. We do expect Lebanon will fulfill its obligation."

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