SISMEC Bulletin- November 4, 2011

Libya:  The ties that bind Saif al-Islam and NATO

Palestine: Seeking International Recognition and Assessing the UNESCO Vote

Lebanon:  Civil war? Over Syria? Ain’t gonna happen.


Brussels and The Hague: After the secret burial

Now the most wanted man in the world--following the killing of Osama bin Laden and his father Muammar Gaddafi--Saif al-Islam is not only the target of commandos but of our era’s most viscous predator: lawyers.

No one really knows, but Al-Arabiya has reported that somewhere in the desert wasteland last week, perhaps with South African and Tuareg mercenary-bodyguards, the now-orphan crossed Libya’s central-southern border and entered Niger. Then he went to Mali. Civil war refugees blazed this trail earlier this year, but his current support team most likely resulted from a 50-man convoy, including Gaddafi’s former defense secretary Mansour Dhao, which carried gold and treasure to the Nigeri capital of Niamey on 6 September (Dhao returned just in time to be captured after Gaddafi’s brutal murder in Sirte and attended the late Colonel’s secret burial).

After his exodus, someone close to Saif contacted the International Criminal Court for details about a surrender, according to ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo. If Niger hands over the wayward son, it could ignite tension with the Tuareg, but the ICC would finally get a shot at a despot. However, the case won’t be simple. Big problems--like proving the mass graves and human rights abuses were the sins of the son and not just the father--await whatever court, if any, judges Saif. A collection of inner-circle text messages could prove his hands’ bloodiness, but the dismantled Gaddafi government holds the most promise for revelatory witnesses (like Dhao).

While Saif might survive and some lawyers might make their careers, Libyans aren’t slated to be the ones to try him, and he might even catch a black-market flight to ICC-free Zimbabwe.

As the world watches for signs of Saif in the Sahara, however, it is becoming clear that he is not the only target in the ICC’s cross-hairs. Recent reports indicate that Moreno-Ocampo will be initiating investigations into alleged war crimes committed by NATO and NTC-led rebel forces. Allegations against the rebel forces include detention of suspected mercenaries and the killing of detained combatants. No specific details were released regarding the allegations against NATO. Although they are anticipated to include civilian deaths resulting from aerial bombing campaigns and the targeting of crucial non-military infrastructure, such as television stations and water facilities.

The initial suit against NATO was brought by General Khaled Hemidi of the Gaddafi regime. The suit, filed in a Belgian civil court, relates to the death of Hemidi’s wife and three children, and alleges that the family’s deaths were the result of a NATO bombing that took place on 20 June in northwestern Libya. Additional allegations against NATO forces pertain to the deaths of 85 civilians during the last weeks of the war in Ziltan, another town in northwestern Libya.

While the UN Security Council ended the mandate to NATO forces on 31 October, following the capture and subsequent death of Col. Gaddafi, this was in contravention to requests from the NTC to maintain the mandate, until the security of Libyan borders was ascertained.

Whether parties from either side will actually appear before the ICC remains to be seen. However, it provides a wonderful publicity opportunity for the court in a continuing time of austerity.


UNESCO admits Palestine and the punishment is swift

This week it was yet again confirmed that the Palestinian push for international recognition within the UN and its major agencies enjoys broad international support. On Monday October 31, 2011, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to approve Palestine’s membership into the organization. The General Conference voted with 107 votes in favor, 52 abstentions and 14 votes against it.

Yet despite broad international backing, the UNESCO vote sparked a swift reaction from the US, Israeli and Canadian governments. Within a matter of hours, the US cut off all funding to UNESCO, approximately $80 million, or 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget. It did so citing a law passed in 1990 that forbids US funding of UN agencies that grant the Palestinian Liberation Organization “the same standing as member states.” Israel and Canada followed suit shortly after, with Israel pulling $2 million in funding, and Canada pulling its yearly $10 million in funding to the UN agency.

And in a move that calls into question Israel’s commitment to reaching a settlement with the Palestinians, on Tuesday November 1, Israel announced it would accelerate settlement construction in East Jerusalem. This, apparently, is part of sanctions program Israel will impose against the Palestinian Authority for its disobedience. The Israeli government has also decided to temporarily withhold $100 million in tax revenues it collects and then distributes to the Palestinian Authority. As a result, tens of thousands of Palestinians might not receive their salaries this month.

Why did the largely symbolic UNESCO vote provoke such a response from the US and Israel? According to US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, the UNESCO vote “undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” The primary US and Israeli argument, so it goes, is that an independent and sovereign Palestinian state can only be realized through negotiations, and that the Palestinian push for recognition at the UN is counterproductive.

Yet with the power imbalance between the two parties, negotiations have thus far failed to produce a viable, independent, and sovereign Palestinian state. Meanwhile, Israel continues to build settlements, leaving Palestinians with little incentive to place continued faith in the sacred process. With talks stalled for more than a year, it appears they are unlikely to resume any time soon. Disillusionment with peace process, and the ability of the US to act as an honest broker, may have firmly and permanently set in.

The UNESCO vote is not just symbolic though.  It could potentially pave the way for Palestinians to pursue membership in other UN agencies. However, just as significantly, the UNESCO vote will also allow Palestinians to pursue world heritage status for important Palestinian cultural and historical sites. According to a recent report in The Guardian, Palestinians will seek such status for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. According to the report, Israel could be worried  that Palestinians will take such action for sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In the end, the US and Israel might be more worried that the Palestinians, with the support of much of the international community, are beginning to find a way to achieve recognition on their own terms.


Rhetorical battles and positive neutrality over the Syria question do not equate to civil war

With tensions rising in Syria since the spring, analysts and Lebanese citizens alike have asked, “what are the chances this will spillover into Lebanon?” In fact it already has. The Syrian army has conducted cross-border raids into the Biqa region to capture and kill army dissidents. There are also reports that Syrian embassy staff in Beirut, with the help of Lebanese Internal Security Forces officials, kidnapped Syrian activists residing in Lebanon. To top it all off, the Syrian army has placed landmines across the Syrian-Lebanese border in the Akkar region to stop the flow of information and arms that could topple the Asad regime.

While these events are troubling, it is too early to say what impact the Syrian situation, and the fate of the Asad regime, will have on the Lebanese scene. Nevertheless, we are cautiously optimistic that armed violence between political forces within Lebanon will not break out.

First off, regardless of confessional and/or political affiliation, nobody wants a civil war.  On one side of the political spectrum Saad Hariri, the son of the slain PM Rafiq Hariri, has slammed Asad and his brutalities with an uncharacteristic vigor. He can only afford this because he is currently on the sidelines of Lebanese politics, serving as the mouth piece for both the Sunni community and the oppositional, anti-Syrian March 14th bloc. On the other side Michel Aoun, Free Patriot Movement head and leader of the pro-Syrian March 8th bloc, remains steadfast in his support of Asad. This is merely a power-play, evoking his supporters’ (especially those of the same confession, the Maronite Christians) fears of a change in power in Syria that could potentially bring about “radical” Muslim leadership. Regardless of these rhetorical battles, vivid memories of collective violence (i.e., the Lebanese Civil War, 1975-1991) force every one to reconsider drastic measures. The routine horse-trading of confessional politics, merely inserting this new question of whether the Assad regime should go or not, actually serves as the basis for cross-confessional normalcy in these times of regional uncertainty.  

Second, the main wild card in this equation, Hizbullah, is professedly pro-Lebanese. Notwithstanding the May 2008 street battles against March-14th loyalists, its arsenal, its militia and its religio-political ideology are in the “service” of the Lebanese State. Thus, even though Western media likes to play up the “special relationship” between Hizbullah and Syria, Hizbullah does not take orders from the latter.  Regarding the explosive question of whether Lebanon should pay its dues to the STL (the tribunal tasked to catch the assassins of the late Rafiq Hariri), Asad recently advised Secretary General of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, to reconsider his combative stance on funding. In response, Nasrallah reaffirmed his opposition to what he calls the “Israeli-American project.”  This indicates that Hizbullah forms its most important policies separate from Syria, and in turn, will not allow for the potential fall of Asad to lead to its self-destruction in Lebanon.  

Finally, the “moderates” in the Lebanese government, including PM Najib Miqati, President Michel Suleiman and Druze “political weather vane” Walid Junblatt, have taken a position of positive neutrality: “we are neither with or against” the Syrian regime. This might appear like a policy of ambivalence that only contributes to the inevitable--armed conflict between the intractable pro- and anti-Syrian sides--but as history has proven, this type of neutrality is the only available option. When Maronite President Suleiman Faranjiyya (serving during the onset of the Lebanese Civil War) took a definitive stance against the Palestinian guerrilla organizations in Lebanon, and used the army to crush them, the other extreme of the political spectrum cried foul.  The question of support for or against the Palestinian cause then radicalized the different fronts, making it easier for either side to justify acts of violence against the “other’s” perspective.  In 2011, both sides know their civil war history, and will not let rhetorical battles and everyday politics gravitate Lebanon towards the unknown.  


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