With the adoption of Security Council resolution 1636, the fate of Syria is now firmly in the hands of one man: Detlev Mehlis, the Head of the UN Commission investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri. The new resolution gives the German judge sweeping powers and requests the Commission to report back to the Council on the progress of the inquiry by 15 December 2005, including on the degree of cooperation from the Syrian authorities, or anytime before that date “if the Commission deems that such cooperation does not meet the requirements of [the] resolution, so that the council, if necessary, could consider further action.”
While bringing to justice the authors of Hariri’s assassination is of the utmost importance, one cannot but worry that the Council is now fully engaged in a de facto criminal investigation –without the due process afforded to suspects and defendants alike by the judicial system of well-thinking democracies. With the adoption of resolution 1636 under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, the stakes are dangerously high, particularly in light of President Bush’s statement that all options remain on the table. In this regard, the last minute “concession” –dropping a specific reference to Article 41 of the Charter which relates to “measures not involving the use of force” to give effect to Council decisions– exacted by the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, resembles more a gift to the White House than a real concession: it leaves the Council the option of invoking in its next resolution not only Article 41 –but also article 42 governing the use of military force. How the representative of the only Arab country on the Council, the eminent international jurist and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Bedjaoui, could cast a positive vote remains equally puzzling.
With the adoption of 1636, the Mehlis investigatory process resembles more and more the saga of UNSCOM/UNMOVIC tasked to unearth weapons of mass destruction that did not exist in Iraq. Mehlis today like Blix yesterday had both the mighty responsibility of provoking or averting a head-on confrontation with their interlocutors in Damascus and Baghdad, respectively, and potentially provoking war. The comparison, however, stops here. For it is evident that the judge in the case of Syria’s alleged involvement in the assassination plot of Hariri –the Security Council- has already directed the Jury –the Mehlis Commission- on what the outcome of the verdict should be. The comparison also stops here because Detlev Mehlis is no Hans Blix, the man who managed to redress the impartiality and professionalism of UNMOVIC after the dismal record of his predecessor, the Australian Richard Butler.
When so much power is entrusted to one individual, it is worth considering their record. As Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency for 15 years, Blix had well-established credentials. And so has Mehlis. When Secretary General Annan appointed the German judge, the cursory UN press release indicated that the 55-year old Mehlis had “25 years of prosecutorial experience and has led numerous investigations into serious, complex transnational crimes”.
One such crime was the 6 April 1986 bombing of the ‘La Belle’ discotheque in then West Berlin that killed two US military servicemen and a Turkish woman. Nine days later, at 2 a.m., the US launched bombing raids on Libya that killed among others the daughter of the Libyan leader and injured two of his sons. “Operation El Dorado Canyon” was launched, it was claimed, based on telecommunication intercepts between Libyan intelligence officials. On 25 August 1998, however, Germany’s public television network ZDF, reported that several prime suspects of the La Belle bombing –Arabs working for Western and Israeli intelligence– were being protected from prosecution by Western Intelligence. And Mehlis knew this. In a sworn testimony at the Lockerbie trials and recounted in his book “The Other Side of Deception” , Colonel Victor Ostrovsky, a former Mossad operative, asserted that the “intercepts” that led to the US bombing of Libya had in fact been broadcast covertly by the Mossad from Tripoli.
Before he submits his second report to the Security Council, it might be worthwhile for the UN to look into Mehlis’ credentials –or to reconsider them. Annan should also realize that when it comes to the Middle East, conspiracy theories are not the mere product of fertile imaginations, but the consequence of intricate plots of potent intelligence services. After all, wasn’t Mossad agent Eli Cohen in the 1960’s a “close friend” of Syrian President Amin al-Hafez who was about to appoint him Minister of Defense?
Before starting a new line of business, the United Nations whose reputation has lately been seriously dented should realise that the investigation into an assassination by a political organ is neither a good idea, nor does it set a good example.