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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

2 May 2007

Leading Government and opposition figures had voiced support, in principle, for a tribunal to try those responsible for assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, but there had been no progress towards establishing it, Nicolas Michel, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel, said at a Headquarters press conference today.

“I can simply say that, for now, from all the discussions that I had and from all the efforts that I attempted, I see no progress,” Mr. Michel said, adding that he had been in Beirut from 17 to 21 April with a mandate from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to assist the authorities and parties “on their way towards the ratification of the bilateral agreement between Lebanon and the United Nations on the establishment of the tribunal, in accordance with the Lebanese Constitution”.

He said that, during his visit to the Lebanese capital, he had met leading Government officials, including President Émile Lahoud, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Speaker of Parliament Nabbih Berri; leading opposition representatives like Mohammad Fneish of Hizbollah, who had been Minister for Energy until his recent resignation; and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Elias Murr, Justice Minister Charles Rizk, Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh and Acting Foreign Minister Tarik Mitri, in addition to a number of parliamentarians.

“A number of my interlocutors, especially from the opposition, clearly said, in different terms, different tones, that for them the main issue was not the tribunal, but the Government’s composition,” said Mr. Michel, whose Office of Legal Affairs provides legal opinions upon request by any United Nations body. He explained that, following the recent resignation of many Shia ministers, the Government and opposition members had been arguing over the Government’s constitutional legitimacy. While the United Nations customarily did not take sides on issues of national concern, the Security Council had called upon all Lebanese political parties to show “responsibility with a view to preventing, through dialogue, further deterioration of the situation” in the country.

Any suggestion that he had been in Beirut to do more than talk to Lebanese parties was unfounded, he stressed, adding, however, that he stood ready to engage on the substance of the agreement and the statutes of the proposed tribunal, “if my interlocutors expressed a readiness to do that”. A specialist on tribunals and the content of statutes had accompanied him for that purpose. “Unfortunately, we did not come to that point,” he said, calling attention to new statements by President Lahoud that differed from the supportive comments he had made during Mr. Michel’s visit, which had been duly summarized by the President’s own legal experts.

When asked, Mr. Michel did not confirm reports that the Security Council would pass a resolution to establish the tribunal under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter -- under which the Council could call on parties to comply with measures it deemed necessary to restore international peace and security.

Asked what he would suggest to the Secretary-General and the Security Council in order to help lift the deadlock in Lebanon, he stressed that his mandate was neither to explore alternatives nor to suggest specific lines of action. He had been especially careful to avoid talking about the potential effects of a Chapter VII resolution, after journalists at a Beirut press conference had appeared to put words in his mouth. However, the Chapter VII issue was the subject of heated debate in the country.

When a correspondent asked his opinion of the Syrian Government’s view that a trial of its citizens in Lebanon would not be valid, he explained that the statutes of the tribunal created the possibility for trials in absentia, in the event that accused individuals failed to show up for trial -- whether that was due to the Government’s failure to surrender them or other reasons. “Trial in absentia” had been introduced because it was already a common feature in Lebanese legal culture.

The Legal Counsel said that, as added protection for the defendants, the tribunal’s statutes would require the presence of a defence counsel throughout the proceedings, whether or not the accused individuals were present. An accused person also had the right to be retried in the event of his or her absence, or in a case whereby the selection of a defence counsel was not to their liking. The tribunal would have jurisdiction over the accused individuals, even if third-party States attempted in any way to shield them.

Mr. Michel said the proposal put forward by the United Nations emphasized an agreement reached through the country’s constitutional process, but, if the Lebanese parties were to propose “a different analysis”, he had no objection to pursuing a different tack.

He reiterated his comments to the press in Beirut, saying: “Now is the time for all Lebanese parties tangibly to demonstrate their support for the establishment of the tribunal.”

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For information media • not an official record

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