Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, General Secretary of the Hizbollah movement, called on Thursday for a boycott of the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Nasrallah regards the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as biased and an organ of Israeli intelligence. He urged all Lebanese to withhold co-operation with the tribunal, equating such co-operation with a direct attack on the resistance. His public appearance comes a day after two investigators from the Tribunal were attacked by a crowd of women at a clinic in south Beirut, where Hizbollah commands significant support.
The Special Tribunal, established by the United Nations, roundly condemned the speech as an attempt to ‘obstruct justice’. The United States also continues to be highly critical of the Hizbollah movement and its patrons Syria and Iran. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, condemned the ‘destructive and destabilising role’ the Shi’ia organisation plays in the region, as well as Syria and Iran’s interference in Lebanese affairs.
The openSecurity verdict: Political assassinations in Lebanon have had disastrous consequences. The murder of the Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel in 1982 provides probably the most infamous example, with the revelation of his slaying in part inspiring the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in West Beirut. The consequences of Hariri’s assassination appeared at first to bring benefits to the country, with the Cedar revolution that resulted from his death diminishing Syrian influence in Lebanon substantially. Syrian troops, under substantial foreign pressure, left soon afterwards, ending their military presence in Lebanon that began in 1976. If Syria was involved in his death, as the Special Tribunal has previously alleged, the effort backfired spectacularly.
What then is Nasrallah’s aim in obstructing the tribunal? It may be that he fears the investigation may compromise Hizbollah’s role in the fragile national unity government. A stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has lead to calls from President Assad of Syria for armed resistance from Palestinians against Israeli occupation. PA Fatah continue to face attempts by Assad to promote Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. Hamas arms caches have been raided and seized by PA security forces in recent days.
It may be that Nasrallah is attempting to contain the rise of communal tensions in Lebanon resulting from the investigation. Such tensions, combined with the other currents of discord within the region, make for a volatile mix. However, his strategy is risky; in urging the boycott of the Tribunal, he may have simply given the United States and Israel another stick with which to beat him.
Sino-Japanese row over Senkaku islands erupts at Asean
Disputed islands in the South China Sea were again thrust into the spotlight on Friday when, at an Asean summit being held in Hanoi, China accused Japan of ‘distorting the facts’ over an incident in September where two Japanese patrol boats collided with a Chinese trawler in the contested region. The islands, known as the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands to the Japanese and Chinese respectively, are part of a myriad of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, with further contests over the oil-rich Spratley archipelago.
At a summit where relations between the two Asian giants seemed to be improving, China's accusations have again enflamed relations, to the extent that the US felt compelled to intervene. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton criticised the confrontational stance taken by Beijing, stating that upholding Japan's rights to the islands fell within the scope of the US-Japan security alliance.
The Asean summit’s primary focus is the forthcoming elections in Myanmar. On Thursday diplomats had called on the ruling junta to release the pro-democracy activist and political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from prison. Suu Kyi has been held in detention by the military regime for fifteen of the last 21 years. Her latest phase of detention is due to expire on 13 November, six days after polls close but the junta have not said whether she will be released.
Iran agrees to renewed nuclear talks
On Friday, the Iranian government indicated to the EU high representative for foreign and security policy, Catherine Ashton, that their chief negotiator was willing to resume talks with the EU regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. Describing the offer as ‘a very important development’, Ashton has suggested meeting the Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, on 15 November but the place and date have yet to be agreed upon. Any discussions will also include representatives from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France.
If the talks take place, they will be the first such discussions held in more than a year and come in the wake of a recent United Nations agreement on new, high level sanctions against Tehran, designed to pressure the Islamic Republic into resuming talks. Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, a right guaranteed by Tehran’s status as a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
In its correspondence with the Europeans, Tehran has already signalled that any negotiations must entail discussions of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, a move that Ashton has not ruled out. Israel, which is not a signatory to the 1970 treaty, formally adopts a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ regarding its nuclear weapons, but it is commonly assumed that its arsenal is substantial and sophisticated.
Gunfire is exchanged on the border between North and South Korea
On Friday, as the South Korean government prepares to host a meeting of the G20 countries in mid-November, gunfire was exchanged between border guards across the four-kilometre-wide demilitarised zone that separates South Korea from North Korea. The incident was reportedly instigated by North Korean troops, who fired at a South Korean border post in Hwacheon, northeast of the capital Seoul. South Korean forces then returned fire.
No casualties have been reported, and it is unclear if the incident was an accident or a deliberate provocation. The gunfire, which is the first such land-border incident since 2006, occurred just hours after the North Korean regime heavily criticised the Seoul government’s decision to reject military talks. The South Korean government has said that it will not engage in bilateral talks with its communist neighbour until Pyongyang admits responsibility for the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and loss of 46 crew members last March.
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