UN probe a non-starter
New Indian Express, Saturday January 5 2008 07:40 IST
THE demand by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for an inquiry by the United Nations into the death of its leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has exposed not only the diminishing credibility of the Pakistani establishment under President Parvez Musharraf but also wider problems facing Pakistan.
Thanks to Musharraf’s strong-arm tactics against the senior judges, independent judicial investigation is no longer an option for Pakistan. By replacing independent-minded judges with his Men Fridays, Musharraf has systematically destroyed the impartially of the judiciary.
Even the minimal credibility of the government was lost when the establishment claimed that Ms. Bhutto was killed not by the assassin’s bullets but due to injuries she suffered from the sunroof lever of her Toyota Land Cruiser. Even if Ms. Bhutto’s body was eventually exhumed for post-mortem, any official explanation about the actual cause of her death would have few takers within the country. It was under these circumstances, the new leadership of PPP, has demanded a probe by the UN.
Such a far-reaching demand for an international intervention into a domestic situation highlights internal schism within the country. Ms. Bhutto pointing needle of suspicion at the President has only complicated the matter. If Musharraf was part of the plot against Ms. Bhutto, he cannot be a part of the investigation into her death! However, by demanding an inquiry by the UN, the Pakistani leaders have raised the stakes. Though unusual, this is not unprecedented. The UN is currently investigating the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri who was killed in a terror attack in February 2005.
The parallels between killing of Hariri and Benazir are rather interesting. Like Benazir, Hariri was a popular leader who remained a thorn in the Lebanese establishment. His policies were at odds with President Emile Lahoud, who was seen closer to Syria.
In a country rife with sectarian divisions, Hariri emerged as a unifying force. As a wealthy businessman with closer links with the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, he had considerable political clout abroad. In short, like Ms. Bhutto, even while out of office, he was popular both within and outside the country.
These qualifications, ironically made Hariri a threat to powerful sections of the Lebanese establishment tied to Damascus. His independence came in the way of large-scale Syrian military presence (some might say occupation) in Lebanon. His popularity undermined Syrian ability to dictate Lebanese politics.
There were apprehensions that Hariri could be victorious in the 2006 parliament elections and challenge the Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. It was under such circumstances Hariri was brutally killed in a car bomb in Beirut that also killed 22 others.
Widespread anger at Hariri’s killing however galvanised the popular opposition against Syria and eventually forced Damascus to pullout its troops which came to Lebanon following the outbreak of the Civil war in 1975. At the same time, prolonged Syrian military presence, coupled with the refusal of Damascus to recognize Lebanese independence and sovereignty, made official investigation into the killing of Hariri an impossible preposition.
Many attributed Hariri’s assassination to his anti-Syrian policies. Despite the formal withdrawal of its troops Syria maintained considerable influence and leverage in the country, especially through the Islamic militant group the Hezbollah. Under such circumstances, Lebanese investigation into Hariri’s death became a non-starter. Hence, supporters of Hariri demanded an international investigation into the killing of their leader.
The dissimilarities between the murders of Hariri and Ms. Bhutto are also interesting. The UN probe for Hariri however, enjoyed the unqualified support of the US and also of France, an erstwhile patron of Syria.
Capitalising on the popular sentiments within Lebanon, these two countries worked with others and prodded the UN to act. The anti-Syrian rhetoric of the Bush Administration and the hasty Syrian retreat from Lebanon enabled the UN Security Council to swiftly act. The spate of killings of anti-Syrian personalities following Hariri’s assassination had also helped the situation.
After months of behind-the-scene negotiations and arms twisting by Washington, in April 2005 the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1595 that called for an International independent Investigation Commission into the killing of Hariri.
Initially it asked German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis to head the probe and he was later replaced by Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz. Their prolonged investigation implicated Lebanese and Syrian intelligence in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister.
Such an international backing however is unlikely over Ms. Bhutto’s killing. Despite its strong criticisms, Washington is unlikely to exert similar pressure for an UN probe. Given the fragility of the situation in Pakistan and widespread violence, Washington can ill-afford to openly express no-confidence on Musharraf.
The US pushed for a UN probe over Hariri because it enabled Washington to heighten its pressures against Syria which was impeding some of American policies in the Middle East, especially over the peace process.
A similar move over Benazir however would not only alienate the Musharraf administration but also might accentuate further tensions within Pakistan. Without a resolute great power demand, the UN is unlikely to get involved in Benazir’s killing.
Second, it is not clear if the PPP leaders had a closer look similar UN involvement in Lebanon. More than anything else, the Hariri probe has accentuated internal tensions within Lebanon. Indeed, the country is functioning without a president ever since Lahoud completed his term on November 23 as both sides were unable to agree on a mutually acceptable candidate. Far from healing the wounds, a UN probe might only complicate things for Pakistan.
Three, the track record of the Hariri probe is not encouraging. Two chiefs, three years and four reports later, the Hariri file still remains open. Given the political nature of the UN as well as patronage enjoyed by Syria, it is extremely unlikely that anyone would ever be held personally responsible for Hariri’s killing, let alone be convicted.
Hence, there is no reason to believe that if and when the UN takes over the Benazir case, the end result would be any different.
However, the demand for an international probe underscores deep divisions within Pakistan. Through his short-sightedness, blatant nepotism and sheer inefficiency, President Musharraf has systematically destroyed major institutions of Pakistan.
While none, not even his friends in Washington, believed him to be a democrat, many had high hopes on his willingness and ability to fight terrorism in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Growing militancy and violence in different parts of Pakistan has severely undermined his usefulness for the American “war on terrorism.” Thanks to Musharraf even the army could no longer be looked upon to save the country. Benazir’s killing was the last straw.
By demanding the world body to investigate a domestic political killing, Pakistani leaders have raised the banner of helplessness. Whether one likes or not, Benazir’s death is a Pakistani problem. Hence solution would have be Pakistani one. No external power, however well intended, would be able to establish the real cause of her death. Meanwhile, Benazir’s assassination would only intensify conspiracy theories, hidden hands and unresolved mysteries.