The E.U. finally decided to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Why won't the U.N.?
It has now been a year since Hezbollah operatives blew up a tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver, including a pregnant woman. And after an erratic decision-making process, Europe has finally responded: On July 22, the European Union designated Hezbollah's "military wing" as a terrorist entity.
The terror designation ends years of European prevarication on Hezbollah's true nature -- and could pave the way for more international efforts to isolate the self-described "Party of God." Britain, which designated Hezbollah's military wing a terrorist group in 2008, spearheaded the E.U. sanctions measure. The new penalties -- if enforced aggressively -- could lead to travel bans on Hezbollah members and officials visibly connected to military activities, the freezing of its assets in Europe, and a crackdown on the Lebanese Shiite group's recruitment process among Europeans.
But the European Union, compared to many nations, is still going easy on Hezbollah. The party's entire organization is now outlawed by the United States, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, and Bahrain. By only designating Hezbollah's military wing, the European Union stopped short of dismantling its entire apparatus within its territories. The E.U. decision is designed to stop further Hezbollah terrorist attacks on European turf -- but allow Europe to keep the lines open to Hezbollah politicians. Walking this line will be no easy task, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague tried to capture the dilemma on Monday in Brussels: "We have to distinguish as best we can."
France, which was skeptical about Hezbollah's involvement in the Burgas attack, took the lead in opposing the terror listing until late May. However, the political landscape in Syria triggered a dramatic change within France's foreign policy establishment: With Hezbollah deepening its intervention on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, Paris was terribly worried about losing its diplomatic leverage in the Levant, where it was once a colonial power. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius directly linked French policy to Hezbollah's involvement in the bloody Syrian civil war, saying, "Given the decision that Hezbollah has taken and the fact that it has fought extremely hard against the Syrian population, I confirm that France will propose to place Hezbollah's military wing on the list of terrorist organizations."
The sea change in France's policy moved additional member states to jump on the sanctions train. Ireland and Austria were two of the more recalcitrant countries opposed to the terror listing, largely because both countries contribute troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions that monitor ceasefire agreements between Israel and its northern neighbors, Lebanon and Syria. But it wasn't only France that convinced them to change their tune: In one of the more interesting forms of lobbying, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was born in Austria, reportedly helped persuade the Austrian chancellor to sanction Hezbollah. (Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Schallenberg, responding via Twitter, wrote, "A.Schwarzenegger did indeed send a letter arriving Saturday morning. Austria had taken it's [sic] position already.")
Between Europe and the United States, which outlawed Hezbollah in 1995, it is clear that the international community is tightening the noose around the Lebanese Islamists. But there is still one organization that has remained conspicuously silent about this international threat: the United Nations.
The global body has thus far limited itself to doling out ineffective wrist slaps and euphemisms in addressing Hezbollah's global terrorist reach. In a typical example, the U.N. Security Council on July 10 called for "all Lebanese parties" to refrain from involvement in the Syrian crisis -- a bland reference to Hezbollah's murderous role. (According to Reuters, the reference to Hezbollah was watered down due to objections from Russia.)
While the United Nations has a raft of counterterrorism bodies and resolutions, it has yet to come up with a viable definition of terrorism -- leaving individual states free to collaborate with any groups not specifically targeted by the international body. But when the United Nations wants to crack down on a specific group, it has shown the ability to do so: The U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on al Qaeda, for instance, with a series of resolutions dating back to the late 1990s. In a similar vein, the Security Council has the authority, if its members are willing, to target Hezbollah.
The Lebanese Shiite group could also be shoehorned in under the existing U.N. sanctions resolutions targeting the party's patron, Iran. The U.S. government has long stressed the intimate ties between the two actors: Assistant Treasury Secretary Daniel Glaser, for instance, testified before Congress in 2011 that Hezbollah was "Iran's primary terrorist proxy and foothold in the Arab world" and "a global organization with unparalleled financial and commercial resources." Reeling off a list of places where Hezbollah-affiliated individuals or commercial operations had been targeted by the Treasury Department -- from Lebanon to Latin America to Africa -- Glaser stressed, "the real power behind Hezbollah lies in Tehran."
Why should this be of urgent concern to the United Nations? Because, as Glaser highlighted, Hezbollah is no mere parochial threat. Since it was created in the early 1980s as a Lebanese offshoot of Iran's Islamic revolution, its networks, fund-raising rackets, terrorist plots, and killings have long been global -- earning it the nickname in Washington, "the A-team of terrorism."
Today, Hezbollah infests every continent -- with the possible exception of Antarctica. And its lethal schemes are only growing more frequent: Just this May, the U.S. State Department reported that "Iran's state sponsorship of terrorism and Hizballah's terrorist activity have reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s, with attacks plotted in Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa."
Hezbollah's bloody trail stretches back three decades and reaches from the Middle East, to Africa, to Latin America. The party cut its teeth with the 1983 U.S. embassy and Marine barracks bombings in Beirut, and then the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. It has also been implicated in terrorist attacks on the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, as well as the horrific 2005 bombing in Beirut that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. In Nigeria, the arrest of three dual Lebanese-Nigerian nationals armed with everything from land mines to anti-tank rocket launchers -- enough weaponry "to sustain a civil war," according to the public prosecutor -- prompted a member of the country's security services to label Hezbollah's military wing a terrorist organization.
The Burgas bus bombing was the latest example of Hezbollah's terrorist bona fides -- and also its global reach. The planning and execution of the attack straddled four continents. It was conducted in Europe and masterminded from the group's base in Lebanon, but the Bulgarian investigation found that the plot was led by a cell that included citizens of Australia and Canada.
Hezbollah makes no secret of its anti-Semitic aims. Just weeks before the lethal attacks in Burgas, Cypriot authorities arrested Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a dual Lebanese-Swedish citizen, for plotting to kill Israelis and Jews on the island. In March, a Cypriot court sentenced him to four years in prison, though the court chose to describe his acts as criminal, rather than terrorist. Yaacoub offered police officials a neat summary of Hezbollah's global reach, telling them that Hezbollah "was just collecting information about the Jews. And that is what my organization does everywhere in the world."
Slapping a U.N. terror designation on Hezbollah will be no easy task: Washington would have to make a big push for the United Nations to seriously consider acting. But nobody can know whether it's possible -- so far, the United States has barely raised the issue. It has limited itself to the occasional grumble, such as Acting Permanent Representative Rosemary DiCarlo's comment at the Security Council on July 23 that "Iranian and Hezbollah-backed fighters and advisers" have supported the Syrian regime's assault on its own people. U.S. diplomats have been unwilling to comment publicly on this omission, and a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment for this article.
The United States may be reluctant to campaign for sanctions on Hezbollah for fear that such a bid would not get past veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China. Witness China's continued business dealings with Iran, Russia's backroom dilution of the recent condemnation alluding to Hezbollah, as well as both nations' refusal to allow U.N. sanctions on Syria.
But the free world invests billions of dollars in the United Nations every year -- not to mention its credibility in the name of promoting international peace and security. Should the U.N. Security Council prove simply too craven or morally crooked to take actions against Hezbollah, there would still be benefits to airing the case against the "Party of God." This is surely a debate worth having at the United Nations -- and soon.
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