The spectre of strife looms ahead of UN indictments in 2005 Hariri murder
EYES INSIDE - THE MIDDLE EAST
Lebanon is an edgy place these days, as a UN-backed special tribunal prepares to charge suspects in the February 2005 bombing assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. If members of the Shiite militia and political party Hezbollah are among those indicted, some worry that this strategic, violence-prone country of 4.2 million could descend again into civil war.
Political assassinations were hardly new to Lebanon, often targeting influential journalists and politicians who'd spoken out against Syria's interference in their country. But the car bomb that killed Hariri and 22 others was on a different order of magnitude, requiring the smuggling of two tons of explosives into Lebanon and intimate knowledge of one of the Arab world's richest, and most well-protected, political leaders.
A recent, devastating Canadian Broadcasting Channel investigation brought out into the open an accusation of what had long been rumored in journalistic and political circles: members of Hezbollah – which has since entered mainstream politics -- carried out the assassination.
With suspicions originally focused on Syrian operators, the earliest hints of Hezbollah involvement emerged in August 2007 when the government announced the discovery of a privatekg2 , parallel phone network operated by Hezbollah outside the realm of the government. Nine months later, the government announced its own investigation into the telecom network. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, now allied with Hariri's son and current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, stated at the time that Hezbollah was using the private network to plan assassinations of senior political figures in Lebanon. Hezbollah said it required the network to protect the country from Israeli encroachment.
The probe of the bombing has had victims of its own. One of the investigators, a Lebanese army captain named Wissam Eid, had traced a short phone call from a Hezbollah member to his girlfriend, which led to a chain of cell phones used to coordinate the 2005 explosion. During a meeting with Hezbollah members to discuss the phone issue, Eid was warned that the matter involved national security and should drop his line of inquiry. In January 2008, two days after he approached the UN to share the breakthrough, Eid was killed in a car bombing.
As the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon pressed on with its task, Hezbollah went public with its denunciation of the international court. The rhetoric continues to rise, as members just this week issued a typically ambiguous yet ominous warning that targeting Hezbollah "will only backfire for the parties behind it."
Hezbollah ("Party of God") is more than simply a heavily armed militia that rules parts of Beirut and south Lebanon with almost no interference from the state. Not only could its one million followers effectively shut down Lebanon in a matter of hours, which it demonstrated in 2008, it is also a major opposition party with a decisive vote in the Cabinet. And with Saad Hariri currently ruling without a clear popular majority, the standoff over the pending indictments has left his government deadlocked.
The Party of God insists that the investigation into the Hariri assassination is actually an Israeli plot that should be handled internally, preferably by Hezbollah itself. Hariri's March 14th coalition supports the tribunal, with the Prime Minister telling Newsweek this week that there can be no stability in Lebanon without justice.
For now, there is "total paralysis of state institutions, including the government, which is incapable of taking any decision," Sami Salhab, a law professor at the Lebanese University, told AFP on Wednesday.
No one knows exactly how Hezbollah will respond to the likely indictments of its members. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said that his party would "cut the hand off" anyone indicting them. Coming from an Arab leader known for making literal statements, the remark has Beirut worried about a return to civil war. How far will it go to block arrests? Would Hezbollah turn its guns on the Lebanese army? On civilians?
Hezbollah's main backer, Iran, stepped into the fray this week, with Ayatollah Ali Khamanei echoing word for word Nasrallah's comments that any tribunal verdict would be "null and void" as "this tribunal is receiving orders from elsewhere." Hariri answered simply: "We in Lebanon, as a government, have our own views of the tribunal."
Lebanon has always been strong enough to withstand wars, but too weak to avoid manipulation by regional powers. In his quest for justice, both for his country and his family, Hariri finds himself staring down the barrel of Hezbollah's Iranian-bought, Syria-imported gun, one which may or may not be loaded.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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