In Lebanon, the Hariri tribunal finds itself on trial
A UN-backed international tribunal examining the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri threatens a fragile stability in Lebanon, where the government of Hariri's son recently fell over disputes about the tribunal's role.
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While some international jurists advocate a delay – partly to allow the new government time to form and partly to address legal issues – tribunal officials at The Hague insist they will press on. Indictments were given to a pretrial judge on Jan. 17.Skip to next paragraph
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Some Lebanese see the tribunal as compensation for an era of politically motivated killing. Others see Rafik Hariri as the billionaire friend of Jacques Chirac (Mr. Chirac resides rent-free in a Paris apartment overlooking the Seine that is owned by the Hariri family) and the tribunal as a political tool aimed at the world of Shiite militants from Lebanon to Iran.
"I used to support the tribunal but now I think it's going to cause more trouble than it's worth. I don't like to say this, but sometimes I think it's better if it just went away," says Yasmina Hobeika a 20-something Christian woman who works as a hair stylist in Beirut.
But Sami Salam, a young Sunni and sound engineer, argues, "We should know who is behind all these killings, even if the tribunal is scrapped. We cannot just forget about it after all this time."
The only tribunal organized for a single assassination
International tribunals over the past two decades prosecuted large-scale heinous crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. There was the indictment of Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and Co., for genocide in Sudan, and genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda. Prosecutors investigate "criminal enterprises" that systematically kill civilians. Tribunals, however imperfectly, aim to expose evildoing, increase the rights of women and children, bring some closure or reconciliation to victims, and provide a less biased narrative to the history of a tragedy.
Yet under those criteria, the Lebanon tribunal comes up short. It is the only international tribunal organized for a single assassination. Its legal basis is an untested hybrid of international and Lebanese law. French scholar Jean-Baptiste Beauchard notes it is the first tribunal to prosecute "terrorism." This is "a crime which is neither a war crime, nor genocide, nor a crime against humanity, but an act of terrorism, and that is a legal problem. There is no definition in international law as to what 'terrorism' means, no consensus."
The tribunal's origins "are political, a check on Hezbollah, and this plays out badly in the popular mind in Lebanon since so many worse atrocities are ignored," says a prominent American war crimes scholar close to The Hague who spoke on condition of anonymity. Another flaw, he notes, are plans to try the accused in absentia. Defendants won't be in court. "No one in a tribunal has been tried in absentia since Nuremberg, and this is acknowledged as the major flaw in that court."