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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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Another sore subject is the tribunal's interaction, or lack of it, with civil society in Lebanon. It has been distant and aloof. Witnesses have recanted and judges have resigned without explanation.

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Tribunal plagued by fraud, bunker mentality

The tribunal seemed "snakebitten from the start," says the American jurist. Initially, a German judge, Detlev Mehlis, led a 2005 commission looking into the assassination. It reported charges based on one witness that led to the arrest of four Lebanese generals. The report now reads like a Hollywood script. The witness was a con and the generals were released after sitting in jail even after the fraud was exposed.

Following this gaffe, the UN Security Council established a tribunal at The Hague in 2007. But as Mr. Beauchard puts it, the new body seemed oblivious to the need to establish legitimacy in Lebanon. "There's been a bunker mentality with this tribunal from the start," he says. "The communication with Lebanese civil society is almost nonexistent. So many opportunities were wasted."

Mark Ellis, director of the International Bar Association in London, says that while bedrock principles of international justice need support, "this [Lebanon tribunal] mechanism and the way it was used, that is not black and white. If it is hundreds of thousands killed, that's not a nuanced conversation. But this tribunal came from a very unorthodox process. It doesn't mirror any other tribunal out there. It came from a doubt that any accountability in Lebanon itself was possible. So it was an experiment; I hope it succeeds. But you commit an international justice concept to crimes of lesser degree, and that is a risk."

In Lebanon, support for or against the tribunal falls along political and sectarian lines, but there have been significant defections. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt was a supporter when the tribunal started in 2007. Mr. Jumblatt began to change his mind after several days of fighting between Hezbollah and the Sunnis and Druze in May 2008. For Jumblatt, Lebanon faced a choice of either justice for Hariri or stability – and the two were incompatible. In January, Jumblatt cut ties with Hariri's coalition and backed Mikati.

Mikati has been silent on his course of action on the tribunal, although it is widely believed that he secured Hezbollah's backing only on the basis that he will end Lebanon's cooperation with it. He is expected to explore ways to at least delay the tribunal and create some space that could relieve tensions.

"He will be reflecting a conviction that maintaining the stability of the country requires cutting the official relationship with the tribunal," wrote Imad Marmal, a columnist for As Safir newspaper, "just as maintaining the stability of this country required, at an earlier stage, giving a chance to the tribunal."

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