The Special Tribunal for Lebanon: Justice Starts Somewhere…

Commentary by John Simon – 6 May 2012

A culture of impunity has suffocated the Lebanese political system since its inception. Since the assassination of the country’s first Prime Minister, Riad al-Solh, in 1951, Lebanon has witnessed countless political assassinations, a violent civil war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands, and countless other internal and external conflicts. And yet, there has been no justice for the bereaved or accountability for the transgressors. In fact, Lebanon has yet to undergo any real process of reconciliation, leaving it in a climate of perpetual instability. The current status quo is unacceptable and deprives many Lebanese of any hope of normality; justice must begin somewhere.

The murder of Prime Minister Hariri paralyzed Lebanon’s political system with worry spreading of the resurgence of civil war if a solution is not found. In a country deeply divided along sectarian lines, the assassination of a confessional leader taints the judicial process, and the judiciary is unable to operate independently. Instead of choosing the route of violence, which many would consider the familiar and expected response, the injured party turned to the law. The murder of Hariri and the subsequent string of 22 political assassinations from 2005 to 2009 prompted the Lebanese government to petition the U.N Security council, resulting in the creation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

Unprecedented, the ad hoc tribunal was to serve as the first international court applying and interpreting domestic law. Controversial from the beginning, accusations of the court’s politicization, questions of its jurisdiction, and calls against the violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty were heard from large segments of the population. After all, the architects of the STL had sidestepped Lebanese constitutional provisions requiring authorization of international treaties by the parliament. In a country where death had sadly become an accepted norm, critics were quick to question the creation of an international tribunal for the death of one man. Was the STL a political gambit employed by Western countries to deliver selective justice?

The behavior displayed by the prosecution has fed this mistrust. There have been major flaws in the investigation undermining the judicial process. Controversial claims of false testimony, circumstantial evidence, and lengthy detainments have characterized the trial – the prosecution has worked hard at making the defense’s case. Still worse, classified information leaked by prosecutors resulted in the death of at least one witness. The investigation resulted in an indictment of four Lebanese, which contained unnecessary information of political associations rather than criminal allegations.

In order for the STL to succeed in delivering justice, authorities must act to save its already tarnished reputation. Pressure needs to be applied to the administrators of the STL to act professionally and transparently. Those who have violated legal and ethical procedure must be held accountable for their actions. Those responsible for leaking classified information must answer for the deaths of witnesses, and the detainees subjected to prolonged imprisonment must be presented with mechanisms necessary to address their grievances.

After the May 4 deadline for the defense to challenge the mandate of the STL, it be could decided the STL has no jurisdiction. The STL will be dismantled and its mission ended. This announcement came after yet another attempted assassination of a political figure, Lebanese Forces Leader Samir Geagea. There will be no investigation or trial. It will be overlooked, dismissed by some as an unsolved mystery and by others a missed opportunity. Due in part to the failure of STL to deliver justice, the culture of impunity continues to thrive. The STL, then, is more important now than ever.

Of course the Special Tribunal for Lebanon cannot make up for the thousands of loved lives ones lost. It cannot single-handedly end the endemic corruption that continues to deprive thousands of Lebanese of lives of dignity. But it can for the first time in Lebanon’s turbulent history deliver justice, and by doing so be the catalyst of a larger initiative to overhaul the judiciary system.

As people across the region rise up to overthrow dictators that have ruled for decades, the Lebanese experience stands unique; Lebanon has not experienced the wrath of a single autocrat. However its institutions and political system have been ravaged by multiple occupations and a civil war, which has rendered the judiciary incapable of processing such important cases. To strengthen the state, the impartiality of the judiciary is critical. The international tribunal falls short of the expectations of millions to render a fair, independent verdict. But the lesson to be learned here is that justice has to start somewhere. Assuredly, the Lebanese people have been let down by the international justice system, but the Lebanese judiciary is not capable of handling the country’s complexity. As several countries in the region strive to rebuild, it is incumbent on the Lebanese to realize the need to reform their judiciary system. However, the STL remains the only viable mechanism to deliver immediate justice.

John Simon currently works at the Washington D.C. based NGO, The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) as a policy assistant. He is also a future J.D. candidate. 

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