The first session that carried a relative public appeal, took place at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) last Wednesday.
By Lynn Maalouf, Beirut
Legal academics and political analysts have been debating the matter of the STL’s legality for the past five years. The Lebanese have been debating – to put it mildly – the matter of its legitimacy. And yet as this debate enters the courtroom in The Hague, the STL has never appeared to be as further removed from the Lebanese landscape as it does today.
“We reached the point where we are not even following what is happening with the tribunal,” says Ghazi Aad, who was attending an exhibition about the thousands of people who disappeared since 1975. The founder of Solide (Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile), has been struggling for the past two decades to reach some form of truth and accountability for at least 600 persons whose families believe are secretly detained in Syrian prisons.
One attack in three decades of mass crimes “If this tribunal isn’t mandated to try all the crimes that have occured in Lebanon, then it has no value. If the international community really wants to help Lebanon, then it should focus on its judiciary,” he adds. Mandated to prosecute those responsible for one terrorist attack that killed 23 people, including the country’s former prime minister and possibly others (if proven to be connected), the tribunal inscribes itself against a backdrop of three decades of mass crimes and serious human rights violations - for which there was never any form of accountability.
In this context, the debate about the STL’s legitimacy is quite juicy. In the context of a full-fledged conflict during which over 1,000 civilians were killed as the tribunal was being set up, the debate becomes salacious. And in a context of spiralling volatility, social discontent, political polarisation and decreasing trust in state institutions and the judiciary, the debate may become simply irrelevant.
When an STL defence team announced it had filed a motion challenging its legality on May 10, newspapers in Lebanon were covering news about two huge explosions in Damascus, Syria, portraying images eerily reminiscent of Lebanon in the 1980s. Ten days later, the STL set the date for the hearing. But the announcement went almost unnoticed as the media was covering the funeral of a Sunni Sheikh killed at a military checkpoint the day before. One headline reads, “A series of meetings, clashes and road blocks reminds of 1975 in Lebanon,” reflecting growing fears of resurging internal violence. There was little room left for the STL in there.
Even before the spiralling tension, the Lebanese had been gradually but surely losing interest in the STL. “There can be no doubt that the tribunal’s significance has been steadily diminished,” wrote Elias Muhanna, a political analyst and blogger in November. Five years of a Chapter VII-mandated investigation commission and three years into the court’s lifetime, four suspects have been indicted and they will be tried in abstentia. “Even if the phantoms are proven guilty, many Lebanese will be left wondering whether the mountains of investigative work amounted to a molehill of a conviction,” he added. If the STL was meant to end a very long era of impunity, deter future crimes and foster the rule of law, the country is clearly not heading down that road as incidents of violence are rife these days.
U-turn in the wrong direction
Recent incidents indicate the country is making a U-turn in the wrong direction, after last month’s assassination attempt against a leading politician and this month’s assassination of a religious leader. And if its objective is to shed light on the truth behind the series of assassinations that destabilised Lebanon for two years, then one can hardly refrain from asking whether the time and money wouldn’t have been better invested in a more sustainable mechanism.
If it rules, as is expected, in favour of its own legality, the STL should prepare itself for an uphill battle to regain perceptions of legitimacy. And it can only do so if Lebanese state institutions – starting with the judiciary – engage in serious reforms. But that does not appear to be a likely scenario in the near future.