Nearly nine years after a car bomb killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is starting court proceedings today in The Hague. As the first international tribunal to prosecute terrorism the STL has a lot of potential, but will face potentially debilitating challenges as it seeks to bring a modicum of justice to a politically fragile country.
The bombing that killed Hariri on February 14, 2005 was a major event in Lebanese politics that led to the Cedar Revolution which would ultimately see the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disbandment of the pro-Syrian government in Beirut. However it also became one of the first in a long series of political assassinations of anti-Syria activists and politicians that continue to this day.
Early investigations into the bombing pointed to several high ranking Lebanese officials who were arrested and held for three years in Lebanon. But the Lebanese investigation soon stalled and in 2009 the STL took over the formal UN investigation. With the creation of the STL it was hoped that the international community could provide investigatory support and the appearance of impartiality, an important element in such a high profile and divisive case. But the STL investigation didn’t lead to Lebanese politicians or to Syrian officials – another popular theory in Lebanon - but to Hezbollah, a damning conclusion in the face of Hezbollah joining the government in 2005. In a country as continually divided as Lebanon, the stakes are high for the UN and STL to get this right.
Unfortunately the story of the STL has largely been one of disappointment so far. Delays in getting trials underway, inconsistent cooperation from the Lebanese government and the fact that all five indictees remain at large in Lebanon and are being tried in absentia means that expectations for the tribunal are low. Hezbollah maintains a considerable amount of power in Lebanon with their militant arm generally considered to be stronger than the Lebanese military. Even if the STL trials end in convictions for all involved, it remains to be seen if the five accused will be arrested and imprisoned.
Meanwhile, other events have overshadowed the STL and its work. Lebanon has not had a government since March 2013 and violence – partially a consequence the neighboring war in Syria – is becoming more common as seen with major bombings in Beirut just weeks ago. There are now over a million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, representing 25% of the country’s total population and causing serious social and economic strain. Tensions continue to rise and some believe the STL now poses a threat to what stability remains as it becomes both a bargaining chip for some political factions and a potential political landmine for others.
However despite these difficulties the STL is still a significant development. As the first international tribunal to prosecute terrorism as a specific crime, it may offer a model for how the international community can hold terrorist groups accountable in the future. In Lebanon, a guilty verdict may temper political violence, although many more things outside the control of the tribunal will have to go right in order to reach that outcome. The start of proceedings today represents one more step on the path to accountability and ending Lebanon’s culture of impunity. In the end, that remains an honorable goal even if the path it takes is a bit rocky.