How’s that UN Hariri Tribunal Doing? Not Well

by Julian Ku

The UN special tribunal to investigate the murder of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri seemed like a good idea at the time it was established, back in 2005.  Some folks claimed it vindicated the role of the UN in resolving this kinds of delicate political disputes.  But the opposite has turned out to be the case.

Half a decade later, however, the Hariri case has made little progress toward justice. Lately, Syria has reasserted its power in Beirut after years of trying to destabilize a government dominated by its political foes. In December, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister and Rafik’s son, met with Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, acceding to the reconciliation between his own political sponsor, Saudi Arabia, and Damascus — making Lebanon less likely to point the finger at Syria for the killing.

But the more significant problem actually lies within the United Nations investigation itself. While it has been upgraded to a special tribunal, sitting near The Hague, it has suffered from questionable leadership, lost key members and last year had to release suspects for lack of formal indictments.

I don’t know if some other international or national mechanism could have done better, but they could scarcely have done worse.

4 Responses

  1. While there are indeed a lot of problems with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Michael Young does not seem a particularly reliable journalist when discussing this topic. Time and political issues in the region are clearly creating problems for the STL, but this is not something only applicable to that institution. He does not mention, for instance, that the first chief of investigations of the ICTY resigned after one year of his appointment, too, and that the first registrar and prosecutor of that tribunal also stayed very little. Whether this had a negative impact on the ICTY does not really appear to be relevant nowadays.
    With regard to investigations and the time to file an indictment, the Rome Statute entered into force in July 2002, but the ICC held its first trial hearing only in January 2009. All international investigations, including when a commission is established beforehand, take quite a long time. For instance, in the case of Darfur, a Commission was established in October 2004. The final report was submitted on 25 January 2005. The situation was referred by the Security Council to the ICC on 31 March 2005, but still today no trial has commenced about this situation.
    Similarly, although investigations had already been conducted on suspects, the first trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone started on 3 June 2004, almost two years and a half after the UN and the Government of Sierra Leone signed the agreement establishing the Court.

    To mention another example, the ICTY judges met for the first time in November 1993, when they took office. The ICTY’s trial hearings however only commenced on 7 May 1996 (Tadic case). This too was preceded by the UN Commission of Experts established on 6 October 1992 pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 to investigate and examine evidence of breaches of international humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia. While this was indeed a very long time, few would today argue that this was not worth it – and that the ICTY was not worth the time, although at the beginning few would have vouched for its survival. I hope time will give the STL a chance and I wish there was more informed debate around.

  2. The STL’s lethargy will unfortunately increase donor fatigue and, coupled with the inability to end ICTY and ICTR, undermine funding efforts for future tribunals.  In a perverse way, one benefit of STL inaction may be to limit the impact of its in absential provisions. The STL is the first tribunal since Nuremberg to allow “complete in absentia” proceedings, where the accused is never present. That in and of itself is controversial and the STL adds to that by utilizing highly suspect (in ICCPR and ECHR terms anyways) “notice otherwise given”, including notice by publication. 
    As a result, donors are likely to be frustrated by both what the STL did not do, hold anyone accountable for the assassination, as well as what it did, place the imprimatur of the UN on both in absentia trials and dubious notice provisions.

  3. To go back to the original post, it is clear that the STL has done little so far, and the complexity of terrorism-related investigations and prosecutions is probably mostly to blame for this. But it might be wrong to forget that the little that the STL has done – freeing in a few days after having asserted primacy over Lebanon four generals who had been detained for years without charges – is quite remarkable for international tribunals. Judges in other words appear to have kept international standards well in mind in practice so far. But of course only time will tell…

  4. There is a much more obvious problem STL: in a country that has witnessed large-scale atrocities by domestic armed groups, Syria, and Israel over the past few decades, the STL’s focus on a very limited set of political assassinations is at best questionable and at most grotesque.

    Every war crimes tribunal is accused of singling out one group or another — Hutus in Rwanda, Serbs in ex-Yugoslavia, etc. With ICTY, this is mitigated by attempts to appear even-handed through prosecution of non-Serbs. With ICTR, one could argue (unpersuasively, of course) that the atrocities were so lop-sided that the exclusive focus on Hutu defendants is at least understandable. But with STL, you have neither the attempt to appear evenhanded nor the plausible argument that the crimes under consideration represent the lion’s share of atrocities in the country.

    The message sent by STL is clear: the only victims in Lebanon who deserve justice are those aligned with the west, everyone else can go away. This is a textbook case of how _not_ to use international criminal law.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.