The Special Tribunal for Lebanon opened its doors to the world yesterday. After a tedious investigation which has lasted for the past 4 years, Daniel Bellemare, the last head of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) and now Chief Prosecutor of the Tribunal, has moved along with his team to The Hague, where the trial for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq el Hariri, the 22 others who were killed with him, and any other attacks which are connected to and of similar nature and gravity to the Hariri attack, will begin.
Distinguishing features of the Tribunal
The Tribunal is unique in many ways:
I It’s a tribunal “of an international character” but it’s not a UN tribunal, meaning: it will not be funded by the UN but 49% by Lebanon and 51% by international donors, and its judges will be picked based on pre-determined quotas from among Lebanese and international magistrates; it will not try international crimes as defined by the Rome Statute which set up the International Criminal Court like crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and aggression. Instead, it will be the first international tribunal to try individuals for the domestic crime of terrorism as defined in the Lebanese Penal Code; Similarly to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, it has been imposed on Lebanon by way of a Chapter VII UN Security Council Resolution (read the text of Resolution 1757 here) instead of a treaty. To better explain this last point: international tribunals can be set up by way of a treaty between the UN and the country concerned. This means that the country concerned accepted the creation of the tribunal. In Lebanon’s case, due to a domestic political stalemate, the withdrawal of Hezbollah and Amal-appointed ministers from cabinet, and an ensuing constitutional crisis, the Lebanese government did not ratify the treaty in time, which led the UN Security Council to issue a Resolution under the UN Charter’s Chapter VII, a chapter which allows measures to be imposed on member states by the Security Council when international peace and security are threatened (read the text of Chapter VII here).
Polarization and Politicization
The Tribunal has become an intensely polarizing institution in Lebanon. Certain segments of the population support the Tribunal and view it as a means to bring those responsible for the assassinations to justice. Other segments see the Tribunal as yet another manifestation of Western meddling in domestic Lebanese affairs. The discourse on the Tribunal locally has become very heated which has had the effect of politicizing it to a phenomenal level. In this kind of atmosphere, the media and the political parties’ role of information, misinformation and lack of information has succeeded in turning the Tribunal’s politicization into a self-fulfilling prophecy: in Lebanon today, support for or against the Tribunal clearly pits a person in one or other of the main political camps. It also contributes to severely affect public perceptions of the Tribunal’s role, purpose, and impartiality. Indeed, in discussions with various actors from the legal community who have either been directly involved or keen observers of the Tribunal, a common sentiment has been the frustration with the outreach program (or lack thereof) and information campaign to familiarize the Tribunal to the Lebanese public.
This is not to say the Tribunal is not discussed. On the contrary, it’s discussed daily on news programs and newspapers. It is currently perhaps one of the two or three main sagas in Lebanon’s political life (another one being the upcoming elections). But the attitudes towards it are starkly contrasting, and there is no neutral channel through which it is discussed. One of the rare good-content information channels is this blog set up by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, a local NGO (not to be confused with the Institute for Human Rights, which is an organ within the Beirut Bar Association). But in most other arenas, the Tribunal has turned largely into a rallying banner, a symbol of either something very good or something very bad. In many ways, the Tribunal has been hijacked and made a hostage of the political agenda of the various parties in Lebanon. In light of this context, it is worth wondering whether the trial(s) which will eventually take place at The Hague and any ensuing judgments will be hijacked and made hostage in the same way.
UNIIIC, more specifically UNIIIC under its first investigator Detlev Mehlis, has arguably been a contributing factor to some segments’ distrust of the Tribunal. Mehlis issued a damning first report in which he implicated high-ranking officials from the Syrian government and the Lebanese security services in the Hariri assassination. On the basis of his conclusions, four Lebanese generals were arrested and remain incarcerated to this day, despite the fact that no charges have been brought against them. Mehlis was and continues to be roundly criticized, not so much for his conclusions, but for the manner in which he conducted the investigation. Indeed, despite the criminal investigation being ongoing, not to mention of supreme political sensitivity, his report did not shy away from publicizing facts which perhaps should have remained privileged. The report named witnesses, described confessions from suspects who later on recanted their stories, and some of whom disappeared, Hollywood spy-movie style. The Mideast Monitor describes some of these dramatic developments. When Daniel Bellemare was interviewed three weeks ago, he was pressed on whether the revelations and investigative methods of previous investigators (read Mehlis) hamper or prejudice his task. Bellemare diplomatically declined to comment on his predecessors’ work. The lingering impression however remains that Mehlis seriously complicated subsequent investigators’ work.
One criticism was therefore that Mehlis revealed too many of his investigation’s findings. But also, it turns out, Mehlis revealed too much Mehlis. He was in Beirut and decided to enjoy the city’s more epicurean offerings. It’s hard to hide surprise when a respectable academic and journalist describes him as a “playboy” (but I did learn not to quizzically to ask: “really?!” after the second time I heard it). Mehlis apparently became a fixture on the chic restaurant scene, and showed off a glittery lifestyle. Of course restaurant choice can hardly be equated with improper investigating. It nonetheless did serve to alienate him, and by extension UNIIIC, from the public. It also negatively affected the perception of his professionalism and dedication.
Mehlis was first replaced by Serge Brammertz (apparently Mehlis was pressured to resign: see this piece from Wednesday’s L’Orient Le Jour), and then by Bellemare, both of whom chose not to go the playboy route and assumed a very low profile, both personally and professionally in their investigation.
Kind of a wait-and-see game. No one knows who will be indicted, no one knows whether the indicted will be handed over by whatever state they reside in, it’s also not clear when the trial will begin.
Conclusion and Disclaimer
There’s a lot more to be said about the Tribunal. I’ve left out a lot of issues and facts in the post which are just as important as what was mentioned. Don’t take it as a bias. For now, consider this a partial introduction and a prelude to posts to come.
Blackstar is an international lawyer based in London.