Politicians’ power stops at Tribunal’s door

My journey to understand the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) did not begin with the first of my visits to The Hague this year. It is a continual attempt at understanding since UN investigators arrived in Lebanon shortly after a bomb blast over five years ago.

Before March 14, 2005, talk in Syria revolved around the regime falling – or at least opening up. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein had been captured, and his trial had begun. In Palestine, the spark of sharp division had emerged and quickly spread abroad. In the White House, Bush’s administration believed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was either unable or unwilling to cooperate with the new regional project.

On the morning of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination, it was clear during the meeting in the Syrian Foreign Ministry between Farouk al-Sharaa and the American ambassador to Damascus at the time, Margaret Scobey, that the two sides were not speaking the same language. Scobey was recalled to Washington, and American diplomatic representation in Damascus was reduced. The policy of isolating Syria began. The European Union's negotiations with Syria on Mediterranean partnership were postponed, and an unprecedented rapprochement began between the young presidents, Assad and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The lines of the moderate and resistance camps were drawn on the Arab stage. In Lebanon, a bloodbath was launched with Hariri’s murder.

Today, the regional scene is different than it was on the morning of March 14, 2005. Talk has stopped about any change in Syria. The Iraqi elections have been held, and agreement has been reached on forming Iraq's government. The Palestinian president is negotiating for the sake of negotiation, and Hamas no longer doubts his legitimacy as president. Lebanon’s Martyrs' Square is empty of March crowds. The visit of Hariri's son, Saad, to Damascus has completed the division in the ranks of the March 14 coalition, and Jumblatt has finished his latest round of repositioning, now safe in the bosom of the strongest power. Hezbollah has become entangled in local politics, and its discourse has sunk from the "true promise" to "our women's honor."

The STL’s work cannot be separated from the political conditions that led to its establishment, just as the absence of a “Special Tribunal for Pakistan” to try former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s murderers cannot be considered a judicial decision. Unlike Bhutto, Hariri was not killed alone. Samir Kassir, Pierre Gemayel, George Hawi, and others were also killed. Many fell on the front lines between the camps of moderation and resistance. It was in this context – a political context, above all else – that the STL was established.

During my current trip to The Hague, I was struck by the fact that fewer than ten Lebanese employees (about 3%) work for the STL, which receives 49% of its funding from the Lebanese Republic. Also striking was how, for many of the STL’s top brass, the experience of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia – where many previously worked – is a strong presence in their spirits and minds.

When Lebanese journalists visited the tribunal for two media forums, its employees began to see more clearly a concentrated sample of Lebanon's divisions, which the journalists carried in their luggage. This luggage landed back in Lebanon full of media reports along differing lines. The next day, the Lebanese citizen read reports about two STLs in The Hague - a rogue tribunal destabilizing the country, and a sacred tribunal reinforcing the state and its institutions and laws. Two tribunals agreeing in one matter: the burden is more than the ailing Lebanese can bear.

As politicians made intense round-trip movements between Beirut and Arab and Western capitals, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah announced his "optimism" regarding Arab efforts to resolve the Lebanese crisis, while Jumblatt talked about Western interference disturbing these efforts. In The Hague, the movement matched the cold temperature. Things were moving slowly in The Hague, except for the noticeable activity in the Office of the Prosecutor. There was serious talk, in judicial circles, that the indictment "will not only touch Hezbollah." Put more clearly, the STL's impending indictment - it appears - will not just name Lebanese. 

About two months ago, a diplomatic source in New York quoted UN Security Council members with veto power as saying that not supporting the STL's work is "not an option" as long as the crime of terrorism is a vital priority for the international community, especially in light of all the definitive stances members with veto power have taken. It is worth mentioning, quoting from the same source, that STL Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare—a Canadian—did not please America because, as a judge, he was considered “quieter than he should be” and "less politically sophisticated" than American diplomacy accepts.

The tribunal's continuation is no longer tied to a Lebanese political decision, and perhaps it never was. In tackling a crime of terrorism, the tribunal is a precedent in international law. "Terrorism" did not begin or end in Lebanon, and "terrorism" will not push the UN Security Council to strangle the first international tribunal set up to try its perpetrators. Because it was established in a political context above all else, Lebanese politicians still have influence at least - or at most - on the street to control, not the indictment, but its consequences.

Beirut, for all its connections, has no power to stop the indictment. 

Wissam Tarif is currently in The Hague and works with the Insan Association, a Lebanese non-profit and civil society organization.