While Prime Minister Najib Mikati was able to score serious political points and avert a government collapse this week by funding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon without a cabinet vote, the court and issues related to it will no doubt continue to be a thorn in his side in the months to come.
The STL’s mandate ends in March, but since the court has not yet begun a trial, spokesman Marten Youssef told NOW Lebanon that it has already requested UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon extend its lease on life. That, he added, requires negotiation between the UN and the Lebanese government.
Ministers from Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc have already publically said they want to revise Lebanon’s level of cooperation with the STL in any negotiations to extend the court’s mandate. This could lead to another cabinet crisis early next year, as could the issue of the so-called “false witnesses.”
In a speech Thursday night, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah reiterated his position as the top STL opponent and called on Mikati to put the “false witness file” on cabinet’s agenda. The “false witnesses” are people who allegedly lied to UN investigators initially probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, before the STL was founded.
This supposedly false testimony is apparently the basis on which four high-level Lebanese security officers were held in detention without charge for nearly four years. Arrested in 2005 on the recommendation of then-UN investigation chief Detlev Mehlis, the STL ordered the generals’ unconditional release in 2009 because evidence against them was “not sufficiently credible.”
The “false witnesses” were at the center of a political debate in late 2010. March 14 and March 8 disagreed over which court had the authority to try the “false witnesses,” a debate that was never resolved but will certainly resurface if the “file” is brought to light again.
Mikati will face these impending challenges strengthened by his win over the funding. According to the Daily Star’s Rima S. Aboulmona (who got the scoop before Mikati formally announced Lebanon had paid its $30-million-plus dues to the court), the PM used cash from his office’s budget via the Higher Relief Council (HRC) to fund the STL without having to hold a cabinet vote.
Other local media outlets have since reported that Mikati put the funds in the HRC’s account at the Central Bank and then transferred the money to the court (which confirmed receipt of the payment Thursday afternoon). The HRC exists to assist in national disasters and is legally structured to be able to quickly spend money without the bureaucratic procedures that constrain ministries and other government bodies, according to former Finance Minister Jihad Azour.
The HRC—along with a wide variety of other institutions, including religious courts, the state’s statistics office and the National Council for Scientific Research—is under the authority of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, which exists as a legal authority separate from and above the PM’s office, Azour said. Budgets for these various institutions are allocated through the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, but the PM has no legal authority to actually run or interfere with these institutions, nor does he have discretionary authority to spend from their budgets, Azour said.
The PM only has authority to spend petty cash funds from his own office, Azour said, noting that the $32.1 million Mikati spent on the STL is far more than the PM’s office’s petty cash fund. It is still unclear exactly where the money came from, and repeated efforts to reach someone from Mikati’s office to clarify were unsuccessful.
Both Azour and Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud questioned the legality of Mikati’s move in interviews with NOW Lebanon. However, the HRC—as well as the Council for South, the Fund for the Displaced and the Council for Reconstruction and Development—are “widely known to be the epitome of patronage in Lebanese administration,” according to a February 2009 US Embassy cable released by Wikileaks.
Regardless of whether his move was legal, funding the court is a political boon for Mikati and spells trouble for March 14 in general and Sunni leader Saad Hariri specifically, many analysts have said.
Journalist, blogger and architect Karl Sharro recently wrote that “the biggest losers however have to be March 14, who have invested so much hope and political capital in the STL, only to see it adopted by Mikati now. Their position is further weakened by the fact that Mikati can now exploit his support for the STL politically while they won’t be able to make any political gains through it.”
American University of Beirut Professor of Political Science Hilal Khashan, however, disagreed with the argument that funding the court will lead to more support for Mikati from the Sunni “street” at Hariri’s expense.
“This will not strengthen Mikati or weaken Hariri, he’s weak enough already,” Khashan told NOW Lebanon.