Friday, May 11, 2012

An empty court press

Every few days, it seems, I receive another email from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon press office, informing me of some new action or initiative at the institution. Earlier this week, Lebanese academics were in Leidschendam visiting. Such transparency is laudable, but the more urgent question is: When will the trial begin?

Not until later this year, or even 2013, if you believe sources at the tribunal. One cause for the delay is that last March the pretrial judge, Daniel Fransen, rejected the prosecution’s request to amend the indictment, to which the crime of “criminal association” had been added. The term must be clarified by the appeals chamber first.

Yes, trials of this nature take time, we’ve been wearily assured time and again. However, given this fact, does it make any sense whatsoever to continue to argue that the Special Tribunal will end impunity for political crimes in Lebanon? If anything, the entire trial process, and what we anticipate will be a seven- or eight-year delay between the date of the central crime and the beginning of court proceedings, would seem to confirm the absurdity of that proposition.

The wheels of justice move slowly, to repeat an old cliché. But there is a difference between domestic and international courts. It is considerably more difficult to set up a special international judicial body, so that when the process is further loaded down by extensive time lags, there is even less for prospective criminals to fear. What likelihood is there that another special tribunal will be set up in the foreseeable future in the event of fresh assassinations? None.

An associated problem is that the measure of success is rather different for those working at the tribunal than it is for the families of the victims—or simply those who want to see justice done. I recall hearing a lawyer at the Lebanon tribunal arguing that the benchmark of achievement would be the proper functioning of the legal procedure. That’s true in part, but it really must involve more. For most Lebanese, success will be determined by whether the guilty, or a substantial number of the guilty, are identified and convicted.

Then there are the politics. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has been accused of many bad things, not least of politicizing its accusations. Nonsense, but that doesn’t mean that politics did not play a part in shaping the investigation of the Hariri killing.

When the first commissioner of the United Nations investigative team, Detlev Mehlis, met with Kofi Annan in 2005, before beginning his mission, the then-UN secretary general told him that he did “not want problems.” This showed that Annan was calculating in a political context, perhaps seeking to avert controversy that might split UN member states, even as he did support Mehlis throughout.

On the other hand, if Annan told Mehlis’ Belgian successor, Serge Brammertz, what he told Mehlis, that may help explain why Brammertz was so reluctant to conduct an aggressive investigation. Among his failures was that he never took down a formal witness statement from President Bashar al-Assad, which Mehlis had wanted to do and for which he had secured Security Council backing. Despite spending two years without much advancing the case, Brammertz was promoted to the position of prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Politics were at play there, but not in the way the tribunal’s critics allege.

The Special Tribunal’s spokespersons and supporters in Lebanon have long affirmed that the body represents a qualitatively new and valuable innovation in terms of international justice. Many Lebanese have regarded it as a rare weapon against those holding the guns in their country, above all the Syrian regime and their allies in Beirut. But we have to be honest: The UN investigation did not stop the killing after 2005, and few people seriously believe that the tribunal will make criminals think twice about repeating this in the future.

Look at Bashar al-Assad. Here he is butchering his own population in the full light of day, despite warnings that he may eventually face a trial of some sort. Look at President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, and who continues to travel without hindrance. They have taken the measure of international justice, and see it wanting. Ending impunity for crimes is a worthy undertaking. Unfortunately it’s difficult to believe that this is what the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will do.

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