Friday, July 13, 2012

Scared by the tribunal, who me?

Remember when the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was the nuclear bomb in Lebanese pants? Hezbollah members would be accused, civil war would ensue, and Sunnis and Shia would fight, in the memorable words of Bashar al-Assad, from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea.

Now the tribunal provokes hardly a yawn, as lawyers pursue the laborious legal process in their Dutch bubble. This week, the Lebanese state paid its contribution to the institution, without fanfare and without tension between Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Hezbollah.

Is anyone asking the obvious question: Why does Hezbollah seem so sanguine about the tribunal? Could it be that the party now believes the legal outcome will be less devastating than initially feared?

Until this point, the prosecutor, Norman Farrell, has not issued an amended indictment, one that implicates more Hezbollah figures. Last March the pretrial judge, Daniel Fransen, rejected the prosecution’s request to amend the indictment prepared by Farrell’s predecessor, Daniel Bellemare, by adding to it the crime of “criminal association” under Lebanese law. The term had to be clarified first by the appeals chamber, Fransen argued. This requirement will have only added more time to the process.

Hezbollah is perfectly aware that the Bellemare indictment suffers from a fundamental flaw: It offers no motive for the assassination of Rafik Hariri. We have four individuals, not one of whom will stand in the dock, who are accused of a crime the rationale of which has not been elucidated—at least not in the publicly released indictment.

Worse, the timeframe once the trial begins hardly suggests an early endgame. According to sources at the tribunal, we may not have a trial until next year. One individual intimately familiar with court procedures of this kind expects the trial to take three to four years, the appeals stage to take an additional two years, and he points out that if the defendants ever surface, the trial will have to be restarted from scratch. If that assessment is correct, we should expect some kind of verdict by 2017 at the earliest, 12 years after Hariri’s killing.

I wouldn’t worry if I were Hezbollah, would you?

The party is protected to an extent by another factor. Most Lebanese believe, probably rightly, that if Hezbollah participated in Hariri’s murder, then it did so in close collaboration with the Assad regime—indeed very probably at the instigation of the Syrian leadership. Within the coming years, there is a good chance that Bashar al-Assad will fall, and with him the edifice of repression and intimidation so instrumental in targeting Lebanon’s late prime minister.

What an irony. Some believe the Syrians sought to place the Hariri assassination entirely at Hezbollah’s doorstep by eliminating key individuals who might have provided a link in the conspiracy between the party and Damascus. But if Assad is ousted and the Hezbollah suspects are never caught—or if they are somehow declared innocent by the tribunal—then the last laugh would be the party’s.

As a weapon against impunity, the Special Tribunal has been an abysmal failure. The notion that political assassinations will not occur in the future for fear that the international community might set up new tribunals as it did for Lebanon is laughable. If anything, the myriad shortcomings of the investigation and the delays in going to trial will work against a repeat of the Lebanon experience.

After all, a more consensual and, arguably, effective body, the International Criminal Court, has not managed to dissuade mass murderers. Though the ICC has accused prominent leaders of terrible crimes, notably indicting Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, this did not prevent fellow dictators, such as Bashar al-Assad, Moammar Qaddafi or Ali Abdullah Saleh from massacring their populations.

At this stage, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is useful mainly as a political weapon inside Lebanon. That is why the March 14 coalition continues to swear by it, and perhaps why Walid Jumblatt, who denounced the tribunal as “politicized” in the days when he was cozying up to the Syrian regime, recently praised the American senator, John McCain, for having been steadfast in defending the institution. As leverage against Hezbollah, the tribunal still serves a purpose, but no one should expect results soon.

However, you have to wonder whether March 14, beyond political expediency, is still convinced that the investigation and Special Tribunal were successful experiments. The members of that loose fraternity should feel hoodwinked by the United Nations. Outrage is in order, even though the parties in the opposition will never express it, given their political stake in upholding the tribunal’s credibility.

And if political calculation is behind their silence, that only gives us another reason to regret what the United Nations has spawned. Here the international body set up a judicial body to stay above politics and dispense justice. Now its purpose, at least in Lebanon, is to serve as a political tool, while justice is kept waiting, indefinitely.

No comments: