Lebanon tribunal brings strife, not answers

The indictment reportedly accusing Hezbollah members of killing a former prime minister will fuel unrest, not justice.

The UN Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL) has international support but lacks the ability to implement its rulings and is seen as a pawn of foreign forces by many Lebanese [Handout pic by STL]

The indictment delivered by the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to Lebanon’s state prosecutor Saeed Merza marks the latest twist in a widely publicised and highly controversial operation of international justice.

The indictment reportedly accusing four members of Lebanon’s party Hezbollah in the 2005 killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri will usher in a new phase of confrontation between Hezbollah on one hand and its local, regional and international enemies on the other. Domestic tensions will reach another high. Pro-Hariri March 14 forces have met the decision with much fanfare and political posturing. Hezbollah is expected to strike back with its Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah slated to deliver a televised speech on Saturday addressing the issue.

But the indictment and its immediate fallout is unlikely to lead to actual arrests or upset the existing balance of power within the country in isolation of other regional developments. Since its inception as a fact finding mission in the wake of Hariri’s killing on February 14, 2005, the tribunal has been marred by a serious credibility deficit, constant political interference, and heightened media speculation. The court may have the full backing of Western powers and the stamp of formal authority of international law, but it lacks the executive teeth to implement its decisions and the moral high ground – in the eyes of many Lebanese – to extract concessions by means other than force.

The full impact of the tribunal’s latest measure is best understood in the context of its past conduct and legal standing with the Lebanese state; the recent accession to the seat of government by Hezbollah and its allies; and the profound regional transformations known as the Arab Spring or Arab Revolts, most notably the uprising in neighbouring Syria whose political influence in Lebanon cannot be underestimated.

A clash of narratives

The tribunal is a court of many culprits but no smoking gun. Mainstream media coverage in the West has largely parroted the official narrative of the tribunal as leaked from its offices or portrayed by its proponents. But any keen observer of Lebanon’s local media is aware that the dominant narrative on the international stage breaks down into several conflicting ones on the domestic front. These narratives draw on a complicated network of sources and scenarios.

Internationally, the two most notable and recent journalistic investigations into the affair were those of Germany’s publication, Der Spiegel, in May 2009, and Canada’s state broadcaster, CBC, in November 2010. Both reports strongly insinuated that Hezbollah was behind the attack. According to the tribunal sources quoted by the two media outlets, a 2007 probe by a special unit of Lebanon’s security forces uncovered a network of mobile phones that was activated, operated, and dismantled in sync with the timing and location of the assassination. The media reports, however, make no reference to the fact that Lebanon’s telecommunication networks used as evidence is severely undermined by counter findings of cases of alleged Israeli espionage within Lebanon’s phone network.

In July of last year, local media reported that Charbil Qazzi and Tarek al-Rabaa, two high ranking employees at Lebanon’s major telecommunications network Alpha, were arrested and charged with spying for Israel. Hezbollah-led March 8 forces were quick to argue that the entire communications network has been exposed to Israel manipulation and control. In August, Nasrallah held what amounted to a public deposition indicting Israel in the killing of Hariri. In addition to exposing the infiltration of Lebanon’s phone networks, Nasrallah placed another alleged Israeli spy and former Lebanese army officer by the name of Ghassan al-Jidd at the crime scene shortly before the crime took place. Nasrallah also showed video footage described as Israeli aerial surveillance of Hariri’s car convoys in the years preceding the attack. Nasrallah then called on the tribunal to take this circumstantial evidence into account, something the latter has apparently avoided.

Nasrallah’s counter offensive was not the first time the tribunal faced a serious credibility crisis. If its current case is based telecommunications evidence, the initial case made by its progenitor, the fact finding mission, was based on eye witness accounts. Back then, the target was Hezbollah’s ally, Syria. Testimonies implicating Syrian and Lebanese security officials led to the arrest and incarceration, for over three years, of Lebanon’s top four security generals. Several witnesses later recanted their statements. Leaked recordings of meeting between the key witness and Rafik Hariri’s son Saad dealt a final blow to the investigation. The “false witness” fiasco did not end with the overdue release of the four imprisoned generals. One of them has dogged the court ever since with lawsuits against its commissioners.

Former suspect and head of Lebanon’s national security forces Jamil Sayyid has kept the tribunal’s prosecutor Danielle Bellemare on the hot seat by demanding that all files relating to his wrongful imprisonment and held by Bellemare be handed over to Sayyid. His ongoing legal wrangling with the tribunal are likely to cause further embarrassment to the international body and provide fodder for its opponents eager to undermine its latest move.

A Wikileaks document published by Lebanon’s daily al-Akhbar has also shed suspicion over the integrity of Bellemare as a non-baised prosecutor. Even if the tribunal manages to overcome its legal woes and moral failings, it will certainly face serious obstacles in achieving its ends on the ground.   

Toothless tribunal

Created under chapter 7 of the UN charter and governed by a memorandum of understanding signed by Lebanon’s government, the tribunal’s legal authority fully supersedes that of Lebanon’s. But it has no executive arm to implement its decisions and is entirely dependent on Lebanese authorities to do so. Lebanon’s state authorities, however, are themselves divided and bear conflicting loyalties. The internal security forces, who uncovered the alleged mobile phone network, are politically patronised by the Hariri-led March 14 camp. The Lebanese army’s intelligence service largely responsible for uncovering Israel’s network of spies, on the other hand, is closely associated with Hezbollah and its allies.

The tribunal can thus hand down its arrest warrants to state prosecutor Merza and grant him 30 days to execute them. It is also responsible for the safety and transport of the accused once they are detained. But should the 30 day period pass without much incident, all the tribunal can do is disclose the names of the accused and turn them into international pariahs or ultimately sentence them in absentia.

In the context of Hezbollah, that is hardly a threat to its existing status as a “terrorist organisation” in the books of a political body much more powerful than the UN – the United States and its ally Israel. More specifically, the prime alleged suspect in the indictment, Mustafa Badr al-Din, is believed to be Hezbollah’s top military commander replacing his former brother-in-law, Imad Mughnieh, who was assassinated in Damascus, Syria in 2008. Badr al-Din is thus already among the world’s most wanted men living under extremely secretive circumstances.

Hezbollah’s vulnerability in the face of these indictments lies elsewhere. The armed movement cares less for international law than for local legitimacy. Hezbollah’s leadership views Lebanese law as its first line of defence against attempts to turn it into a full fledge pariah. This is why the party launched a military campaign in May 2008 against Hariri forces when the latter, then in power, issued a decision outlawing the party’s underground communications network.

Later cooperation between the Hariri led-government and the tribunal led to the downfall of the government last January. The formation this week of a new coalition government bringing together Hezbollah, its allies, and former Hariri ally Najib Miqati was precisely intended to block official Lebanese cooperation with decisions like the current indictment even if an exit strategy from the government’s binding legal obligations remain unclear.

In his speech tomorrow, Nasrallah is likely to reassert the party’s suspicion of the integrity of the tribunal; stand by the party’s cadres and reject any accusation of its members as an indictment of the entire group; and warn against any attempts to sanction the tribunal’s decision with Lebanese approval. With his allies in power, the party is safe from any immediate state actions against it. But Western powers and their local allies will link their recognition of and dealing with the new government to the latter’s compliance with the tribunal’s directives. They will try to extend Hezbollah’s isolation to include the government. Sectarian incitement will also draw on the decision to portray the Shia-based party as an enemy of Lebanon’s Sunni community.

Hezbollah’s rhetoric of supporting the Syrian regime’s crackdown on opposition forces and public demonstrations has also led to its further isolation among the wider Arab public. All of this is bound to turn the tribunal’s decision from a toothless tool of legal wrangling to a public weapon of sectarian and factional polarisation within the country and a potential cassis belli in a future military confrontation should regional circumstance offer an opportune time to do so. Meanwhile, the full truth behind the killing of Rafik Hariri – like the truth behind other assassinations of similar international calibre and consequences – will remain as elusive as ever.

Hicham Safieddine is a Beirut-based journalist and researcher of the Middle East. He has written for the Toronto Star in Canada, al-Ahram Weekly in Egypt, and al-Akhbar in Lebanon.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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