Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lebanon: Don't Break With The Special Tribunal

By Nadim Houry 
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 28/01/2011

Lebanon’s newly appointed prime minister, Najib Mikati, has remained vague on the key issue facing him if he succeeds in forming the next government.

Would a Mikati government terminate Lebanon’s cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, as Hezbollah and its allies want? Mikati has simply stated that “this is a topic of disagreement in Lebanon and should be handled through dialogue within the Lebanese institutions.” However, the prime minister-designate’s opponents accuse him of having already made a backroom deal with Hezbollah on the tribunal as a precondition for his nomination.

I don’t know if Mikati made such a deal, but it would be a mistake to end Lebanon’s cooperation with the tribunal. Impunity for political assassinations has been the norm in the country for far too long. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is the unwritten rule applied to assassinations, ensuring that no suspects are ever named. Lebanon took a first step in breaking that rule when it demanded an investigation into the killing of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005. For a Lebanese government to now withdraw from the tribunal would mean that it does not want an answer. Not only will this entrench impunity, it will exacerbate divisions in the country with everyone convinced that they already know the answer, depending on their political allegiances.

Hezbollah and its allies contend that the tribunal is politicized and should be disbanded before it damages Lebanon further. But the party has yet to make a convincing case. The international investigation has committed mistakes, most notably its public silence about the four-year detention, without charge, of four Lebanese generals, initially at the behest of international investigators. But such mistakes do not make the whole process illegitimate or terminally flawed. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon did release the generals when it assumed jurisdiction over them.

Politics were a factor in the United Nations Security Council decision to set up the international investigation, and, later, a tribunal. But that is hardly unique in international tribunals. And any political circumstances surrounding the tribunal’s birth should not prejudge the outcome of what, ultimately, is a judicial process with checks and balances built in. There will be chances to challenge the evidence presented or expose political interference in the investigation.

The debate in Lebanon should not be about how to silence the tribunal but how to increase local efforts to break Lebanon’s vicious cycle of impunity. Lebanon’s judiciary has not detained a single suspect in the 13 attacks against prominent figures between October 2004 and January 2008, which killed a total of 56 people. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. The civil war led to the death of at least 130,000 civilians, while an estimated 17,000 disappeared. All those who were responsible for many of those crimes benefitted from a general amnesty, while former militia leaders are today among Lebanon’s most prominent politicians.
The Special Tribunal’s importance has always been its potential to break Lebanon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule and spur the local judiciary to start asking hard questions about all the other victims who died in Lebanon over the years. This potential remains unfulfilled in large part because Lebanon’s various political leaders have hijacked the debate to suit their narrow objectives.

Leaders of the March 14 coalition – those supporting the inquiry into Hariri’s killing – missed a major opportunity a few years ago to break with the past. They printed posters calling for justice in the killings of prominent politicians, journalists, and security personnel since the 1980s. But their posters cited no prominent victims of Shiite parties who were killed during the same period; and they did not follow up on their calls for justice, with the predictable outcome that their efforts came across as an ineffective public relations campaign.

Meanwhile, leaders of the March 8 coalition that brought Mikati to power, have done no better. They spent endless energy and air time criticizing the Special Tribunal, but failed to promote or encourage alternatives, such as independent national investigations. They were more interested in trying so-called “false witnesses” who allegedly implicated the detained generals in the Hariri investigation than in finding the perpetrators of the assassinations of March 14 figures.

Mikati has indicated that he aspires to unify all the Lebanese. To convince supporters of March 14, he will need to show that he is committed to finding out who killed Rafik Hariri. But to achieve his wider ambition of reconciliation, he should go further and kick-start a much broader process of accountability for all the unpunished crimes in Lebanon. And they are many.

Nadim Houry is Beirut director at Human Rights Watch. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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