Tribunals, Trials and Tribulations in Lebanon?

Women hold photographs of assassinated Lebanese personalities at the mass funeral of Lebanese minister Pierre Gemayel, Beirut, 23 November 2006. (Dina Debbas/IRIN)

Finally, an international tribunal will be tasked with investigating and prosecuting murder and mayhem in an Arab country. For human rights activists who have railed against continuing impunity for grave crimes in the Middle East, whether committed by Israelis or Arabs, whether orchestrated by states or non-state actors, this should be an occasion for unalloyed celebration, or at least relief. After all, mass murderers such as Ariel Sharon and Saddam Hussein escaped international justice for their crimes, the former by narrowly avoiding prosecution in Belgium under that country’s now-rescinded universal jurisdiction law, the latter being tried in an improvised court devoid of international oversight that could have revealed past American support for Hussein in the late 1980s, when he was gassing Kurdish villagers with chemical weapons he probably obtained from the United States. The court that tried Saddam Hussein and other architects of the vicious crimes synonymous with his twisted regime was not so much a judicial chamber as it was an anteroom to the gallows. Not that Saddam didn’t deserve the maximum punishment for his extensive and brutal crimes, but his trial made a mockery of criminal prosecution for human rights violations, and was less a matter of setting precedents than settling scores.

So now international justice has come to Lebanon, the venue of a long and devastating civil war, numerous massacres, 17,000 people disappeared and still missing, the displacement of a fourth of the population, and assassinations of leaders from every sectarian community. The application of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) [1] in this fractured and tormented country is certainly long overdue, and although the tribunal will not address any of the bulging files dating back to the civil war years, imperfect justice may be better than no justice at all — especially in a country whose parliament, in its very first act after the end of the civil war, passed a general amnesty law granting immunity from prosecution to all the country’s war lords. Since many of these war lords had by then become Parliamentarians and ministers in the post-war government, the general amnesty law set a cynical and audacious precedent for “policing the past” in post-war Lebanon. Accountability has been “disappeared” in Lebanon for decades. Impunity has triumphed for too long.

The UN-mandated tribunal for Lebanon will address only the most recent crimes to have afflicted Lebanon: the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and nearly two dozen other people who perished horrifically in a massive car bombing, a heinous act that preliminary investigations have tied to Syria. In addition, the tribunal will also address the slew of subsequent assassinations: of former Communist Party head Georges Hawi, respected author Samir Qassir, An-Nahar newspaper editor Jebran Tueni, and the attempted assassination and consequent disfigurement of Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) television anchor Mai Shidiac.

The lead-up to the pursuit of justice in these crimes has been torturous and dramatic. Soon after Hariri’s murder, mass protests in Lebanon galvanized unprecedented and stirring sentiments of national unity, and also gave vent to popular exasperation with the post-war system and Syria’s extensive involvement in all dimensions of Lebanese politics and economics. Within a month of Hariri’s funeral, the Syrians, considered occupiers by at least half the population and allies by many others, had packed up and moved out.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, DC, Bush administration officials, Middle East “experts” and a wide variety of talking heads from the right, left and center celebrated these developments as solid proof that a new wave of democracy was sweeping the Middle East — in other words, as evidence of the success of George W. Bush’s efforts at regime change in Iraq. The Hariri assassination took the heat of media attention off of the expanding disaster in Iraq, and put the heat of political pressure on Syria and Hizbullah. For a week or so, it seemed quite possible that regime change would be reprising in Damascus.

However, what happens in Beirut, unlike Las Vegas, does not stay in Beirut. The intersection of clashing interests, expectations, agenda, and grievances, melded with long pent-up emotions of the war years, meant that the investigation of Hariri’s murder would take on regional and international, as well as local, significance. Many took a jaundiced view of the investigations and immediate finger-pointing at Syria. Loyal Arab Nationalists in particular interpreted the entire assassination, its aftermath, and Syria’s departure from Lebanon as a US/Israeli plot. Hizbullah consolidated its position in the Lebanese political domain, allying more closely with Syria but nonetheless not allowing itself to be completely absorbed into the Syrian orbit, and demonstrating the extent to which it is more organized and institutionalized than the state itself.

Those eager to see occupation of all sorts in Lebanon — Israeli or Syrian — finally end and a new era of accountability dawning soon realized that their discourses and views were being translated into a stilted Neo-con dialect of English in the United States

Those eager to see occupation of all sorts in Lebanon — Israeli or Syrian — finally ended and a new era of accountability dawning soon realized that their discourses were being translated into a stilted Neo-con dialect of English in the United States. The opposition to Syria and efforts to reveal the truth of Hariri’s assassination soon became identified, in the mainstream Western press, as “The Pro-Western Lebanese Government.” Hizbullah and the followers of General Michel Aoun, as strange a set of bedfellows as Lebanon has seen in many years, had overlapping and mutual interests in opposing the Opposition, which most people viewed (often incorrectly) as signaling their unequivocal and automatic support for and reliance on Syria or Iran.

Mass protests and sit-ins in the heart of Beirut, termed intifadat al-istiqlaal (“the Independence Uprising”) were quickly repackaged under a new brand name — “Cedar Revolution” — in Washington, DC. The departure of the Syrian Army and overlords left the Lebanese political field wide open for movements long marginalized and politicians long ignored. Given a well-entrenched Lebanese penchant for nurturing external patrons, American, Iranian, Saudi, and French interests came into increasing contact and conflict in all matters focused on the question “What to do about Lebanon?”

Last summer, the US gave Israel a “green light” to crush Hizbullah, in hopes that this would remove the main opponent of the putative “Pro-Western Lebanese Government.” Oddly, for a president so enamored of newly resurgent democratic and reformist forces in Lebanon, George W. Bush had no qualms about giving the Israeli army and air force a wide berth to bomb entire Beiruti neighborhoods as well as roads, bridges, infrastructure, and villages throughout Lebanon back to the civil war era. In addition to the civilian carnage and infrastructural destruction, Lebanon’s beaches and seafronts were dangerously polluted by oil slicks resulting from Isareli bombardments of industrial and refining plants.

If US and Israel leaders had lain awake nights, in that deluxe political bed they have shared so cozily for decades, devising a systematic and sure-fire plan to strengthen Hizbullah and weaken the Government of Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri, they could not have done a better job.

Post-Syria, post-Hariri, post-Summer War of 2006 Lebanon is hanging by a thread. Regional tensions (many of them manufactured) between Sunnis and Shi’is, secular and religious, are now echoing ominously throughout much of Lebanon. Last month’s sudden and seemingly inexplicable outbreak of violence, led by a shadowy new Sunni Islamist group comprised of individuals from a number of countries (not all of them Arab) and allegedly aligned with “Al-Qaida,” has devastated much of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli and sent shock waves through the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon. Political pressure points — old and new — are being tweaked and pushed by various parties and interests, not all of them Lebanese. Rumors of war, conspiracy, and chaos hang thick in Lebanon’s sun-splashed spring air. Given the instability and crisis-situations in Iraq and Palestine, the eruption of civil war in Lebanon could metastasize into something even worse than the 1975-91 war.

The new tribunal may lead to increased political confrontations, and thus, more human rights violations

Theoretically, the application of international humanitarian law (IHL) to any dimension of the protracted and lethal conflicts that have afflicted Lebanese and Palestinian civilians for generations is to be welcomed. In practice, however, the new tribunal could lead to increased political confrontations, and thus, more human rights violations. This will not necessarily happen, but before building up hopes that the UN-appointed tribunal will calm Lebanon’s roiling political waters, restore comity and harmony between the country’s 18 distinct ethno-confessional minorities, or lessen tensions between Lebanese and Palestinians or Sunni and Shi’a, we should review some problematic aspects of this unprecedented legal initiative in the Middle East.

1. Applying and enforcing international legal prosecution from above and outside, though arguably necessitated by the current amorphous and fraught political situation in Lebanon, may only weaken the Lebanese body politic and hinder the grassroots campaign against impunity for the myriad other crimes of the past 35 years. Lebanon is in dire need of developing the political will, the moral commitment, and the institutional infrastructure to police its own past. The considerable deficiencies of the Lebanese judiciary will not be ameliorated by the establishment of the new tribunal — at least not in the short run. Serious and sustained efforts at institution-building, genuine public participation, and the deconfessionalization of Lebanon’s political system will certainly be challenging and time-consuming, but there are no short cuts to building a real, functioning, democratic polity based on equality and the rule of law after the devastation of a civil war and foreign occupation. Democracy is an “inside job” (which one would think the International Community would have figured out by now, given the debacle in Iraq). Justice and the cessation of impunity for humanitarian crimes, on the other hand, are tasks that require both top down pressures from the UN and the international legal system, as well as bottom-up efforts and participation by all Lebanese. The tribunal is not likely to foster such bottom-up efforts, and may well enable Lebanon to remain passively uninvolved in the international humanitarian legal system. Just as Lebanon outsources its manual and physical labor to Syrians, Sri Lankis, and Filipinos, it may now be outsourcing its legal labor, i.e., its responsibility to assess accountability and end impunity, to the Security Council (or, if we are honest about this, to the US, the UK, and France). Lebanon, like all of its neighbors except Jordan, is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court. Had Lebanon been a signatory, it would not need its very own tribunal, which, in its tailored specificity and external design, is quite vulnerable to accusations of interference, meddling, and political ulterior motives. And there are, alas, a lot of grounds for such accusations.

2. The cynicism and dishonesty of the United States and the United Kingdom in citing the necessity of upholding IHL and the applicability of UN Charter Chapter 7 as a firm basis for establishing this tribunal, and thus including the option of using military force to actualize it, is stunning — the very definition of “chutzpah”. These are the same Security Council members who perverted Chapter 7 by illegally invading Iraq, setting up an occupation regime of dubious integrity and obvious stupidity, strong-arming allies into supporting this folly, and then eviscerating the Geneva Conventions and the Convention on the Prevention of Torture — two key pillars of the post-World War II international humanitarian legal framework — in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. US and UK actions in Iraq, not to mention US, EU, UK and others’ neglect of the worsening situation in Palestine and the stubborn refusal of the international community to apply UN resolutions, international law, or human rights conventions to Israeli war criminals are tantamount to the detonation of powerful incendiary explosive devices (IEDs), wreaking havoc on the political, psychological, and administrative landscapes of the Arab world. Partial, biased, or limited justice may please some in Lebanon, France, and Washington, DC, but such politicized justice is likely to have very deleterious effects on Lebanon and Palestine, who are quite justified in decrying double standards when it comes to the international community’s concern for IHL in the Middle East. For instance, the US reaction to the July 2004 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that Israel’s Apartheid Wall was a grave violation of the Geneva Conventions was derision. In the ICJ’s 9 July 2004 advisory ruling on Israel’s Separation Barrier, the only judge to dissent to each of the sections of the advisory ruling was US Judge Buergenthal. [2]

3. Ironically, Syria, a country with an atrocious human rights record, as well as a long history of exploiting Lebanon’s conflicts (and resources) to its own advantage, gets to position itself (or be positioned by others in the region and the West) as an aggrieved victim of Western interference and imperialism. Striking the pose of the defender of the Arab cause is a favorite past-time in Syria. Unfortunately, the historical record shows that Syria has been ever willing and always ready to fight Israel — on Lebanese soil and with Lebanese and Palestinian cannon fodder and civilian lives by the thousands.

4. Arguments that the tribunal is a violation of Lebanese sovereignty would be much more convincing if Lebanon had any sovereignty as a centralized modern state to begin with. Lebanon is neither a nation nor a state at present, and has not been for a long time. The real issue in Lebanon is not “Who killed Hariri?” but rather, “Who Governs Lebanon?”. That cannot be — must not be — answered by outsiders or decided by imposed political, legal, or military means. Lebanon could not bear that now, and the dangers of a renewed conflict are palpable.

Cobbling together the moral vision and political will to seek out the killers of Hariri and other victims of assassinations and attempted assassinations over the last two years, as well as ending the impunity for those who orchestrated the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, the War of the Mountain of 1983-84, numerous mass killings, rape, and looting; the disappearance of 17,000 people (now all presumed dead), and the devastation of the Lebanese economy would be a much more effective means of rebuilding Lebanon’s framework of law, order, justice and equality than a UN-sponsored tribunal supported by some of the most serious violators of IHL.

The real opposition in Lebanon is the one that has yet to emerge: Opposition to impunity of all sorts. If the new tribunal turns out to be a midwife to the birth of this long-overdue opposition, this human rights activist and Lebanese citizen will be the first to celebrate. But if it does not, no one who has attended closely to the strange absence of international humanitarian law in the Middle East, and the subsequent suffering of Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian and Israeli civilians, should be surprised. Impartial justice in the Lebanese context is dangerous. Let us hope that the Lebanese use the week between now and June 10th to decide to police their own past, fully and honestly, rather than subcontracting this important and overdue task to the US, UK, and France, posing cynically as arbiters of international justice.

[1] International humanitarian law (IHL) refers to a body of laws and international conventions intended to provide clear codes of conduct in times of armed conflict. IHL criminalizes the worst offenses known to human experience. The laws define and attempt to prevent war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Central to IHL are the Hague Regulations on Land Warfare of 1907, which cover means and methods of warfare; the Genocide Convention of 1948 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the two additional protocols of 1977. Collectively, these instruments stipulate the differences between legal and illegal conduct in times of military hostilities and military occupation. The Genocide Convention of 1948 defines genocide as certain acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such.” The Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court, adopted in 1998, represent a further refinement and clarification of IHL. Of additional importance is the Nuremberg jurisprudence, which is the closest analogue to treaties on war crimes and genocide, and which largely established the law on crimes against humanity. At the heart of IHL is the stipulation that civilians and civilian infrastructure are not to be directly and intentionally harmed in times of war or at times of armed conflict.

[2] See “Palestinians Push for UN Resolution,” in THE AGE (Australia) (5 October 2004), available at, which noted that “Palestinians have pushed for the quick adoption of a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an end to the massive Israeli thrust into the Gaza Strip. The offensive killed up to 73 Palestinians and three Israelis in six days of fighting. But in stiff opposition, United States Ambassador to the UN, John Danforth, admonished the council, which he said ‘acts as the adversary of the Israelis and cheerleader to the Palestinians’ and said another resolution was not the answer”. So much for the ideal of “One yardstick for human rights” in the Middle East.

Laurie King-Irani is a co-founder of Electronic Lebanon. She teaches social anthropology and Middle East Studies in Washington, DC. Her blog is Zinjabeelah.

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