THE HAGUE — Nearly nine years after Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, and 22 others were killed in a massive suicide bombing in downtown Beirut, observers are divided on what good can come from the UN-backed tribunal charged with prosecuting the assassination.
The case is unusual: The five accused, all Hezbollah supporters, remain at large and are being tried in absentia. If they are convicted in the judgments that are likely years away, the men are entitled to a new trial — if they are ever apprehended. Hezbollah has long denounced the court as a Western conspiracy and has refused to cooperate in any way.
Some see the tribunal and its trying of terrorism — for the first time in an international court — as an important development for international criminal law and justice in Lebanon, where political assassinations have long been met with impunity.
“Today is a day my father will not come back,” Saad Hariri, son of the slain Hariri and also a former prime minister, said after Thursday’s emotional opening proceedings at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, based in the outskirts of The Hague.
“But today is a day when we in Lebanon are seeing finally a step in the right direction to catch those who committed these crimes.”
Others say the long-awaited trial is legally dubious and will further polarize Lebanon, which is facing spillover from the Syrian war and increasing violence between Shiites and Sunnis.
A suicide car bomber killed at least three people in Hermel, a stronghold for Shiite militant group Hezbollah, hours before the start of the trial Thursday. Former Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah, who backed the tribunal and critiqued Hezbollah and Syria, was killed last month in a massive bomb blast in Beirut.
The Lebanon court faces some of the same criticism leveled at other international tribunals — namely that they are politicized, needlessly lengthy and too expensive.
Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the trial will reinforce growing polarization between two parliamentary coalitions: the Western and Saudi-backed March 14 bloc, and the Iran and Syria-supported March 8.
“Either one camp sees itself as vindicated because, let’s say Hezbollah is more directly accused or proven guilty, whereas the other camp sees it as further proof that this is a setup,” Sayigh said.
“The sort of potential beneficial aspects of having justice, of having a transitional justice process, are probably going to be lost,” Sayigh added.
Others question the legal merits of the tribunal.
“This court will not go down in history as very useful,” said Dov Jacobs, assistant professor in international criminal law at Leiden University in The Netherlands. “The elephant in the room is whether this tribunal should exist at all, to be honest. You know it’s one event, it’s prosecuting the domestic crime of terrorism ... it’s as if an international tribunal is prosecuting theft, from a legal perspective.”
“I think it’s a total waste of money,” Jacobs added. “There’s a kind of inconsistency in saying this is a major international concern and then you’re just prosecuting a domestic crime.”
Since opening in 2009, the court has cost about $330 million, about half of which is funded by Lebanon and the other half by the US and other Western countries. The UN investigation that preceded the court cost an additional $93 million, according to UN documents.
But the court’s proponents have long argued that this trial could deter terrorism in the region and bring justice to Lebanon.
“I think certainly there’s good value for money in the overall scheme of things,” the court’s registrar Daryl Mundis said.
“Yes, the tribunal unfortunately has the potential for a polarizing effect but the exact opposite is the same case,” he said. “If the tribunal stopped tomorrow, that would also have a polarizing effect in a different way on Lebanese society.”
“It’s important to understand and remember that it wasn’t the international community imposing itself on Lebanon for the creation of this tribunal,” Mundis added. “The Lebanese actually asked for an international tribunal to be established.”
Christophe Paulussen, senior researcher in international humanitarian and criminal law at the TMC Asser Instituut in The Hague, said the power of international courts should be considered with historical perspective.
“We’ve had thousands of years of impunity,” Paulussen said. “And if you do not take [the] Nuremberg and Tokyo [trials] into account, this new idea of accountability really only started with the coming into force of the ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia] in the 1990s.”
“I think that’s remarkable,” he said. “It’s good to be critical but it’s also good to know where we’re coming from.”