BEIRUT: With the long-awaited trial set to resume Wednesday, experts and analysts said the Special Tribunal for Lebanon would carry on with its mandate, despite losing some of its momentum in a political arena wracked by regional and local crises.
“The proceedings of the court are still vividly going on with respect to the witnesses, the accused, and the dynamism of the court in general,” said Shafik Masri, professor of international law at Lebanese University.
Speaking to The Daily Star, he said there appeared to be no more obstacles to hinder the court’s work.
“The circles of the U.N. are actually keen to go on with the trial as a model against terrorism,” Masri said.
But Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, cast doubt on the court’s importance amid escalating tensions in Lebanon and the region.
“Events have overtaken the tribunal,” he said.
Khashan said that the Arab Spring, the Syrian conflict, and the latest developments in Iraq have captured the attention of Lebanese politicians and citizens and were a greater cause for concern because of their potential ramifications on Lebanon. “Many Lebanese are worried the upheaval might reach Lebanon,” he added.
The STL began a trial in absentia for four members of Hezbollah accused of complicity in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in January. A fifth suspect was indicted by the court and his case joined to that of the other four accused, prompting the court to suspend the trial for four months while his lawyers prepared their defense.
The delay was the latest obstacle in a trial that has been nine years in the making, prompting fears of a loss of momentum for the court.
But the proceedings would go on, and delays were sometimes necessary in international courts, analysts said.
Karlijn van der Voort, an international criminal law expert who closely monitors the STL and who worked on cases at the International Criminal Court, as well as the Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia war crimes tribunals, said delays could affect the court’s relevance, but were expected.
“I’ve seen several tribunals operate, and delays are quite a normal phenomenon,” van der Voort said. “Of course a tribunal would be more effective if it would take place immediately after the event, without any delays, but I don’t think that’s a realistic starting point.”
Though it may be too early to predict whether the trial will leave a legacy, she said that reconciliation may be unlikely in a society that is divided, even if holding criminals accountable is a positive development.
“I would like to warn that reconciliation should not be expected as a side-effect of these proceedings,” she said. “Criminal trials are first and foremost aimed at trying a defendant for crimes alleged.”
“That a criminal trial may have a reconciliatory effect upon a society is not a given,” she added. “Especially in the case where a society is deeply divided, the immediate effect on reconciliation may be very limited, if at all present.”
Khashan echoed van der Voort’s comments, stressing that a national reconciliation should not be expected, particularly as long as those who oppose the trial call it a conspiracy. “In order to bury the hatchet, one has to accept accountability, or else how can we begin the healing process?” he questioned.
Hezbollah accuses the court of being part of a U.S.-Israeli plot.
Masri said Lebanese parties have become more aware that they have “minimal influence politically” in changing the course of proceedings.
He acknowledged that the dichotomy in Lebanon included the court itself, and that “it is a disputable issue in the country,” but it nevertheless keeps a low profile amid pressing priorities.
He said resumption of the trials will have no real impact on the ground except possibly after the verdict.
“I hope that by that time the Lebanese will reconcile, or at least reach a kind of compromise,” he said.
Regarding the trials’ influence on Hezbollah, Khashan and Masri said their resumption would not create any problems for the party, but Masri added that they would nevertheless have some effect on Lebanese politics.