BEIRUT: The annual saga over the funding of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, now months overdue and complicated by the stalling of Cabinet formation efforts, is once again set to polarize the political scene.
But as concern swells over the delays in Lebanon’s contribution, supporters of the STL are likely to be more cautious in pressuring Lebanon to pay its share of the budget, as the country grapples with economic challenges and a mounting humanitarian crisis posed by Syrian refugees, sources say.
In the past, Lebanon has been late in paying its 49 percent contribution to the STL’s budget, mandated by the U.N. Security Council, but at the time the country was engulfed in a political debate over the STL – created to prosecute those responsible for the Feb. 14, 2005 attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and others – and the legitimacy of its mandate. In 2011, the contribution was made in November, under threat of resignation by Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
“It is an important percentage; you’re depriving the tribunal of half its budget,” said a source familiar with the work of the STL. “This is difficult for any tribunal.”
But now Lebanon faces an enormous refugee crisis and has launched appeals to the international community for donations to provide for over 1.2 million refugees who fled Syria’s violence.
The country, being led by a caretaker government since March, is also wracked by political uncertainty. Such Cabinets are reluctant to take controversial decisions like funding the STL.
The presence of a caretaker government poses a fresh challenge for the STL’s backers, since Lebanon’s inability to pay is not the result of a political decision to not cooperate with the tribunal, but of political paralysis.
“In a normal situation they might consider that Lebanon is not cooperating and the Security Council would take measures against Lebanon,” the source said. “But I can’t imagine that in the current situation.”
Instead, the source said, the U.N. secretary-general will be obliged to seek out alternative sources of funding to cover the costs of the STL’s operations.
The STL’s official position remains that Lebanon is obliged to pay regardless of the status of the government, while stressing its confidence in the country’s commitment.
“The responsibility to fund the Tribunal falls on the government of Lebanon as a whole without specifically identifying the government’s status,” STL spokesperson Marten Youssef told The Daily Star. “There is no reason to speculate that Lebanon will not pay, given that they have honored their financial commitment to the Tribunal in the last three budgetary years.”
The STL’s budget increased steadily from 2010 to 2012, from $55.3 million to $65.7 million, and then $73 million. Lebanon owes some $39 million for 2013.
A recent paper in the International Criminal Law Review sheds light on the STL’s funding model.
The STL’s budget was initially higher than other tribunals because of the expectation that, following a lengthy investigation, the tribunal would quickly issue indictments and begin trial, according to the paper written by Giorgia Tortora, the STL’s liaison officer in New York, titled “The Financing of the Special Tribunals for Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Lebanon.”
The STL’s base in Europe and adherence to the United Nations’ employment system also increased its operational costs.
The STL model was borne out of dissatisfaction by the international community with the performance of tribunals prosecuting war crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, funded by the U.N.
Many felt the cost of these tribunals was not justified by progress in the investigations, the paper argued. These tribunals also resisted providing coherent strategies describing how they would complete their mandates.
The adoption of a hybrid funding model, where a state would contribute part of the budget and the rest was provided by voluntary contributions, was seen as a more efficient way that would force tribunals to cut costs and be accountable to donors.
Political support remains strong for the tribunal’s mission, with 27 states having contributed to its funding since it opened its doors in 2009.
However, despite this support, donors may start questioning the lack of progress.
“There are many countries that could say I don’t want to pay until I see that you have started trial,” the source said.
The trial, scheduled for March this year, was postponed. Indictments in the case were issued in the summer of 2011. No new date has been set.
“There were false expectations about how quickly the tribunal could go to trial,” another informed source told The Daily Star.
The source argued that the STL’s costs are inherently higher due to the nature of its case. While there is an abundance of evidence and people who were willing to speak up in war crimes investigations, witnesses are harder to come by in terrorism cases.
“The narrative was so much easier in a way, and the crimes were much more visible, and the lines of responsibility were much clearer,” the source said of war crimes trials.
While the STL is efficient in its spending of resources, the source noted that the court should strive to go to trial soon.
“The reason why the institution was built was to be a tribunal, to have a trial,” the source said. “Clearly there is pressure that comes from outside and also pressure that comes from within. I think everyone working at the tribunal wants to have the trial.”
The STL’s ability to weather a funding crisis was evident in 2011. Then, several states along with the European Union provided additional funding to the STL, which itself cut costs and tightly controlled expenses.
Many states spoke then in support of the STL, calling on Lebanon to fulfill its obligations.
But this year, the refugee crisis and the lack of a Cabinet may prompt states to be more judicious.
“There is not a campaign going on asking them to pay as was the case in 2011,” the source said.
The approach to pursuing Lebanon’s contribution will therefore likely depend on what form of government exists in Lebanon. If Cabinet formation efforts succeed, the government will be obliged to pay its share of the STL budget. But the international community is unlikely to pressure a caretaker government, as long as the STL can raise additional funds, the source added.
Yet despite the difficult financial situation, funding the tribunal should remain a priority for Lebanon, the source said.
“The tension is always there, but you have to look at what in theory this Tribunal is supposed to achieve,” the source said.
The message of fighting impunity has a “value that is priceless for a country and especially for Lebanon,” and will boost Lebanon’s stability in the future, the source said.