BEIRUT: Top Lebanese officials said the government would pay its share of the budget of the court trying the alleged assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, but would do so over three installments, highlighting the country’s precarious finances and posing a novel challenge to the tribunal as it gears up for trial.
“I remain one of the greatest enthusiasts about the issue of funding the international tribunal, and I funded it twice in the most difficult of circumstances,” caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati told The Daily Star during a memorial service in Sidon.
“We are very keen about the international tribunal.”
Mikati’s comments signaled his support for funding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is preparing to try in absentia four Hezbollah members accused of responsibility for the February 14, 2005, attack that killed Hariri and 22 others.
They came a day after caretaker Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi asked Mikati to approve the payment of Lebanon’s 49 percent share of the STL budget.
A statement by the Finance Ministry Saturday said Safadi sent a letter to Mikati urging him to give special approval for securing funds to pay Lebanon’s annual contribution in three installments. The ministry said the outstanding payments amounted to LL58 billion.
The funding of the STL is a contentious issue. Hezbollah refuses to hand over the men accused by the court and opposes funding it.
Lebanon is required by U.N. Security Council resolution to pay its share of the tribunal’s budget every year.
Mikati threatened to resign in late 2011 if Hezbollah blocked the payments. The funding was soon approved amid recriminations in the ruling coalition and then again in 2012.
Mikati stepped down in March, leading observers to question whether a caretaker government could approve a measure as contentious as funding the STL.
Critics of the tribunal say Lebanon cannot afford to pay while grappling with a massive refugee influx from neighboring Syria that is testing the limits of its economy and health care system, particularly after what many see as unnecessary delays to the start of proceedings.
Trial was scheduled to begin in March this year, but was pushed back to January 2014.
The installments plan appears to offer a compromise that spreads out the financial burden on Lebanon, now months overdue.
“At this time, we do not have a position on the issue of installments so long as Lebanon honors its financial commitment to the tribunal,” court spokesman Marten Youssef told The Daily Star, in the STL’s first official statement on the proposal.
The funding plan comes just weeks after a visit by STL registrar Daryl Mundis in which he met with officials and brought up the funding issue.
The STL’s position has long been that Lebanon is obliged to pay its contribution, but that it would be inappropriate for it to interfere in how exactly the funding is procured.
The installments plan is a novel position for the court. The Security Council resolution establishing the STL merely states that Lebanon ought to pay its obligations without detailing exactly how.
Shafik Masri, professor of international law at Lebanese University, said the STL dues could be considered the equivalent of a regular debt that the state has to pay, and which can therefore be approved without referring back to the Cabinet.
“This obligation was not created under the caretaker government, it was created as a result of a treaty obligation between the state and the U.N.,” he said. “Therefore, it is part of the recurring costs incurred by the government, just like an external debt.”
But if Mikati decides to seek Cabinet approval for such a special request, he would have to declare that Lebanon is unable to pay its dues until leaders agree to form a new government.
“It would not be a refusal to pay, but would await a new government,” Masri said.
The STL’s founding document allows the U.N. Secretary-General to seek a new source of funds if Lebanon fails to fulfill its obligations.
Masri said the installments proposal indicates that there may have been an agreement between Lebanon and the U.N. already on dividing the payments.
“The finance minister knows this is a contractual obligation on the state,” he said. “Therefore it can be divided, but cannot be avoided.”
Masri said that no government has the right to refuse to pay the STL contribution due to financial difficulties, and it cannot be tied to delays in the work of the court.
He cited the example of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is prosecuting war crimes in the Balkans and is still in operation 10 years after its creation, adding that it was more challenging for the court to prepare for a trial in the absence of the accused.
Youssef said the funding was instrumental to the work of the STL, but would not stop it from carrying out its work. He added that there was no reason to expect Lebanon to renege on its obligations.
“There is really no point to entertain the thought that Lebanon is not going to contribute,” Youssef said. “We’ve received every indication from them that they’re committed to the tribunal, so it’s just a matter of finding the available channels for them to do this.”
The STL maintains that the presence of a caretaker government should not inhibit Lebanon from paying its dues.
“The responsibility to fund the 49 percent falls on the state,” Youssef said. “It does not fall on a particular government.” – additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari