Last week, while watching the start of the trial of those indicted in the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, I had contradictory feelings.
As justice minister during the time when the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was being set up, I felt a certain relief that the process had reached its final stage. However, as a Lebanese, I regretted that my own country was unable to host the trial itself. After all, the alleged perpetrators committed their crime on Lebanese soil, and their victims were Lebanese. At the same time, those indicted were not in court, showing that Lebanon was unwilling, or at best unable, to arrest and deliver them. They will now be judged only in absentia.
Therefore, I will admit to not sharing the enthusiasm of those who celebrated the beginning of the trial as a resounding victory. To me it represented, on the contrary, a major disappointment. It only proved that justice in Lebanon was nonexistent. How could I celebrate this cruel demonstration that I was the citizen of a failed state?
I could offer dozens of examples of that reality, but I will limit myself to just two, which were aimed at intimidating Lebanon’s judiciary and military. The first was the assassination in 1999, in the middle of a tribunal in Sidon, of four senior judges. They fell under the bullets of men who were apparently untouchable politically, since their crime was never adequately investigated.
The second was the murder in December 2007 of my friend General Francois Hajj, who was eligible to become commander-in-chief of the army after the departure of General Michel Sleiman. He was blown up by a car bomb in the Beirut suburb of Baabda, and no one even dreamed of seeing that killing thoroughly investigated.
After years of procrastination, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has started its proceedings. Those who expect the trial to be a watershed were sobered by none other than former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s son. He reminded them of the tribunal’s limitations: Its role is restricted to judging only the persons accused, and they are to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
To be more explicit, Hariri then declared his readiness to collaborate with Hezbollah, the party with which the accused are affiliated, in order to form the next Lebanese government. In other words, no one should expect the tribunal to effect a sea change in Lebanon, let alone regime change.
Nor should anyone expect the trial to somehow shift the balance of power in the Middle East, by affecting those two countries suspected of being involved in the Hariri assassination – Syria and Iran.
That’s because of another major event last year, namely the shift in Iran. In trying to extirpate his country from the economic disaster in which it was plunged by the Ahmadinejad administration, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei allowed the election of a “reformist” president, Hassan Rouhani. A few months later, Iran signed a long-awaited interim nuclear agreement with the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany – after having backed a Russian proposal to remove and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
The new Iranian policy has not yet extended to Syria. Violence has escalated, after the evaporation of the relatively liberal, peaceful protests of early 2011 and their replacement by an armed uprising that has come to include an inextricable hodgepodge of jihadist gangs, some of which are suspected of being manipulated by the regime of President Bashar Assad. In this context, the Hariri assassination seems a footnote in the vastly more complicated Syrian predicament.
The greatest danger to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon comes from those who expect more from the institution than it was created to deliver. However, a positive element has appeared lately. It consists of Hezbollah’s relative restraint in characterizing the STL as a creation of its enemies – their aim being to falsely accuse the party. Hezbollah seems to have realized that the tribunal owes its creation not to the United States, but to the Security Council, which also includes Russia and China, both of them staunch allies of Syria’s regime today.
This restraint was reflected in Hezbollah’s attitude with regard to the policy of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government toward the tribunal. Although it was entirely within Hezbollah’s capabilities to block cooperation with the STL, the Mikati Cabinet will be remembered – if it is remembered at all – as the one that twice financed the tribunal with the consent of Hezbollah’s ministers.
It is still premature to predict the outcome of the trial in The Hague. Arresting those indicted is beyond the tribunal’s powers unless they are delivered to the body by the forces controlling the Lebanese so-called state. At present, this seems highly improbable.
In the final analysis, the tribunal’s real contribution will consist of establishing the truth and revealing who perpetrated and planned Rafik Hariri’s assassination. Should this happen, the impact will be immense. However, whether it will point to men who were in charge in Iran and Syria when the crime occurred remains unknown.
The hope is that they will have been replaced by the time the tribunal passes judgment. The region is being transformed thanks to the change that has already begun in Teheran. That is precisely why the trial in The Hague cannot have the impact many thought it would have in the immediate aftermath of the Hariri killing.
Charles Rizk is a former justice minister of Lebanon. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.