Lebanon’s Economic Woes Threaten Terrorism Tribunal

Without new funding, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will close next month with little to show for more than a decade of work.

Lebanese mourn the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese turn out to mourn the one-year anniversary of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut on Feb. 14, 2006. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad/Getty Images

BEIRUT—The 12-year-old United Nations-backed international tribunal prosecuting the assassinations of Lebanese political figures will cease operations this month unless funds are secured, as Lebanon’s currency crisis continues to worsen.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, based near The Hague, was set to begin appellate hearings in July in the case of the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A verdict was handed down in the case last year, finding one defendant guilty while acquitting three others. On June 16, the tribunal was also set to begin hearing arguments in a second trial related to the assassination of Lebanese politician George Hawi and the attempted assassinations of Marwan Hamade and Elias Murr, both former cabinet officials. Hamade and Murr were both injured and two others died in those attacks.

“For now, the STL is threatened by imminent closure unless it receives contributions before the end of the month,” said Wajed Ramadan, the tribunal’s public affairs officer. “Without resources, the tribunal would be unable to continue beyond July.”

Lebanon pays 49 percent of the court’s expenses, and the U.N. pays the remaining fees for the court, which was established in 2007 by U.N. Resolution 1757. The tribunal’s budget last year was $67 million. The U.N. granted $15.5 million to help cover the Lebanese government’s share this year, which is 75 percent of the government’s projected responsibility. Essentially, Lebanon risks losing accountability for a string of political assassinations over a $5 million outstanding tab.

“You are wasting the victims’ rights and denying them justice.”

Hariri, who died along with 22 others, was killed by a massive car bomb on a seafront road in Beirut in 2005, one of a string of political assassinations of Lebanese politicians and media figures. Many Lebanese blame the Syrian government for ordering the attacks, while the court has convicted only one person, a Lebanese member of Hezbollah, the militant movement and political party that is Syria’s chief ally in Lebanon.

For families waiting for the start of next week’s trial, the announcement last week that the court was suspending operations left them wondering whether anyone would ever be held accountable for the murders. The court’s assumption of the case left them unable to attempt to use Lebanese courts to prosecute the crimes, and they have been waiting more than a decade for the special tribunal to hear the cases.

“You are wasting the victims’ rights and denying them justice, at least start the trial to allow us to express our views and our concerns, we are victims, and we are not asking for more than moral reparation which is only justice,” a group representing the victims of the Hawi assassination and the two related attempts said in a prepared statement.

The proceedings have in many ways failed to please anyone. All defendants are being tried in absentia, as Lebanese authorities have failed to apprehend any of them.

The tribunal, once a point of considerable political tension and frequent media discussion, has been eclipsed by other concerns and Lebanon’s own shifting political winds. Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered prime minister, has served multiple terms as prime minister himself and been forced into accommodation with Hezbollah for years in order to form governments and run the country. Hezbollah is firmly entrenched, and while the proceedings at one point might have been capable of tarnishing their image, that is no longer the case. 

The verdict last year against Salim Ayyash, the defendant and a member of Hezbollah, came less than two weeks after a massive explosion that destroyed much of Beirut’s port and killed more than 200 people. Lebanon’s government is nearly broke amid an economic collapse that has left more than half of Lebanese living below the poverty line and that threatens to end government subsidies of fuel and basic foodstuffs. Since 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 85 percent of its value. In recent weeks, lines have sprouted at gas stations across the country as fuel is rationed, and Lebanese trade tips about where to find medications as pharmacies run out.

Faced with that kind of economic meltdown, paying millions of dollars to underwrite half the cost of the tribunal is toxic in many quarters in Lebanon.

“It’s not cost-effective. The cost is huge—even before the economic collapse in Lebanon,” said Omar Nashabe, a criminal justice expert who served as an advisor to three of the defense teams at the tribunal. “We don’t have money. Most of the cost of the tribunal goes to the office of the prosecution.” Nashabe believes, as do many others, that the system was always intended to single out Syria.

“The whole tribunal was created to be used for political purposes by Western powers,” he said, especially former French President Jacques Chirac. “He was really pushing for this tribunal and to bypass the constitution of Lebanon and the sovereignty of the country, or what’s left of it.”

Chirac, who died in 2019, was a personal friend of Rafik Hariri. Saad Hariri, currently Lebanon’s prime minister, has appealed to the Lebanese government to continue funding the tribunal, a stand Nashabe said was hypocritical when Hariri and the rest of the political establishment have done little in the years since the assassinations to address judicial corruption in Lebanon.

“They didn’t do anything to fix the local justice system, and none of the other politicians did anything. And now they cry about stopping the international justice system. Is this an independent country, or a kiosk on the beach where you import everything, including justice?” Nashabe asked.

The special tribunal stands out—both for its lack of progress and for the way it’s apparently being shuttered without warning.

The looming closure of the tribunal threatens to render moot more than a decade of investigations. 

“I think this is quite unique and unprecedented—there have been tribunals that have closed, but the reason and the speed with which it’s being shut down raises questions,” said Benjamin Duerr, an international law expert. “When the other tribunals were shut down, they’d been preparing for the end of the tribunal for many years. In this case it happened quite quickly, and I don’t know if the organization is prepared for that.”

“If you compare it to the other tribunals, like Rwanda, or Yugoslavia, its impact was really minimal, both in practical terms for the population and the country it served and also in the field of international law,” Duerr said. “There have been some decisions that might still be referred to by international lawyers, but not much more than a footnote. Apart from the way that it ended.” 

The looming closure of the tribunal threatens to render moot more than a decade of investigations. 

“It’s very difficult to process that all the work will have been done for basically nothing, without human and financial resources to finalize even one case,” Ramadan, the tribunal spokesman, said. “My thoughts go to the victims, who have waited all these years to see some sort of justice rendered. It also sends a sad message globally—it’s a message that terrorist crimes will go unpunished.”

“I would just reiterate the call of the STL to the international community, to continue or renew your support to the STL to allow it to complete its work,” Ramadan said. “It really played a role in developing international criminal justice. It was the first international institution to give a legal definition for terrorism. It would be a really bad message if we have to close due to lack of funds.”

 Twitter: @davidjenders