Lebanon needs help with Beirut port blast probe
For the second time in 20 years, calls have been made for international assistance in solving a major crime in Lebanon. In both cases, people have asked for the truth, the first time relating to the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005 and this time for the Beirut port blast on Aug. 4, 2020. The fact that such international interventions have been fought vigorously by those responsible for the crimes should be an incentive rather than a deterrent to pursue accountability.
There are two main challenges for those who are calling for international assistance in the investigation into the port blast. The first is the international appetite for renewed involvement in Lebanon and the second is that they should expect such an international investigation to be strongly resisted. If the experience of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is anything to go by, then it is not going to be easy.
It is indisputable that Lebanon needs help. After two and a half years, it is obvious that the local investigation into the port blast is going nowhere. There are endless legal and procedural complications, mainly related to jurisdiction and the immunity of officials. Not least is the political sensitivity of the matter.
Calls for an international investigation appeared early on, leading to the involvement of the FBI and the French forensic police. There is the potential for more foreign involvement because of the several different nationalities among the port blast victims.
The investigation is complicated and paralyzed. The first judge involved in the case, Ghassan Oueidat, recused himself, while the second, Fadi Sawwan, was removed for accusing two former ministers. The third and current judge, Tarek Bitar, has become a national hero for persevering with the case despite receiving threats and being recused from the investigation. He made a comeback but was again blocked by Oueidat, who returned to the scene and released all the detainees before withdrawing again. This stalling can go on for a long time.
Calling for an international investigation is one thing, but getting the international community to mobilize and devote the skills, resources and political capital to execute it is another. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, along with Lebanese nongovernmental organizations, last month called for international assistance with the investigation and suggested going through the UN Human Rights Council to request a fact-finding mission. This is also highly political and will require getting enough countries to support the move.
We have been here before. In 2005, after the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri, there was a call for assistance and an international tribunal for more or less the same reasons. There was an expectation that the local judiciary and security establishment had been compromised and there was little confidence that it would deliver. A UN fact-finding mission then reported that the local investigation had not been conducted to acceptable standards.
The international response after 2005 was swift and positive, triggering an extensive operation that lasted more than 15 years. The UN Security Council set up the Independent International Investigation Commission. Then, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was established in The Hague as a hybrid institution based on Lebanese law with international standards.
The process involved close to 30 countries, which contributed expertise, funding, staff and political support. They saw it through to several indictments, a trial and an appeal, with three guilty verdicts and a 3,000-page judgment that reads like the country’s recent history.
Mobilizing the international response with the same enthusiasm and energy as in 2005 is more challenging.
The Lebanese response to the special tribunal and its verdict, however, was less than lukewarm. They expressed either disappointment or minimized the significance of the verdict. This was one of the principal reasons for the ultimate shutting down of the tribunal last year.
Why the negative Lebanese reaction after all that effort? At best, the truth may have been too hot to handle and was ignored; at worst, the opposition to the tribunal succeeded in discrediting it and the result was not explained or understood properly. The answer may also be in the general apathy and atmosphere of defeat in the country.
This time around, the international response may not show the same enthusiasm and energy as it did in 2005. First of all, there is already an abundance of crises that need attention and the UNSC is paralyzed, meaning there is no chance of getting any resolution through. The Human Rights Council is a possibility and what the Lebanese are asking for this time is also much less than before. A fact-finding mission would not have much teeth and would not be as extensive as the Independent International Investigation Commission, while also having far less power. What is being discussed is assistance for the local process, which can still be blocked. They are not asking for a full-blown international intervention.
Most importantly, the institutions, parties and individuals behind the current campaign for international assistance are the same ones that ignored the results of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and did not give it the importance it deserved. In the case of human rights and legal organizations, it goes beyond culpable negligence. Their call for accountability sounds a bit hollow now when they dismissed the results of the tribunal. Why should the international community mobilize all its resources and exert all that effort when it was not appreciated the first time around?
We are also still far from any results. In 2005, the UNSC sent a fact-finding mission within a couple of months of the Hariri assassination. Today, the organizations concerned are still discussing the modalities of a request and it will be at least three years after the event before they mobilize to even ask for it. By this stage last time, the UN Independent International Investigation Commission had already produced its results and the process of establishing the special tribunal was well underway.
Another important factor to remember is that any international effort will encounter very tough opposition in Lebanon, principally from Hezbollah, which will feel targeted and which has already intervened to block the local Lebanese process.
The special tribunal was not only fought through media and disinformation campaigns, but there were at least three assassinations linked to it and Beirut was occupied and the country paralyzed for more than 18 months between 2006 and 2008 as part of the effort to sabotage its creation. Then there was the coup that brought down the government of Saad Hariri in January 2011. The country was terrorized for years in an attempt to sabotage the tribunal.
There have already been at least three or four assassinations that people suspect have a connection with the port blast investigation. The victims include two retired port customs officers and a freelance photographer for the Lebanese Army, who was one of the first people to arrive at the scene of the blast and took photos that may be of forensic significance. It is not unrealistic to expect that any serious effort to investigate the port blast will also be fought tooth and nail.
The success they had in derailing the special tribunal may embolden those responsible for the port blast to sabotage the process again. The international community should not be deterred either by the attitude of the traumatized Lebanese or by the opposition they will encounter while helping to achieve accountability.
• Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist. Twitter: @Confusezeus