I recently attended a talk entitled “Violence, Memory & Reconciliation in Lebanon” at King’s College in London. At the talk, three distinguished speakers who have spent large parts of their careers studying this subject went on to discuss the main causes for violence in Lebanon, how the 1975-1990 civil war and other conflicts are remembered by this generation of Lebanese and the largely failed attempts by Lebanese civil society at inter-communitarian reconciliation.
The “feel good” narrative favoured by many is that this was a “war of others” fought on Lebanese soil in spite of Lebanon and the Lebanese people who were victims of a great manipulative plot orchestrated by foreign powers and their local militia henchmen.
This rather convenient retrospective image of the war simply masks another more crude reality: that of one great 15 year act of political violence in which Lebanese parties tried to gain political capital through acts of thuggery, blackmail and intimidation. If that last part sounds familiar it’s because these acts of violence, whether originating in Lebanon or directed at it, neither started nor ended on the dates pinned down by historians.
The repression of students in the 90s; the 2005 series of assassinations targeting Rafic Hariri, his companions, journalists, pro-independence politicians and the Lebanese population at large; the July 2006 Israeli rampage; the 2007 occupation of central Beirut by Hizbullah and its allies; the 2008 hijacking of west Beirut by pro-Syrian armed militiamen; all the way up to the current threats of strife that seem to flow from Hassan Nasrallah’s numerous mouthpieces on a daily basis. These acts of political violence have by no means ended.
Since the start of this republic’s existence, history has shown us that violence and threats often pay political dividends and that the perpetrators of these destructive acts invariably get away with it, gains in pocket.
Then there was an anomaly called the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The precedent that this court threatens to set is colossal: for the first time in history the perpetrator(s) of acts of political violence in Lebanon would be investigated, tried and prosecuted by an independent judicial court.
No wonder the main beneficiaries of this latest decade of political violence – Syria, Hizbullah and their allies – are getting nervous. It is no longer a question of innocent or guilty, it is this whole system where violence is the easiest avenue to political gain, that this tribunal threatens to overturn. A system through which Syria and now Hizbullah (after countless others) successively cemented their stranglehold on Lebanon.
After thousands of crimes unpunished, hundreds of thousands of lives lost and many more maimed or injured, it took the assassination of a former prime minister in a massive seaside bombing to shake a nation into demanding justice and accountability.
“Memory is political, that is why it is so contested”, exclaimed one of the speakers at the talk. I had drifted away in my thoughts, missing part of the discussion only to awake to this piece of wisdom.
It is not just “what” we remember but how we explain what we remember that is important. Everyone who has experienced war, whether directly or indirectly, has been through the same horror and seen the same destruction, that is the “what”. It is the “why”, however, that is contested here. Depending on whom you ask, this was a fight for a free Lebanon, a struggle against Zionism, a war of others or even a simple misunderstanding. This culture of avoidance of responsibility seems to be the only common point between the different narratives.
This brings us back to the way I have come to see things, my very own narrative: The war as an integrated part of a series of acts of political violence running up to today’s threats by Hizbullah, Syria & Co. against Lebanon’s uneasy peace.
The target of these threats is the STL, the only institution with a mandate to bring justice and accountability to the perpetrators of an atrocious act of political violence.
There can be no reconciliation without justice and no justice without accountability. Hence let us first set a precedent for justice and accountability in Lebanon before reconciliation can be confronted with confidence. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, despite the many hurdles it may face, is our best chance to see such a precedent set and must be treasured and protected as such.