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    Too Little Justice in Lebanon – Talking to Habib Nassar

    As head of the Middle East and North Africa division of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, Habib Nassar is well versed in regional human rights issues and international law.

    Prior to joining the ICTJ, Nassar was active in several local and international human rights groups. While in Beirut, he did legal training and conducted research for the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections.

    As part of the Committee of the Families of Abducted and Missing Persons in Lebanon, Habib focused on the thousands of people missing since the civil war and the country’s challenges in delivering justice to the perpetrators of the disappearances.

    In light of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon prosecutor’s recent delivering of the indictments in the Rafik Hariri murder case, NOW Lebanon spoke to Nassar about the court’s role in international justice as well as Lebanon’s shortcomings in delivering judicial accountability.

    What is transitional justice and why is it important with regard to Lebanon and its history?

    Habib Nassar: Transitional justice is a response to systematic or widespread violations of human rights. It seeks recognition for victims, to redress and prevent these violations, and to promote possibilities for peace and reconciliation. Transitional justice is not a special or new form of justice but justice strategies adapted to societies transforming themselves after a period marked by pervasive human rights abuse such as wars or authoritarian regimes.

    This approach emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mainly in response to political changes in Latin America and Eastern Europe – and to demands in these regions for justice. At the time, human rights activists and others wanted to address the systematic abuses by former regimes but without endangering the political transformations that were underway. Since these changes were popularly called “transitions to democracy,” people began calling this new multidisciplinary field “transitional justice.”

    Governments there adopted many of what became the basic approaches to transitional justice. They include criminal prosecutions of perpetrators, truth-seeking and inquiry mechanisms, reparations programs for the victims, and reform of state institutions involved in the abuse in order to prevent their repetition.

    Lebanon has witnessed a succession of wars since 1975 that were marked by very serious human rights violations that remain unaddressed. The 1975-1990 war or wars ended with a blanket amnesty law that completely ignored victims’ rights and needs. No follow-up was given to the attempts to seek justice and accountability for the grave violations that occurred during the 2006 July War. The recurrence in May 2008 of sectarian violence and some of the most egregious crimes that remind us of the 1975-1990 period is alarming. There is a need to break the cycle of impunity and adopt a new approach in dealing with past abuse. It appears that the amnesia and denial approach in place since 1990 has not worked in preventing conflict and the recurrence of abuse, let alone in addressing the needs of thousands of victims and their families who weren’t only victimized during the conflict but also in the aftermath through marginalization and exclusion. I believe transitional justice strategies offer options that the Lebanese should explore and consider.

    Is the STL a transitional justice mechanism?

    Nassar: The STL does not fit into the usual paradigm of a transitional justice mechanism or process, due to the narrowness of its mandate, which only covers one crime with the possibility, though, of extending it to include some other assassinations that took place after October 2004. Transitional justice is by definition a comprehensive approach that deals with systematic and widespread violations. In a context such as Lebanon, where systematic violations such as war crimes and crimes against humanity have taken place but remain unaddressed, the STL has been criticized by some as being selective justice. This being said, Lebanon has witnessed since its independence dozens and dozens of political assassinations for which accountability is a necessity. Many of these assassinations were followed by violence and instability and left hundreds of victims. Lebanon’s contemporary history has shown us that impunity has been the biggest threat to the country’s stability. Accountability appears to me as the only way to break the vicious cycle of political killings and retaliations that have sadly been a feature of Lebanese politics and conflict. It is regrettable that the establishment of the STL has not triggered some sort of national debate on the need to expand accountability to Lebanon’s larger legacy of unaddressed violations, and that the ongoing political dispute has rather exclusively focused on pro- or anti-STL rhetoric.

    You dealt with the issue of the disappeared Lebanese as a legal advisor to and board member of the Committee of the Families of the Abducted and Missing Persons in Lebanon. Is Lebanon ultimately incapable of bringing culprits to justice given the country’s political system?

    Nassar: I know very few justice and accountability efforts in the world that did not face opposition and attempts to stop them. Lebanon is no exception. Just to take a few examples, think of the campaigns that were launched against the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia or the International Criminal Court (ICC) in many countries where it has intervened, such as Sudan. Remember the strong criticism directed against the UN Gaza Fact Finding Mission led by Richard Goldstone. Seeking accountability is not an easy endeavor. It might take years and long battles before a society achieves justice. It was only in 2004 that Morocco through the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) started to address violations dating back to the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It took three decades for Cambodia to begin to bring some of those most responsible for the mass killings by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s to justice before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (EEEC). I do not believe that any society or political system is incapable of achieving justice and addressing victims’ rights. Each country has, of course, its own specificities, and transitional justice is precisely an approach that allows us to devise justice and accountability strategies that are adapted to each context, social structures and political systems.

    With the STL, it is the first time international justice deals with a Lebanese crime. Why hasn’t international intervention taken place before?

    Nassar: Believe it or not, in the 19th century, the international intervention of the so-called Concert of Europe following the 1860 conflict and sectarian violence in Mount Lebanon led to the establishment of an inquiry into the atrocities perpetrated then and measures of compensation for the victims. The creation of the STL is not, then, the first international intervention in Lebanon on accountability and justice. Interestingly enough, many of the arguments being raised today around justice and stability were very similar to the ones invoked in the aftermath of the 1860 conflict. But to go back to your question and Lebanon’s contemporary history, it is true that that the international community failed many times to intervene when atrocities were being committed in Lebanon, during the 1975-1990 wars or following the 1993, 1996 and 2006 wars with Israel, for example.

    International justice has indeed struggled with the problem of selectivity. The pick-and-choose approach of the international community when it comes to accountability in Lebanon has increased the risk of a perception that international justice is being used as a political tool or that something more than the mere pursuit of justice might be at stake. However, if some international justice mechanisms have been created as a result of politically-motivated interventions, it does not mean that these bodies per se were political. The establishment of the ICC, which is a permanent criminal court, aims precisely to address the issue of selectivity and [arbitrariness] of international intervention. Unfortunately, neither Lebanon nor its neighboring countries have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the ICC.

    What are the differences and parallels between the STL and prior international tribunals, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) or Rwanda (ICTR)?

    Nassar: The STL is the latest in a series of international or hybrid tribunals. Building on the precedents of the International Military Tribunals of Nuremberg and Tokyo, the UN Security Council established in the 1990s the ICTY and ICTR. These two tribunals are referred to as ad hoc international criminal tribunals as opposed to the ICC, which is a permanent court.

    There are many legal and technical differences between the STL and the ICTY or ICTR in terms of Chapter VII enforcement powers (under the UN Charter): funding, procedure, applicable law, etc. I would like, however, to highlight one major difference, which is the narrower mandate of the STL. The ICTY and ICTR were established to try massive crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed by a multitude of perpetrators. The STL will try those responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and any other attacks that occurred in Lebanon between October 1, 2004 and December 12, 2005, or any other date decided by the UN and Lebanon, if these crimes are connected to the Hariri assassination.

    At risk of repeating myself, I believe that addressing a limited number of crimes – regardless of their gravity – in an ocean of very serious human rights violations can create perceptions regarding a court or tribunal that are problematic and difficult to address. However, these issues should not in themselves detract from the need for an accountability mechanism in the case of the murder of Rafik Hariri and indeed others killed through political assassinations. The problem in Lebanon has been too little justice. I believe that what is missing in the equation and constitutes a challenge to the legitimacy of the STL in the eyes of many in Lebanon and beyond is the lack of a systematic approach to justice and accountability.

    President Sleiman in his oath speech and the [now-defunct] cabinet in its ministerial statement have committed to address the issue of the disappeared and missing in Lebanon. It was an important first step that still needs to be translated into concrete measures and be completed by other measures to deal with the heavy legacy of violations in Lebanon. With no such measures, justice will remain incomplete and partial in Lebanon.

    Aline SARA
    NOW Lebanon

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