Lebanon has not had a government since January 12th, when ministers allied to the March 8 opposition movement withdrew from Cabinet, precipitating the collapse of the Sa`ad al Hariri led majority government. For months prior to the collapse of the Hariri-led government, the cabinet had been at a stalemate and had not been performing its constitutionally defined duties towards Lebanese citizens. The reason for that stalemate was the inability of the majority and the opposition to come to an agreement over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which received its mandate from the United Nations Security Council in 2007 and is housed at the International Court at the Hague. This crippled and ineffectual Lebanese government was formed following the Doha Accord of 2008, an agreement that formally put an end to yet another previous 18 months of political stalemate, vacuum, and escalation. On Jan 12, 2011, the ministers allied with the Hezbollah-led opposition withdrew from the Lebanese Cabinet because the March 14 leadership was not willing to compromise enough on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. In the wake of a string of assassinations that targeted members of the country’s political and media leadership beginning in 2005, the Lebanese government lobbied hard for the Tribunal. It is more popularly known as the international investigation into the assassination of Rafik al Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon and father of the current Prime Minister. As March 14 pundits put forth, Rafik al Hariri is also the father of the new Lebanon that emerged after the Ta’if Accord ended that country’s 15 year civil war in 1989, and the martyr whose death sparked the Beirut Spring of 2005 that ended, in this discourse, Syria’s “occupation” of Lebanon.
Most probably, Sa`ad al Hariri will not be re-elected Prime Minister and most probably, members of Hezbollah will be named when the Tribunal’s indictment is publicized in the coming weeks. Sa`ad al Hariri will emerge as a powerful opposition leader and his waning popularity will be reinvigorated domestically and internationally. Hezbollah will be weakened internationally and regionally as a result of the indictment but at home, its supporters will also rally. While March 8 supporters and leaders claim that the Tribunal is a politicized body whose aim is to finish the job that Israel failed at in the 2006 war (getting rid of Hezbollah and with it, all armed Arab resistance against continued Israeli occupation and colonization), March 14 leaders and supporters argue that the international court is a non-partisan body whose indictment will stop the impunity with which political assassinations have taken place in Lebanon since that country’s founding in 1943. The actual record of the Tribunal’s work is one of inefficiency, incompetence, and dangerous recklessness.
The argument over whether or not the Tribunal is politicized is, in my opinion, moot. The work of the law and of the courtroom is always both political and politicized. The political nature of the law is naturally amplified in a case that brings together international capital and political interests. Furthermore, this case is unfolding before the world. The question is not if Special Tribunal is politicized because of course it is. The important question is whose interest carries the most weight in this Tribunal? In an international court, the answer to this question is usually, obviously, the countries and actors that have the most political and economic power internationally. In today’s world, this means that the interests of the United States and its closest allies (paramount among them in the Middle East being Israel) form part of the backdrop against which the Special Tribunal for Lebanon continues to unfold. In this post, I want to focus on an often forgotten reason why for many Lebanese citizens the international justice system and the United Nations have little, if any, legitimacy.
In 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon and launched a devastating 34-day war that targeted civilian areas and infrastructure indiscriminately. The war began when members of Hezbollah’s paramilitary forces crossed the Israeli border and kidnapped two IDF soldiers. While members of the IDF regularly kidnap Lebanese citizens from Lebanese territories for interrogation purposes, when the soldiers were kidnapped Israel took the opportunity (which included the tacit consent of many Arab regimes) to destroy Hezbollah. Of course, at its most fundamental Hezbollah is a mass-based movement, and “rooting it out” without “rooting out” major portions of the civilian population proved impossible. Still, the IDF tried. A quarter of Lebanon’s population was violently displaced, over 1,000,000 cluster bombs were dropped on South Lebanon (a ratio of more than one cluster bomb per civilian resident), the highway system was destroyed, the electrical grid was destroyed, the country was blockaded, the border with Syria was bombed, thousands of homes were destroyed and/or defaced, the airport was targeted, and oil and gas reservoirs were blown up. 1,900 Lebanese citizens were killed, the majority of them civilians and 30% of them children under the age of 13. Throughout these 34 days, theUnited States was stalling the UN-brokered ceasefire in order to give Israel more time to complete its mission, a fact that then-United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has recently admitted publicly. A ceasefire was finally declared only when it became clear that Hezbollah could not be destroyed without causing great damage to the IDF both militarily and in terms of its international standing. In fact, the majority of the cluster bombs were dropped by the IDF in civilian areas of South Lebanon during the final 24 hours of the conflict, when Israeli diplomats claimed to be trying to reach a ceasefire at the United Nations.
The 2006 war was only the latest incident in a long history of bias in how the international community treats Israel in comparison to the “standards” to which it holds Israel’s Arab neighbors. Because of this history of UN-sanctioned immunity for Israel and of the impunity with which Israel violates international law and UN resolutions, it is almost laughable when the State of Israel complains that the Lebanese state is not complying with UN Security Council Resolution 1701. This history is a large reason why for many Lebanese citizens, myself included, the UN and the international court system should not be the umbrella under which the investigation into Hariri’s assassination takes place. If the UN Security Council refused to meet when 1,000,000 Lebanese civilians were being displaced in 2006 then the Lebanese government should have, on principle, not sought the authorization and protection of Security Council for the International Tribunal on Lebanon in 2007. If the UN Security Council showed little concern for the 600 + children killed by the IDF in 2006, we should have refused their concern when our political leadership, who are supposed to be the guardians of all citizens, was (and is) targeted. One cannot overstate the importance of the 2006 war in irrevocably destroying the legitimacy of the “international community” and its concern for “justice” in the eyes of many Lebanese citizens. This point is lost on most outside observers of Lebanon. Inside Lebanon, many know the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is politicized and biased because we know, all too well, how politicized and biased its parent organization, the United Nations Security Council, is.
Many writers and opinionators have called the decision made by March 8 ministers to withdraw from the Lebanese Cabinet a coup, a word that has renewed vigor in the Arab world after the recent Tunisian revolution. In fact, Ben Ali’s government was toppled the same day that Saad al Hariri’s collapsed. Despite this coincidence, the two events bring to focus stark differences between the two states. In Lebanon, the process by which ministers resign and force a government to fall is constitutionally protected and is supposed to reflect public opinion. It is akin to the “votes of no- confidence” that leaders in democratic leaders routinely face when they attempt to enforce unpopular policies. Tunis had no similar process by which governments can be brought down legally and, it must be said, peacefully (the process by which ministers resign from cabinet is peaceful, although the aftermath may not be). In fact, the writers of the Lebanese constitution intended this process to be part of a series of measures that ensure that governments and leaders are held accountable. But the years of political paralysis that followed the 2005 assassination of Rafik al Hariri and the 2006 war has exhausted, numbed, and polarized Lebanese popular opinion. The ministers’ withdrawal from the cabinet and the collapse of the Hariri-led government was in no way a democratic reflection of popular opinion. It was a show of force articulated through a legal process. Sure, this escalation of political warfare reflected the sentiments of many Lebanese citizens. But it was also clearly a decision taken in order to silence the public opinion of many Lebanese citizens who believe in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
The starkest difference between Tunis and Beirut on January 12th could be seen in the many hours of news footage transmitted in those two capitals that day. In Tunis, the government was brought down (the regime may very well remain) by a mass-based movement of citizens with no clear political leadership. People were angry. In Lebanon, people were resigned. Unlike what became clear in Tunisia, there is no mass-based popular movement in Lebanon that is not co-opted (almost immediately) by the polarized political discourse and leadership of March 14 and March 8. One cannot demonstrate against electrical outages or corruption in the telecommunications ministry, or rail against police harassment or the continued degeneration of the country’s only public University, or even advocate for giving female citizens the right to pass on citizenship without being accused of being partisan. That is why the biggest difference between Beirut and Tunis on 12 January 2011 is that while Tunisia could have a revolution, Lebanon could very well have a(nother) civil war.
 Arab states were also stalling until it became clear that Hezbollah could not be destroyed easily and until popular support for the resistance movement and for Lebanon rose to a crescendo in the Arab world.