Last week, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon trial against four suspects accused of assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others opened in The Hague, despite the fact that none of the accused—four members of Hezbollah, including Mustafa Badreddine, cousin of Hezbollah’s late military commander Imad Mughniyeh—is currently in custody.
Instead, the courtroom was filled with the prosecution team, lawyers for the defense, and lawyers for the victims, as well as a scale model of the Beirut waterfront where Hariri was assassinated Feb. 14, 2005. In its opening remarks, the prosecution presented pictures of the devastation caused by the bomb—fires, a large crater, buildings in ruins, blood and body parts everywhere.
“I never saw that picture of my boss,” said one shaken former Hariri aide, referring to a photo that showed the victim’s charred legs sticking out from under a tarp that covered the rest of his corpse.
The Hariri camp, led by Rafik’s son Saad, wants justice, and so do the other Lebanese in attendance, victims themselves or relatives of other victims slaughtered or maimed in the Iranian-sponsored terror campaign that began nearly nine years ago. “It’s our only hope to get answers,” said Sami Gemayel, a member of the Lebanese parliament whose brother Pierre was assassinated in Beirut in 2006. “I lost a nephew, good friends, and colleagues,” said Marwan Hamade, a deputy and former minister, who narrowly escaped an October 2004 attempt on his life that seems to have initiated the bloodshed.
War criminals and perpetrators of crimes against humanity have been brought before international tribunals before, but this trial represents a watershed of sorts—the first time that terrorists are being tried in an international court. And even more than that, as one tribunal official told me, “It’s an alternative to responding to terrorism with violence.” In short, as he explained delicately, perhaps afraid to hurt my feelings, it’s about showing the Americans there is another way—a way that uses the civilized tools of the legal profession, in climate-controlled courtrooms — to prosecute the war on terror.
Perhaps that’s so. But it bears repeating that none of those accused of perpetrating the years-long string of assassinations—not Syria, Iran, or Hezbollah—are in custody. Contrary to what European officials may believe, justice is possible only when someone is willing and able to enforce it. Law depends on legitimate authorities owning a monopoly on violence and being lawfully able to drag suspects to court. Indeed, the reason that Lebanon has had to go to The Hague for justice is that the government of Lebanon is unable to put the four men on trial. If the government of Lebanon cannot stop Hezbollah from making its own foreign policy and thereby taking the entire country to war with Israel; if Lebanon can’t stop Hezbollah from sending its fighters to kill Sunni opponents of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and thereby destabilize Lebanon’s own sectarian balance; then there is no way a government, in which Hezbollah and its allies sit in the Cabinet and parliament, is going to be able to drag the Party of God to trial.
And international bodies can’t, either, since without the hard power of the United States—or someone else—behind them, international treaties and agreements are meaningless. In fact, what both American advocates and critics of international law, like former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, seem to miss is that international law is not an end in itself, or a new kind of menace to American sovereignty, but an index of American power.
If European officials seem satisfied that the proceedings at The Hague are a giant step toward a new world order founded on the mighty abstraction of international justice, the actual parties to the case are likely to learn different lessons—beginning with the Lebanese themselves. What Saad Hariri and his followers want from The Hague is an end to impunity for political murder. “The message is that political assassinations are no longer accepted in the Middle East,” Hariri told me last week.
Himself a former prime minister of Lebanon, Hariri now lives in exile between Paris and Riyadh for fear of an assassination attempt. He recently announced that he will return to Beirut for elections this year, but he is still a likely Hezbollah target because the trial will not mark an end to impunity. What the trial, which some observers believe may last as long as a decade, may accomplish is a clear public identification of the criminals through real legal proceedings, including the presentation of forensic evidence and testimony.
This is hardly a small feat for the Middle East, a region where conspiracy theories carry the day—and where the principle of cui bono, or who benefits, almost always points an accusing finger at Israel. The tribunal has named the criminals—who are not Israeli, but Lebanese. Yet the criminals and their associates and sponsors will continue to roam free and target their opponents because no one is willing or able to seize their corporeal selves and throw them in jail.
In this respect, a guilty verdict against Badreddine and his colleagues at The Hague may prove even more dangerous than if they’d never been brought to trial. For the unintentional message that the tribunal is sending is that they know exactly who is doing the killing, but are unwilling or unable to stop them—while the West happily negotiates with the “political arm” of Hezbollah and with its state sponsors in Iran. So, it is not hard to imagine that the toothless specter of international justice will only embolden Hezbollah and its allies to continue their bloody campaign.
Americans are also likely to be losers. Since his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama has come out forcefully on behalf of multilateral efforts and international institutions, and his administration has featured some of the best-known proponents of international law, like Yale Law professor Harold Koh. Accordingly, the administration has sought to resolve issues typically considered vital American interests through international conferences and negotiations.
For instance, both peace in the eastern Mediterranean and the stability of the Persian Gulf have long been considered core American interests. Now, with a civil war ripping Syria apart, the Obama Administration has placed its faith in a Geneva II conference that started Wednesday, which is meant to bring together the warring parties. And with the Islamic Republic of Iran marching toward a nuclear weapons program, the administration is betting on the P5+1’s interim agreement, finally implemented on Monday, to bring Tehran to a halt.
But conferences, agreements, and treaties are all ways of formalizing the balance of power among nations—and they are always backed by force. Which is another way of saying that there can be no binding agreements without someone to enforce them. Without that guarantee, the agreements are close to meaningless.
International law exists not because the world’s white hats all agree on what constitutes the good, whether they are Finns, Frenchmen, Irishmen, Germans or Swedes, but because global powers understand the enforcement of international law as being in their interest and are therefore willing to lend it political and military weight—up to a point. Since the end of WWII, the trigger hand as well as the pay-master of the international justice system has often been the United States. But now, tired of war, broke, and predisposed to see the use of force as crudely alienating to the rest of the planet, the White House wants to hand off America’s obligations to a bodiless abstraction it calls “the international community.” But the paradox is that international institutions don’t work unless they’re backed by the power of the United States.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to clearly understand the international justice system as an extension of American power. One reason that Washington keeps vetoing resolutions regarding Israel at the United Nations, for example, is not just that it is part of our deal with Jerusalem to offer diplomatic and political cover to a Jewish state that’s been under constant attack since its founding. It is also to remind member states that the United Nations and other international institutions work only because of us. Without the United States, and more baldly the specter of America’s willingness to use force to see that the peace is kept, international courtrooms are about as relevant to real-world events as five old dudes arguing over coffee at the local Chock Full O’Nuts.
Trusting in the power of international treaties and institutions while withdrawing the credible threat of American force is like writing out a check for a new house after first withdrawing all funds from your checking account. What happens next is that your check bounces—not that you move in and start re-decorating. Without that credible threat, the rest of the world is soon going to resemble that courtroom in The Hague, with lots of legalistic rhetoric, lawyers in suits, and tearful victims, but no justice—while the suspects roam freely and murder with impunity.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).