Lebanon’s STL: In Context of US Policy and International Law

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A Lebanese woman walks past the tomb of slain Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in downtown Beirut. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Saturday, December 17, 2011

Speaking to a full lecture hall Friday, John Cerone, the director of the New England School of Law's Center for International Law and Policy, gave an insider's view of how an evolving US policy toward international criminal courts provides context to the development of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

The talk at the American University of Beirut was the first in a series of lectures held by Al-Akhbar's Research Unit, in collaboration with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs. Cerone’s lecture was titled “The Politics of International Justice.”

“The STL fit within a lot of the policy priorities for the US,” said Cerone, who served as special adviser for the first US delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in 2009.

From the Bush administration's blatant attempts to thwart international justice during its war on Iraq to the Obama administration's policy of “principled engagement,” US interaction with international courts reflects a blend of foreign policy goals and historical precedents. The US engagement with the STL was no different.

In comparison with other international hybrid tribunals, the STL possesses, “the narrowest scope we’ve seen,” Cerone said.

The STL's jurisdiction is limited to investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and related crimes.

“If everyone agrees it’s a crime, having selective justice is problematic, but it doesn't undermine the legitimacy of that prosecution,” Cerone said. “I’d rather have some prosecution than no prosecution.”

Joumana Nahas, an author and lawyer who attended the lecture, described the STL as “a tribunal to end impunity in Lebanon.”

Others in attendance were less optimistic. One attendee asked, “Was this not a court established to try only one crime?” Several also asked how Israel is not being tried for crimes against humanity in the 2006 July War or in its devastating strikes on Gaza. Cerone provided insight into this query in a 2007 essay.

Cerone wrote that, in 2005, a UN official involved in STL negotiations said that jurisdictional limitations on the tribunal “were included at the behest of the United States to ensure that the Tribunal could not take jurisdiction over the conduct of Israeli forces during the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah/Lebanon.”

“The key issue for me is the fairness of the trial,” said Cerone. “The discomfort comes from the STL’s ad hoc nature. Why are we creating tribunals to prosecute criminals here and not there?”

Though it is subject to controversy, the UN's International Criminal Court (ICC) is the world's premier justice mechanism. Established in 1998 with the Rome Statute, the US was hesitant to sign the statute from the beginning.Though the US did eventually sign the treaty, it has failed to ratify it over the years.

“The US was concerned that rules of international criminal law contained in the statute might constrain its ability to project its power,” said Cerone.

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