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LEBANON: In Yugoslavia experience, parallels and threats for Hariri tribunal

October 29, 2010 |  9:56 am


Conspiracies, false witnesses, flaming rhetoric and meddling outsiders have characterized the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in recent months.

But this is nothing new for another international criminal tribunal that has seen it all before -- the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Like Lebanon, the Yugoslav court also witnessed personal campaigns against tribunal prosecutors, threats to domestic funding and accusations of excessive spending.

All said and done, after 17 years, the court has indicted 161 people and concluded proceedings against 124.  It managed to weather the political gantlet and continues to carry out its mandate, successfully prosecuting presidents, cabinet members and military commanders.

Although the two tribunals vary in mandate and the scale of their missions, the story of the Yugoslav court can serve as an example of the resilience of international criminal courts of this type, but also a warning.

As tensions have continued to build over the tribunal investigation into the 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, so has the confusion over inner workings of the international criminal investigation.

Last week in The Hague, the tribunal invited members of the Lebanese media to attend briefings about its procedures and participate in a dialogue on the challenges of reporting on international criminal tribunals.

The workshop was intended to educate the Lebanese media on the functions and mandate of the court in an effort to ensure that the Lebanese people are given clear and accurate information about the court. It paralleled previous attempts to clear up confusion in the court looking into war crimes of the former Yugoslavia.

That tribunal was established in May 1993 with the mandate to bring to justice war criminals in the former Yugoslavia. Investigations included probes into acts of aggression by former Yugoslav leaders and crimes committed during fighting between ethnic groups such as the Bosniaks and Croats.

From its beginnings, the tribunal met strong opposition and accusations it had been created to divide the newly sovereign entities from the former Soviet Union and allow the United States to grab influence in the region, just as many have accused the U.S. and France of promoting the Lebanon tribunal in their own interests.

Opponents of the Yugoslav court also argued that the court’s search for justice would incite sectarian strife and spark a fresh war.  

Ominously, this scenario eventually came to fruition as seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As Lebanon prosecutor Daniel Bellemare prepares to hand down the first round of indictments, the atmosphere in Lebanon continues to be tense. Indictments are rumored to finger members of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah -- an outcome which Hezbollah party leader Hassan Nasrallah has made clear he will not accept.

On Wednesday, a group of women attacked tribunal investigators and snatched a briefcase at a gynecology clinic in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, a known Hezbollah stronghold, where investigators sought information.

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah warned Thursday that Lebanese should boycott the tribunal and dismiss its findings. Its armed posture is a cold reminder of the potential real consequences.

-- Patrick Gallagher in Beirut

Photo: Protesters denounce the U.N.-backed tribunal into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Credit: Reuters