The losing fight to prosecute Rafik Hariri's assassins

Neil Macdonald on the uncertain fate of the UN special tribunal into the assassination of Lebanon's Rafik Hariri.

So how does a mere political party stop international prosecutors from pursuing embarrassing murder charges against its henchmen?

Well, in the case of Lebanon's Hezbollah, you effectively take over the government of your country, bully the prosecutors' original supporters and cut off much of the financial support for the UN investigation.

You also make sure the UN prosecutors understand that they will never be able to secure any arrests, at least in Lebanon.

Then you find a way to blame the Israelis for what went on, and you work behind the scenes to dry up any support the prosecutors may once have had in the broader Arab world.

All that has happened in the case of the UN inquiry into the assassination six years ago of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others.

Lebanon's former prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, and others at a February ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the assassination of al-Hariri's father, Rafik al-Hariri. Saad al-Hariri's coalition government fell in January 2011 at the behest of Hezbollah. ((Reuters))

The people suspected of carrying out the spectacular bomb attack in downtown Beirut, the people to whom all the evidence points, have made considerable progress in making sure they get away with murder.

Right now, officials of the UN Special Tribunal on Lebanon, the body charged with finding and trying Hariri's killers, are running around the world, cap in hand, pleading for money to keep going.

"We have cash-flow issues," admitted one insider, earlier today.

The fellow tried to put on a game face. But fundraising probably wasn't in his job description.

Hezbollah's demands

The special tribunal was set up in 2009, following four years of investigation by its predecessor, the UN International Independent Investigation Commission, which floundered, to put it mildly, in Lebanon's treacherous political landscape.

Last year, CBC News published and broadcast the results of an exhaustive investigation, which showed the commission took years to adopt proper telecommunications analysis of the bombing, and that commission insiders suspected their unit was thoroughly penetrated by Hezbollah, whose members were their principal suspects.

At the time, CBC revealed some of the telecommunications evidence upon which the commission was building its case against certain individuals, as well as an internal document pointing at the head of Lebanese intelligence as someone who may have compromised the UN investigations.

Since then, however, the political situation in Lebanon has changed dramatically.

Hezbollah toppled the government of Hariri's son Saad in January 2011 and the new prime minister is basically Hezbollah's man.

Hezbollah ("the Party of God") has also thoroughly cowed the opposition, according to reports in Lebanon, and it has been absolutely clear about what it intends for the UN tribunal: It wants Lebanon's 49 per cent share of the tribunal's $65 million budget this year cut off.

Plus, it wants the four Lebanese judges seconded to the commission withdrawn and it wants the Lebanese government to publicly repudiate any indictments naming Hezbollah personnel.

It has also promised that any attempts to arrest any of its members will be met with force, which pretty much negates the possibility of any such arrests, given that Hezbollah's private militia is considered to be more powerful than the country's army and police combined.

Cap in hand

So, anticipating imminent impoverishment, a delegation from the UN tribunal is asking international donors to double their contributions.

But it hasn't met with much success.

On Monday, the delegation was in Ottawa, Canada being one of the commission's core sponsors, along with the U.S., France, Japan, Britain and four others.

In 2009, Canada handed over $3 million. In 2010, Canada gave nothing and now Canadian authorities are currently considering a request for $1 million for this fiscal year.

Tribunal officials are "optimistic" that Canada will come through. However, at least one source at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa has told CBC News that finding more money for the tribunal is doubtful.

Other countries have also waffled, promising to study the issue. In diplomatic language, governments are saying maybe, or no.

Last fall, the U.S. rushed in with $10 million in emergency funding for the tribunal, but at the rate it spends, that will soon be gone.

And if America winds up as the tribunal's sole source of funds, it would only feed Hezbollah's claim that the whole thing is a conspiracy by Washington and the Israelis.


The tribunal's fundraising mission, in fact, raises the question of whether Hezbollah has won.

Hezbollah supporters mark their annual martyrs' day celebration on Feb. 16, 2011, two days after the anniversary of Rafik al-Hariri's death. ((Reuters))

If the current Lebanese government along with most of the larger political factions in Lebanon (including some of the tribunal's original supporters) are now opposed to trials going forward for Hariri's murderers, how can the tribunal move forward?

Especially if the Lebanese judges withdraw? And most especially if Lebanese authorities simply ignore tribunal requests to arrest the accused?

The tribunal's perhaps less-than-realistic view is that this is a judicial process, set up by the UN Security Council, that cannot be stopped.

The money will come from somewhere and, if necessary, trials will be held in absentia.

In the meantime, a UN tribunal judge is currently assessing indictments against those accused of involvement in the assassination, and will at some point rule whether there is enough actual evidence to allow them to proceed.

Former UN investigators have told CBC News the evidence is mostly circumstantial — intricate telecommunications charts that show which phones called which other phones, but fail to actually put the phones in the hands of Hezbollah operatives.

Further, the tribunal, which still operates a small office in Lebanon, concedes that the Lebanese government, meaning Hezbollah, basically knows every move its investigators make before they make it.

Sounds like Hezbollah is winning, in other words. In fact, it's beginning to sound as if the whole UN effort might have been a waste of time.

In a previous column on this affair, I described a billboard erected in Beirut by supporters of the investigation. Haqiqa li ajil Loubnan, it read.

Truth for Lebanon. We shall see.


  • An earlier version of this column said Canada gave the commission over $2 million in 2009. In fact, the figure was just over $3 million.
    Oct 12, 2013 2:35 AM ET