What does political murder have to do with capitalist culture? Quite a bit actually, in that the rule of law is better able to protect the free minds and free markets underpinning a liberal system worth its salt. This month, the special tribunal for Lebanon, which will address the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and dozens of others since February 2005, will begin operating in The Hague. However, it is obvious, and disturbing, to see how little agreement there is over what this may mean for the rule of law in Lebanon down the road.
It’s been almost four years since the investigation and trial process began. The politics of the case have been discussed and fought over, but relatively little attention has been paid, domestically or internationally, to its legal ramifications, and what the tribunal’s creation means for the general course of justice in Lebanon. The answer may not be as straightforward as some assume. The boilerplate view is that the Lebanese judiciary can only gain from the tribunal, and many would like that to be true. However, is there as clear a link here as the tribunal’s supporters suppose?
In arguing against the likelihood that the tribunal will radically change Lebanon’s judicial system, one might raise several doubts. First is the timing of the court case in The Hague. By most accounts, there will be no accusation presented this year, so that at the soonest the tribunal will bring suspects into the dock five years after the first assassinations in Lebanon. That may be standard procedure in such trials, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that the sails have been largely emptied since the heady days of 2005 when the United Nations investigation began, and when many Lebanese naively believed that justice would be swift.
A second doubt is technical. How will the impact of the special tribunal filter down through Lebanon’s judiciary to improve legal practices across the board? The real value of the tribunal, some point out, was that it was created mostly outside the debilitating confines of the Lebanese legal system, so that even if one seeks to implement the tribunal’s lessons, it will be very difficult to do so in practice. Rather than turning the punishment of political crimes into a rule, the doubters argue, the tribunal is an exception that cannot and will not soon be repeated. The dog will bark, and the flawed caravan of Lebanon’s judiciary will pass.
A third doubt is raised from the fact that the Hariri assassination has been so polarizing nationally, that there can never be any agreement over how to implement its results domestically. As the reflection of political divisions, Lebanon’s judiciary will swallow the good word coming from The Hague, mash it up and spit it out, with nothing to show for it.
All these criticisms are in some ways defensible. The relationship between the special tribunal for Lebanon and a more open legal system that defends free minds and markets is a tenuous one. The investigation of Hariri’s killing was indeed an exception in a country ravaged by political assassinations in the past three decades, none of which were ever solved. However, the Lebanese judiciary did participate in the tribunal’s formation, and Lebanese judges will be on the bench. There is also the fact that the impact of the tribunal will always be more moral in its repercussions than measurable in clear-cut tangible terms.
And how might one assess the moral impact of the Lebanon tribunal? For one thing, if the trial process is a success, it may encourage many more young Lebanese to join the judiciary, and many more lawyers to apply for judgeships — two persistent problems in recent years. It may also help alter the way that the police and judges investigate crimes in the future, reinforcing their professional pride. Already, those Lebanese who have collaborated with the UN investigation are in a position to benefit from their experiences and now train younger recruits.
Moral consequences are difficult to quantify, but in some ways their impact may be more powerful because of that. Nowhere is this more obvious than in markets, where moral choices, though not necessarily optimal in market terms, can have a fundamental impact on economic behavior. The notion of trust, to offer one example, is not easily quantifiable but can be the backbone of profitable exchange relationships. By the same token, a justice system that has as its model the successful prosecution of those behind the assassinations in Lebanon, may induce future investigators to ignore the negative consequences of searching out the truth, and persist in uncovering wrongdoing.
Much will depend, however, on what happens in the Hariri trial. The rule of law could be severely crippled if the tribunal loses momentum, or if the prosecution fails to reach a convincing endgame. Alas, many people in Lebanon will not regret that if it happens.