On February 14th, 2005, I turned on my computer and visited the BBC webpage, as was my daily habit. Bomb blast. Hariri dead. Others dead or wounded. Today, August 18th, 2020, I turned on my computer and watched the Trial Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (“STL”) render its verdict in the Ayyash et al. case. Judge Janet Nosworthy described the situation of one blast victim who may have stayed alive for 12 hours without detection. Had this person been found and received medical assistance, he might have survived. The Trial Chamber found that the blast was triggered by a suicide bomber.
While watching the judgment hearing, I recalled the summer of 2012, when I was finishing my LL.M. and working madly on my dissertation. I spent the last months of my studies as an intern at the STL. It was more than a little bit surreal to see a high level, high-powered judicial institution operating in Leidschendam, which is right outside of The Hague, seized of a case concerning the Middle East. (Please note that this blog post reflects my views alone and not those of any institution.)
Why was it so strange for me to see an international tribunal actively intervening in a situation regarding a terrible explosion that had claimed the lives, bodies, and livelihoods of many? It was strange because the case dealt with the Middle East, and impunity for severe human rights violations – even human rights violations resulting in loss of life, destruction of bodies, and destruction of minds – is a daily reality in the region. Finally, the international community had turned its attention to this reality and was attempting to do something about it.
More recently, the August 4th explosion in Beirut, in which at least 200 people died, 4,000 were injured, and 300,000 people were left homeless, occurred before the STL’s scheduled judgment delivery. The explosion reminded me again of how important this tribunal is, not only in terms of its legal significance but it in terms of its symbolism in dealing with an act of political violence.
While the crime of terrorism is a matter of great controversy in international law, it is important to remember the following when considering the STL’s work, its impact, and its future legacy. Political violence can be perpetrated by state agents, or by armed groups. From my perspective, the tribunal’s significance lies in part in establishing a precedent in saying that we, the international community, are with you, the victims of political violence, and that we are with your families and with your communities. It is my personal view that the crime of terrorism, which is part of a typology of political violence in the international legal lexicon, is equally reprehensible when committed by state agents and non-state agents.
In the future, I hope that the STL’s impact and legacy will contribute to holding individuals working for states and for non-state actors responsible for heinous acts of violence before independent, impartial courts of law.