x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Despite the risk, tribunal is vital to Lebanon's future

Lebanon's prime minister Najib Miqati needs to find a way to homnour the indictments brought down by the Special Tribunal. If he fails to do so, then the principle of the rule of law will be gravely damaged.

In theory, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is not a political body. In practice, despite the avowals of investigators based in the Netherlands - who insist their work is guided only by the facts behind the murder of Rafiq Hariri - there can be no such clean distinction.

In January, Lebanon's government collapsed under pressure from Hizbollah and its allies over disagreements about the tribunal. After five months of extensive talks, the new prime minister Najib Miqati formed a new government that was decidedly more friendly to Hizbollah. And now, after just a few weeks, that government faces a severe test.

There have been mixed reactions to the indictment of four men, at least two of whom are confirmed Hizbollah members, on Thursday. Some are disappointed that more senior figures in Syria were not indicted; many Lebanese, weary of the country's interminable political strife, are disturbed that Hizbollah has been implicated given its thinly veiled threats of violence.

An indictment is not a verdict. Even if these four men are guilty, they certainly would only be a few of those responsible for Hariri's murder. The eventual list of suspects may include dead people, such as Imad Mughnieh, Hizbollah's former military commander who was killed in 2008. There is still considerable mystery over the whereabouts of at least two suspects, Mugnieh's brother-in-law Mustapha Badreddine and also Salim Ayyash. They may already be on the run.

Lebanon's interior minister, Marwan Sharbal, has already sent pessimistic signals about arrests - the country has between 15,000 and 20,000 suspects still at large in other cases. And there is a question about Mr Miqati's will and ability to abide by the indictment.

It is in his interest, and in the interest of the country, to do so. Hizbollah's militia, the most powerful military force in the country, cannot be allowed to suppress any investigation of Hariri's murder. This is not a political point. The rule of law in Lebanon means nothing if a figure like Hariri can be killed with impunity. The string of subsequent political murders proves this.

So little seemed to have been accomplished for most of the six years since the assassination; other cases, indeed, have dragged on for decades. The Lebanese people are understandably tired of the bloodshed and partisan feuding. It will only stop - or, perhaps more realistically, lessen - if murderers are held to account. Many in Lebanon's political scene believe that justice is impossible in this case. The special tribunal is at least an effort to prove them wrong.