x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Hariri tribunal offers only hope for Lebanon's unity in the future

Lebanon must have both unity and justice if it is to survive as a nation and flourish as a democracy.

Lebanon and its friends around the world are on edge waiting for indictments to be issued related to the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The investigators working on this case are apparently nearing the completion of their inquiry and are preparing to submit their findings to the Special Tribunal - possibly within a matter of days.

Based on what are claimed to be "leaks", there have been suggestions that the indictments will charge members of Hizbollah in the crime. In response, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity in an effort to calm tensions, while Hizbollah, for its part, has paralysed the work of the government and issued vague (and sometimes not so vague) threats saying that it would not allow any of its cadres to be charged. This has roiled the country, with many fearing a return to civil strife.

Before any more threats are issued, fingernails bitten, or anti-anxiety pills swallowed, let us consider a few points.

First, no one knows what the investigators have found. We do not know whom they will indict or what evidence they will present to back up their findings. All that is being discussed right now are rumours, from a variety of questionable sources, based on information claiming to come from "leaks".

Given this, it is not the tribunal but the campaign to discredit the work of the investigators that must be questioned. How and why, we must ask, is there such an intense effort to denounce what we still don't know? Since no one has yet been indicted, and the evidence is still unknown, mobilising a campaign against the tribunal is at best premature, and, at worst, raises suspicions about the motives of the campaigners themselves.

It is important to also remember that indictments, when they are issued, are just that: indictments, not judgments or verdicts. The sealed work of the investigators will go to a pre-trial judge who will then take between six to eight weeks to review the findings and then make a determination as to whether or not there are sufficient grounds to merit prosecution. Only if the judge agrees to proceed will arrest warrants be issued. Note that it is only at this point that the names of the accused may become official and public.

It remains to be seen if a trial will follow. If it does, the prosecution will reveal the evidence on which the indictments have been based, and the indicted individuals will be able to contest the charges either by challenging the prosecution's evidence or presenting evidence of their own.

If this process is followed, it should guarantee an open, transparent and fair case, providing justice for the society at large and guaranteeing the rights of the accused to confront and challenge in open court the charges against them.

Fearing the worst, there are those in Lebanon who have suggested that the country cannot afford to allow the work of the tribunal to proceed. They say that Lebanon must make a choice between unity and justice.

This is a false choice, since Lebanon must have both unity and justice if it is to survive as a nation and flourish as a democracy. With the memory of Lebanon's long war still too fresh to be forgotten, and with too many Lebanese leaders and thinkers having been assassinated in just the past few decades, the threat of violence cannot be allowed to define the way the country resolves its disagreements. If Lebanon is to remain whole and prosper, it must put away threats and agree to resolve differences in public debate, through the ballot box, or in open court.

Polling clearly establishes that most Lebanese across factional and sectarian lines agree. They seek national unity and reconciliation, and they demand justice for the killing of Hariri, those who lost their lives with him, and those who were murdered in the years that followed. The people are right.

The slogan "unity or justice" should be rejected as a false dichotomy. Lebanon needs both.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute