Victim Participation in The Special Tribunal for Lebanon Fuels Reflections on International Criminal Law and the Lebanese Justice System

On August 28, 2017, the Trial Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) began hearing the case of the victims in the Ayyash et al. trial. The accused are charged with conspiracy to commit a terrorist act for their alleged role in a February 14, 2005 bombing in Beirut that injured 226 people and killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. The victims’ case is expected to continue until September 8, 2017 and present evidence of the harm suffered by the 72 victims participating in the trial.

This is the first time that an  international criminal law tribunal addresses the crime of terrorism, and therefore the first time that victims of terrorism will present their case before an international tribunal.

Witness testimony will aim to show how the victims have been impacted by the crime. Most of the victims giving evidence are either people who were injured in the attack or relatives of people who died as a direct result of it. The objective is not only to determine the impact on the victims personally, but also to express the collective material, physical, and mental harm suffered by victims. More broadly, it aims to demonstrate the attack’s impact on Lebanese society. To this end, a non-victim witness is expected to testify on September 8 about the pain suffered by the victims.

Victim Participation at the STL

The STL’s framework for victim participation is unique. It follows recent evolutions in international courts; only the ICC and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia have implemented systems of victim participation. This is part of a larger movement to achieve restorative justice, with the goal of not only prosecuting the accused but also providing justice and reparations to the victims and communities affected by grave crimes. By being one of the rare jurisdictions to provide victims with the opportunity to be recognized and heard, the STL hearings fuel the discussion about the significance of victim participation. Moreover, the unique hybrid nature of the STL highlights the challenges of victim participation and reparations being managed by a combination of international and domestic courts.

Article 17 of the STL Statute provides the victims with the right to express their “views and concerns” during the trial, similar to the ICC Statute. However, the right of victims to participate has restrictions at the STL. Victims can only participate after the indictment has been confirmed by the pre-trial judge, and are thus excluded from the investigative phase. The definition of who can participate as a victim is also subject to certain restrictions to ensure fairness toward the accused’s right to a fair trial, and to give equal weight to both parties, especially given that the accused are not present in the current trial.

A distinct feature of the STL victims’ participation scheme is that the court does not have the power to give reparations to the victims. Instead, following the conclusion of the trial, victims can open proceedings for compensation in Lebanese civil court using the judgment of the STL. According to Article 25 of the Statute, the STL’s role is only to identify the victims, and it is the responsibility of the victims to bring action “pursuant to the relevant national legislation.” As a justification, the Explanatory Memorandum on the Rules of Procedure and Evidence states that the trial’s aim is to determine the guilt of the accused, not to rule on compensation. This also means that the right to compensation depends on the conviction of the accused. If the court doesn’t reach a judgment, it raises the question of whether the victims have the possibility to obtain compensation at all.

Legacy of the STL

The fact that the STL cannot rule on compensation raises several concerns about the implications of the trial for the Lebanese legal system. In particular, if the Statute is creating a right for victims to bring action for compensation before national courts, does it consequently create an obligation for the Lebanese State to facilitate the process through special procedures for victims?

Lebanese courts should have the power, based on the evidence generated from the trial, to rule on compensation for victims and design the means to carry this out. Although compensation mechanisms are not absent from the national legal system, there is a significant lack of capacity and resources available to the Lebanese justice system to provide meaningful compensation. To this end, local courts should begin to look into alternative measures to reinforce the right of victims to access protection and seek rehabilitation, thus opening the door to discussions on structural reforms toward facilitating access to compensation. Civil society organizations also have a significant role to play in monitoring the implementation of this process (should it arise) and thus widening the scope of this discussion towards an improved respect for the right to a fair trial in Lebanon.

If the regime established by the STL has the goals of healing and reparation for victims, it also sets important expectations for the Lebanese judiciary to address their compensation, and thus an opportunity for the latter to bridge systemic gaps and find innovative and meaningful solutions to ensuring victims’ rights. These solutions can in turn contribute to more comprehensive discussions on a local level toward enhancing the right to compensation and reforming restrictions that prohibit victims in Lebanon from accessing needed protections and resources to seek rehabilitation.

Francisca Ankrah coordinates the Human Rights Monitoring and Advocacy Program at ALEF – Act for Human Rights, where Marie Abou-Jaoudé is currently a research intern. ALEF is a non-profit, non-partisan watchdog organization that documents and promotes human rights in Lebanon, toward the development of an influential human rights constituency and the realization of a durable peace.

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