Ever since the UN Security Council created it in mid-2007, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon -- the international court charged with prosecuting those responsible for the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and associated attacks -- has been the object of intense vexation. Thursday's unsealing of the tribunal’s indictments, which named four men (two of whom are suspected Hezbollah members), is the latest turning point in the prolonged history of a controversial body.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon months before the STL was established that it would lead to “grave consequences that could not be contained within Lebanon”; Hezbollah has pronounced it a Zionist plot; and in December 2010, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared its forthcoming findings “null and void.” In January, Hezbollah and its allies, backed by Syria, withdrew from the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, causing its collapse. Hezbollah and Syria sought a new government and prime minister that would be prepared to end Lebanon’s cooperation with the tribunal. Days later, on January 17, the STL prosecutor issued his first indictments, which were kept confidential pending their confirmation by the tribunal’s pretrial judge. The tribunal will probably not proceed to trials until October.
The special tribunal emerged out of UN investigations that were launched in the immediate aftermath of the bombing that killed Hariri. In April 2005, the UN Security Council unanimously authorized a full inquiry into the assassination, setting up the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC). The move marked an unprecedented intervention in a matter normally considered a domestic crime. It stemmed in part from the international community’s fear that if Hariri’s killers were not held accountable, assassinations in Lebanon would continue regularly, indefinitely, and with impunity.
UNIIIC functioned under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, meaning that all UN member states were required to cooperate and that noncompliance could be penalized with the use of force. Initially headed by a Berlin prosecutor,
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