Why do #VictimsMatter in international legal proceedings?

A victim testifies before the STL Trial Chamber © STL
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The establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) heralded a new international legal order in which victims' restoration stands as a key component of meaningful justice. This is where victims’ participation comes into play, as it currently is before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

When discussing major international cases, lawyers and commentators often speak in terms of rules, resolutions, and applicable law. These discussions may help explain the framework in which a criminal trial unfolds, but they cannot get to the heart of the matter. This is where the value lies in victims sharing their stories - as active participants in complex international crimes proceedings. 

 

What do trials look like without active victims' participation?

The Prosecution and Defence present their cases to show who is (or is not) guilty. The focus is on facts – what happened, where, why, when, and to whom.  Even when victims testify on behalf of one of the two parties, talking about their own perspectives is largely incidental. Ultimately, they are there to support (or disprove) a party’s case.

When international lawyers and judges speak of “writing a history” of what happened, it is easy for victims’ perspectives to be subordinated to a particular party’s version of events, where legal notions are privileged over the human factor. But victims' perspectives are essential, as victims are the first reason why international trials matter. 

Giving the victims an equal platform to present their own case on their own terms is a novel idea. As such a platform continues to be tested in the various ICC cases, the beginning of the victims’ case this week before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon offers another look at the signficance of victims' participation in international crimes proceedings.

 

Victims in the Ayyash et al. case

At the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), while the Prosecution and Defence debate legal responsibility for a suicide truck bomb in downtown Beirut that killed 22 and injured over 200 on 14 February 2005, the victims, through their Legal Representatives, seek to show what the events of that day mean to them. The target of that attack was, according to the Prosecution, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But motives matter little to the families of those who perished and the innocent bystanders caught in the blast, who continue to live with physical and psychological trauma to this day. Nor do they matter to Lebanese people living in terror that such attacks could happen at any time. 

The victims’ case in Ayyash et al. opened with testimony from Lama Ghalayini, who described the devastation she experienced in the days and weeks after the attack. Her father, Abd Al-Hamid Mohammed Ghalayini, frequently took walks in the area where the attack occurred. It is believed he was walking nearby when he was caught in the explosion. His family searched for him in the rubble, but his body was not found until more than two weeks after the attack. In total, six victims and a non-victim witness will testify before the STL Trial Chamber.

Many have noted the catharsis that comes with victims being able to tell their own stories on their own terms, and in the case of victims in Ayyash et al., it is not about attributing blame, but about telling what happened and possibly coming to terms with, and gaining a deeper understanding of, the events. This applies not just to the immediate victims of devastating events, but also to societies as a whole, which can remain traumatized and divided for years in the aftermath of international crimes.  Emphasizing impact rather than guilt relieves some of some of the political pressure on various actors. 

By testifying before the STL, or before any criminal court, the victims know that their pain and loved ones will not be forgotten, and that their stories and suffering matter. Particularly important for Lebanon, where 80 prior assassinations (and attempts) had shaken the country before that fateful day in 2005, this is the first time that victims in the country have been given a voice before an international judicial institution. This is the first time victims of terror have had the opportunity to contribute to an objective record of the truth of what happened.

These opportunities inform a key part of why we have international mechanisms like the STL and the ICC in the first place, and what is ultimately at stake.

The victims’ case as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected to continue until 8 September 2017.

 

About the STL

Following a request from the United Nations Security Council, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) was officially opened on 1 March 2009 to investigate and prosecute those found responsible for acts of terrorism in relation to a truck bomb attack which killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and bystanders in the capital of Beirut on 14 February 2005. The STL is an international tribunal based in The Hague, applying Lebanese criminal law. Unlike the ICC, the STL addresses a single situation, but its jurisdiction could be extended to incorporate other attacks in Lebanon between 1 October 2004 and 12 December 2005, if sufficient evidence of a direct link between the two is found. Terrorism is the main focus of proceedings, which is not covered by the subject matter jurisdiction of the ICC.