“I wanted to tell you my story” - Giving Lebanese victims of terrorism a voice

Civilians, soldiers and policemen gather at the site of an explosion in downtown Beirut, 2013 © Reuters/Mohamed Azakir
Editors
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon last month witnessed the first ever participation of victims in an internationalized terrorism trial—an empowering experience according to victims. Yet with many victims still facing a vast range of problems and little recourse to redress, does the unprecedented reparations regime International Criminal Court offer a path forward?

Terrorism on trial in The Hague

In February 2005, a truck bomb in downtown Beirut claimed the lives of 22 people—including Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri—affected the lives of 220 others, and sent shockwaves across the nation. It also led the UN to establish the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

In August and September 2017, 72 victims had the chance to tell their stories in the courtroom in The Hague as part of the first ever internationalized terrorism trial involving the participation of victims.

The impact of the 14 February 2005 attack on the Lebanese people is one of the points highlighted in the Legal Representative for victims’ request to be permitted to present their case: the testimony of the victims can demonstrate the collective harm suffered, not just by the participating individuals, but by all victims. This encompasses the wider (societal, cultural and economic) impact of the events upon the Lebanese people.

72 victims that expressed their views and concerns to the Tribunal’s chambers through their Legal Representative how the 2005 bomb blast had impacted their lives and those of their loved ones.

From 28 August to 8 September 2017, the victims’ legal representative presented evidence from the victims, including live testimony from six victims and the submission of written statements from 23 others, in addition to the testimony from a victimologist.

A majority of participating victims were physically present in court to observe the proceedings, an opportunity never afforded in similar fashion to participating victims in any other international tribunal.

 

Empowerment through participation

Prof. Dr. Rianne Letschaert—a victimologist called by the victims’ legal representative—considers this element as particularly empowering for victims. Dr. Letschaert interviewed the majority of the participating victims on several occasions over the past five years.

Her report, “We Want our Rights Back,” is the first study of its kind used in international criminal proceedings and provides a valuable insight into the needs and expectations of victims participating in judicial processes.

By including family members in the legal process and informing them, using layman’s terms, on what has been happening in the trial, the STL has managed to satisfy this need admirably, according to Dr. Letschert.

This inclusion “played an important role in recognizing the individuality of the victims” and had been profoundly helpful for those family members who had traveled to The Hague to testify or simply to observe.

“I asked [about their experience] when they came out of a court session,” Letschert said. “They used words like ‘so empowering’ to [describe being] able to sit in the courtroom, rather than sitting in the gallery or watching it on streaming. To sit in the courtroom [when the procedures are] related to the person [you] lost—that is effective participation.”

Feeling empowered was important, Dr. Letschert explained, because many of the victims were facing a vast range of problems. Some have experienced financial issues as a result of the bombing, due to having lost the main source of family income. 

 

Lingering impact of crimes

Throughout the two weeks of proceedings, the courtroom heard about the direct and indirect impact of the explosion – loss of family members, severe injuries, depression and PTSD, loss of quality of life – the effects of which continue today with many left in financial dire straits unable to cover continuing medical care or, having lost bread winners, unable to provide adequately for remaining family members.

Many of their early experiences marred further by the absence of adequate psychosocial support.

Much of the questioning by the legal representative as well as the judges of the Tribunal, who also engaged the victims present in the courtroom, centered around compensation for their suffering. Some were compensated for their medical expenses, others received nothing and continue to live in need.

While many victims cited the need for justice and accountability - understanding what happened and bringing those responsible to justice—as a driving force behind their participation, the need for continued, tangible support through the provision of medical care and psychosocial assistance for ongoing ailments and trauma was evident.

 

Guidance from the ICC Rome Statute?

With respect to victim reparations, the STL is constrained by its own mandate. Unlike the ICC, or the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the STL is unable to award compensation to victims.

However, the right of all victims, not just those who have been granted the right to participate by the Tribunal, to seek compensation before national courts or other competent mechanisms is expressly recognized in Article 25 of the Tribunal’s statute.

This gives rise to the important complementary role that international tribunals can and should have with respect to national jurisdictions. The ICC comes to mind here in particular.

While Lebanon is not an ICC member state, despite continuing civil society advocacy in Lebanon, the spirit and purpose of the Rome Statute, namely offering victims reparative as well as punitive forms of justice may offer some guidance—including the development of a trust fund for victims that would assist not just victims of acts of terrorism addressed by the STL, but victims of terrorism more broadly.

 

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.