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Unaccountable in Lebanon: How a PM’s Killers Got Away With It

The UN's 17-year effort to track down the murderers of Rafik Hariri is finally at an end. It cost a billion dollars and the assassins are still at large

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Unaccountable in Lebanon: How a PM’s Killers Got Away With It
On Feb. 14, 2006, the one-year anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, hundreds of thousands flooded Beirut’s streets to mourn his passing / Ghaith Abdul-Ahad / Getty Images

It happened on Valentine’s Day in 2005. Shortly before 1 p.m. on Feb. 14, Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri finished a meeting in downtown Beirut and headed off in his armor-plated Mercedes with a five-vehicle security escort. As his convoy passed the remains of St. Georges Hotel — a concrete shell left over from the civil war — a white Mitsubishi truck exploded nearby, killing Hariri and 21 others.

Lebanon had a long history of political assassinations and the usual response was to clear up the mess and get back to normal as quickly as possible. Most of the time the culprits got away with it.

This time, though, there were demands for accountability, not only from inside Lebanon but internationally.

A fact-finding mission sent by the U.N. complained that the Lebanese authorities were showing “a distinct lack of commitment” to investigating the crime effectively and their efforts so far had not met acceptable standards. It wasn’t just a question of competence, though: In the tangled web of Lebanese politics there were many barriers to uncovering the truth.

The U.N. responded in April 2005 by creating an International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) in the hope that it would be less influenced by local pressures and thus better placed to identify those responsible for the crime. After four years’ work under three different leaders, the commission metamorphosed into the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), based in the Netherlands and empowered to try suspects under Lebanese law.

Though it was clear from the evidence that some 20 operatives took part in the assassination plot, only five men were eventually indicted and three ultimately convicted. They were tried in absentia because no one dared to arrest them, and we still don’t know who actually ordered the killing. Seventeen years after the assassination, the tribunal’s work has now come to an end. Earlier this month, the judges sat for a final time to pronounce life sentences on two of the men — sentences they are unlikely ever to serve.

The protracted effort to bring Hariri’s killers to justice had cost almost $1 billion but met with only limited success. The roots of the problem lay in the precarious balance of sectarian and other interests that constitutes Lebanon’s political system. Power is distributed among competing elements to prevent any one of them from gaining overall control. The president, for example, must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim. While this arrangement helped to keep the peace in the wake of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, it didn’t provide good governance. Fears of what might be unleashed by disturbing the balance not only became a barrier to reform but also meant that political considerations could often override the rule of law. In the words of Walid Jumblatt, the veteran Druze leader, Lebanon could have justice in the Hariri case, or stability, but not both.

Before the assassination, the killers had spent weeks preparing a false trail that they hoped would divert investigators’ attention toward a fictitious jihadi group, and the plan took effect almost as soon as Hariri was declared dead. Little more than an hour after the explosion, Reuters news agency and Al Jazeera television received phone calls claiming responsibility on behalf of “Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria” — a previously unheard-of organization. Another call gave Al Jazeera directions to a tree near its Beirut office where a videocassette was hidden. Two further calls angrily demanded to know when the video would be broadcast and threatened consequences if it was not shown. The calls came from different public payphones, though they were all made using the same prepaid card.

The video showed a bearded young man claiming the group had punished Hariri for being a “holder of ill-gotten gains” and a “cheap tool” of the “infidel Saudi regime.” A letter accompanying the cassette identified the young man as the suicide bomber responsible for the attack.

Watching TV in their Beirut flat, Taysir Abu Adas and his family recognized the speaker as their 22-year-old son, Ahmad, who had gone missing a month earlier. He had last been seen on Jan. 16, when a car horn sounded outside the flat and he went into the street, apparently to join a friend he had recently met at the mosque. On the way out, he borrowed 2,000 Lebanese liras (about $1.30) from his mother and said he would be back in a few hours, though he never returned.

During the previous three years Ahmad had become deeply religious, but there was little evidence of jihadist inclinations. The Lebanese authorities claimed to have found subversive material on his computer that they said he had downloaded from the internet. However, his home had no internet connection and it appeared that the incriminating data on his hard drive had been inserted there by someone else. Furthermore, forensic tests on body parts established that Ahmad was not the suicide bomber who drove the Mitsubishi truck – which was scarcely surprising, because he had never learned to drive. He appears to have been the victim of a cruel trick and is presumed to have been killed after recording the video.

In many ways Rafik Hariri was Mr. Lebanon. He had served as prime minister for 10 of the previous 14 years and was the country’s foremost politician. He was also a hyperactive businessman — a self-made billionaire who had built his fortune in Saudi Arabia, heading one of the kingdom’s largest construction firms. In the 1990s, as Lebanon began to recover from its civil war, he also played a central role in the reconstruction of Beirut, from which he profited handsomely if not always legitimately. There was a curious echo of that in the spot where Hariri died — next to the ruined St. Georges Hotel. Its restoration had been long delayed because of a dispute between its owner and Solidère, the development company founded by Hariri.

There were plenty of people with grievances against Hariri, but the plot to kill him had been carefully planned and organized, with substantial financing and logistical support. This put it beyond the capacity of any single individual or small terrorist group, so the investigators focused their attention on the political context of his assassination.

Under the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the 15-year civil war, neighboring Syria was allowed to maintain troops in Lebanon and also had an extensive intelligence network. This brought a degree of stability, but it was also oppressive and tended to serve the interests of the Assad regime rather than those of Lebanon. Nothing of significance happened in Lebanon without the Assad regime’s knowledge and — usually — its approval. Part of the justification for Syria’s military presence was that Israel had forces in southern Lebanon. But after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, calls grew for Syria to follow suit.

Tensions with Syria came to a head in 2004. President Emile Lahoud was coming to the end of his six-year term, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who regarded Lahoud as a prime asset in Beirut, demanded a three-year extension. Extending Lahoud’s presidential term required a two-thirds majority in the Lebanese Parliament, and Hariri initially resisted. In the end, though, he and his parliamentary bloc bowed to the inevitable, and the extension was approved, 96-29. Four government ministers resigned in protest and a month later one of them — Marwan Hamadeh — was targeted in a bomb attack that killed his bodyguard. Three days after that, Hariri resigned as prime minister.

On the eve of the parliamentary vote, there was a development in the U.N. Security Council that some saw as a preemptive reprisal against Lahoud’s extension. Resolution 1559 called for the withdrawal of “all remaining foreign forces” from Lebanon, and although it didn’t mention Syria by name, it was clearly referring to Syrian forces. The resolution had been jointly sponsored by the U.S. and France — and since Hariri was on friendly terms with Jacques Chirac, the French president, there were suggestions Hariri had a hand in it.

Resolution 1559 and the Lahoud affair were two signs of a growing challenge to Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, and Hariri’s assassination was widely interpreted as a signal from Damascus that resistance would not be tolerated. For once, though, the reaction in Lebanon was anger more than fear, triggering what became known as the Cedar Revolution. Protesters camped out in Beirut’s Martyrs Square with a one-word message for Assad: “Irhal!” (Leave!).

By that stage Assad was under strong international pressure, and on March 5 he announced Syria’s withdrawal. It was completed toward the end of April and verified by the U.N., raising hopes that for the first time in years Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections might take place without Syrian interference.

Anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon was far from universal, though, and on March 8 — three days after Assad’s withdrawal announcement — supporters and allies of Hezbollah, the main Shia organization, swarmed into Beirut for the biggest demonstration the country had yet seen. Its purpose was to denounce “foreign interference” (i.e., by the U.S., France, Israel and Resolution 1559) while showing “appreciation for Syria’s sacrifices in Lebanon.”

Hezbollah had its own objections to Resolution 1559 since it called for “the disbanding and disarmament” of militias in Lebanon. They were supposed to have been disbanded under the Taif Agreement. But Hezbollah, besides being a major political party, had continued to maintain a substantial military wing. It claimed these forces were part of Lebanon’s “national” defense because they were resisting Israeli occupation in the south of the country. Following the Israeli withdrawal, though, that justification had largely evaporated.

Syria’s opponents responded to Hezbollah’s demonstration with an even bigger one on March 14. Soon the dates of these two rival protests became shorthand for Lebanon’s political divide. On one side was the March 8 bloc – predominantly Shia Muslim and headed by Hezbollah. On the other was the March 14 bloc headed by Hariri’s Future Movement — mainly Sunni Muslim but with Druze and Christian support. This polarization of attitudes toward Syria and Hariri’s assassination did not bode well for the international investigation or the UN’s hope that its eventual findings would gain general acceptance among the Lebanese.

It soon became apparent to Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor in charge of the investigating commission, that Hariri’s killing was unlikely to have happened without the knowledge of Lebanese security services. Furthermore, he saw “probable cause” to believe that the decision to kill Hariri “could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials.”

Working on that assumption, the commission began interviewing officials — first in Lebanon and then in Syria — and Mehlis soon became convinced that some of them knew more than they were willing to admit. They included Lebanese security officials who claimed to have had no inkling of any threat to Hariri’s life, which Mehlis found implausible in light of the political situation, the previous history of assassinations and the Military Intelligence Service’s “constant wiretapping” of Hariri’s phones along with those of other prominent figures.

There were also questions about a meeting between Assad and Hariri in August 2004 at which Assad allegedly threatened him over his opposition to extending Lahoud’s presidency. In a letter to the commission, Rustum Ghazaleh, head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon at the time, claimed the meeting had been “cordial” and Assad had spoken to him “as a friend.” However, in an intercepted phone call a few weeks earlier, he had given a very different picture of relations between Assad and Hariri. “The president can’t stand him,” Ghazaleh told a senior Lebanese official. “Whenever we need to speak to Hariri we have to suck up to him and he does not always answer.” Hariri, he continued, was “always irritating” Assad and “things cannot continue this way.”

By October 2005, at the commission’s instigation, eight “suspects” had been detained by the Lebanese authorities. They included two cellphone salesmen but also, more sensationally, four generals who had been in charge of Lebanon’s security at the time of the assassination: Gen. Jamil al-Sayyed, former director-general of the Sûreté Générale; Gen. Ali al-Hajj, former head of Internal Security Forces (ISF); Gen. Raymond Azar, former head of military intelligence; and Gen. Mustapha Hamdan, head of the presidential guard. A search revealed that Hajj had been illegally keeping classified intelligence data in a safe at his home. According to Mehlis, these files showed “the degree to which the Lebanese security and intelligence institutions were intertwined with and influenced by their Syrian counterparts.”

Witnesses were often reluctant to talk, but Mehlis had what at first appeared to be a stroke of luck. Two men came forward purporting to be former Syrian intelligence officers and offering testimony that seemed to confirm his suspicions about the role of Lebanese and Syrian officials.

One of these “witnesses,” Muhammad Zuhair as-Sadiq, gave a detailed account of the planning stages of the assassination that implicated 11 senior officials — seven of them Syrian and four Lebanese. Sadiq had initially contacted the commission by phone from Saudi Arabia and was later interviewed at a location that should have rung alarm bells. It was an apartment in Marbella, Spain, belonging to Rifaat al-Assad, the exiled uncle (and a sworn enemy) of the Syrian president.

Sadiq, who had several previous convictions for embezzlement and fraud, originally claimed to have left Beirut shortly before the assassination but later changed his story with a handwritten statement saying he had acted as driver for several of the suspects on the day in question. At the commission’s request he was then arrested in France (where he had taken refuge) for misleading the investigators. The French authorities refused a Lebanese request for Sadiq’s extradition. In 2008 he disappeared, only to resurface a few months later in the UAE, where he was arrested for entering the country on a false Czech passport.

The other key “witness” was Husam Taher Husam, a Syrian with intelligence connections who claimed that Sayyed, one of the four detained Lebanese generals, had visited Damascus seven times from November 2004 to February 2005 for meetings with the chief of the Syrian Presidential Guard and the head of the Syrian intelligence services to plan Hariri’s assassination. On the last occasion, Sayyed had allegedly been accompanied by Gen. Mustapha Hamdan of the Lebanese Presidential Guard.

As a result of these allegations, Sayyed was hauled off to the commission’s headquarters to be directly confronted by his accuser. To conceal his identity, Husam wore a paper bag over his head with slits for the eyes — but to little effect because Sayyed recognized his voice. Sayyed emphatically denied the meetings. He invited the investigators to check his diary and challenged Husam to provide more details of the dates. Husam was unable to do so. Three months later he retracted his testimony in an appearance on Syrian state television.

For Mehlis, dealings with such characters as Sadiq and Husam were a necessary part of the investigation. “What do you expect, white angels? Those two gave us a lot of information which we could sometimes corroborate with information received elsewhere,” he told an interviewer from the Wall Street Journal in 2008. Even if their purpose was to discredit the investigation, “that can help us determine who wants to discredit the investigation,” he added.

None of the detained Lebanese generals were ever charged, but they remained incarcerated for three years and eight months despite efforts by lawyers to secure their release. This eventually came to the notice of the UN’s Human Rights Council which complained they were subjected to arbitrary detention. The main reason appeared to be confusion over who had responsibility for their release: the commission said it was a matter for the Lebanese authorities while the Lebanese authorities said it was a matter for the commission.

In the meantime the investigators had sent Damascus the names of people in Syria that they wanted to interview, including Assad himself. The Syrians replied that interviewing Assad was out of the question but sent written statements from four of the others. Further haggling ensued, and the regime eventually agreed to interviews — on condition they took place in Syria with government officials present.

Mehlis, accompanied by some 100 security staff, traveled to the Monte Rosa Hotel, just a few miles inside Syria’s border, for the interviews. He spent several days there in September 2005 but returned disappointed, accusing the Syrians of cooperating in form rather than substance and impeding the investigation. In his report to the U.N. he complained that the interviewees had given “uniform answers” to questions and that many of their answers were contradicted by the weight of evidence from a variety of other sources. This prompted the U.N. to step up its pressure on Syria, and further interviews took place in December — on neutral ground in Vienna.

By then, though, one of the Syrians who had attended the first round of interviews in September – Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan – was no longer available to answer questions. On Oct. 12 he shut himself in his office, put a gun to his mouth and pulled the trigger. At least, that was the official version.

Kanaan’s value to the investigators was that he knew the seamy side of Syrian-Lebanese relations intimately, having served as military intelligence chief in Beirut from 1982 to 2002. He had been on amicable terms with Hariri and in his September interview with the investigators reportedly admitted taking large bribes from him. According to a story broadcast by the Lebanese channel New TV on the eve of Kanaan’s death, he had cited Hariri’s generosity with bribes as a reason Syrian officials would not want him assassinated.

For almost all of his 20-year stint in Lebanon, Kanaan’s immediate boss was the Syrian vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who managed the Lebanon file and became very wealthy as a result. Like Kanaan, Khaddam was noted for being close to Hariri — he was the only Syrian official to attend Hariri’s funeral (though in a personal capacity). Earlier, he had also paid a hospital visit to Marwan Hamadeh, the former Lebanese government minister who was injured in a bomb attack after resigning in protest against Lahoud’s presidential extension.

By 2005 both Khaddam and Kanaan had reasons to feel disaffected. Assad had removed them from their lucrative Lebanon posts, and they believed the new incumbents were making a mess of it.

Kanaan’s replacement in Lebanon was Rustum Ghazaleh, who shared Assad’s preference for Lahoud over Hariri. Although Ghazaleh was later widely suspected of orchestrating the assassination, Hariri’s death cost him financially. It emerged at the Special Tribunal’s hearings that Hariri had been making monthly payments to Ghazaleh of $67,000 in cash, with occasional larger amounts. The tribunal concluded that these were not voluntary payments (i.e. bribes) on Hariri’s part and that Hariri feared Ghazaleh would cause trouble for him if he refused the money.

Two days before the assassination Ghazaleh complained that his monthly payment hadn’t arrived. Hariri was upset at this, since it had never happened before and his staff assured him the money had been paid. Nevertheless, he authorized a second payment and a man was sent to deliver it to Ghazaleh. The man returned in a distressed state. Ghazaleh had spoken of Hariri in a “very insulting and threatening” way, he said. The tribunal’s interpretation of this odd episode was that Ghazaleh had demanded an extra payment because he had “grounds to believe” the flow of money from Hariri was about to stop.

Ghazaleh later became head of political security in Syria and died in 2015, reportedly of injuries sustained during a dispute with Rafiq Shehadeh, Syria’s military intelligence chief.

Shortly after Hariri’s assassination, a rift emerged between Vice President Khaddam and President Assad, who had continued to sideline him. In June, Khaddam delivered an unusually outspoken speech to the Baath Party’s conference, accusing the regime of political blunders — especially in Lebanon — and announced his intention to resign as vice-president. The following December he went into exile in France where, in expectation of Assad’s fall from power, he launched a failed attempt to establish an alternative government-in-waiting. In exile, Khaddam claimed Assad and Ghazaleh had both personally threatened Hariri and came close to blaming Assad for the assassination. If Syrian intelligence was involved, “it could only be on instructions from the head of state,” he said. In 2008, Khaddam was tried in his absence by the Syrian authorities and sentenced to hard labor for life on charges that included slandering the regime and lying to U.N. investigators about the killing of Hariri.

Mehlis stepped down at the end of 2005 and when Serge Brammertz, a Belgian jurist, replaced him as head of the investigation, the focus shifted from suspected instigators to the killers on the ground. In that connection, the evidence began pointing away from Syria and toward its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

Coincidentally or not, the investigation’s shift came at a time of changing international priorities regarding Resolution 1559. Syria had complied with the resolution’s main demand by withdrawing from Lebanon, but the issue of Hezbollah’s militia remained outstanding. In July 2006, Hezbollah carried out a cross-border raid into Israel that resulted in the deaths of eight Israeli soldiers and the abduction of two others. Israel responded with an intensive month-long bombardment of Lebanon. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed this as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”; Israel was hoping it would lead to the end of Hezbollah as a fighting force. Despite being heavily outgunned, though, Hezbollah was well prepared and survived with its military reputation enhanced.

The evidence that eventually implicated Hezbollah in Hariri’s killing might never have emerged without the efforts of a young captain in Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces. Wissam Eid, still in his 20s at the time, had studied computer information systems at university. It occurred to him that mobile phone records could provide some useful clues. The available records showed calls made and received, plus their duration and the cell tower the phone had been connected to at the time.

Armed with a spreadsheet, Eid began analyzing the records for hundreds of phones that had been in the vicinity of St Georges Hotel on the day of the assassination and found eight that appeared to belong to the hit team. All eight phones were registered under false names and all had first been activated within half an hour of each other in the Tripoli area on 4 January 2005. The last call on these phones had been made two minutes before the explosion and, from that point on, none of them were ever used again.

Phones in this group became known as the Red Network to distinguish them from other groups that came to light later and were also assigned color codes. They included “green” phones used to control and coordinate the attack and “blue” phones that had earlier been used for surveillance of Hariri and in connection with buying the Mitsubishi that carried the explosives.

Eid reported his findings to the commission, but it sat on them for a year and a half. It wasn’t until December 2007, after Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare replaced Brammertz, that the international investigators asked Eid to explain how he reached his conclusions. Somehow, word of Eid’s work reached Hezbollah, and he received a phone call warning him off and claiming that some of the phones were part of a counter-espionage operation against Israel.

Eid met with the U.N. investigators on Jan. 24, 2008. The next day, a parked car exploded in Beirut as Eid drove past, killing him, his bodyguard and two people who happened to be nearby.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon eventually indicted five suspects for involvement in Hariri’s assassination. All had Hezbollah connections. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, described them as “honorable men of the resistance.”

Mustafa Badreddine, 43 at the time of the bombing, was in overall control of the operation, according to the indictment. Badreddine, also known by various aliases, had been imprisoned in Kuwait in 1983 and sentenced to death for a series of bombings there but escaped when Iraqi forces invaded in 1990. He was cousin and brother-in-law to one of Hezbollah’s founders — Imad Mughniyah, its military chief. Mughniyah died in an explosion in Damascus in 2008, for which Hezbollah blamed Israel.

Another of the accused was Salim Ayyash, whose family came from Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon. He was alleged to have coordinated the team that carried out the actual attack as well as the team that purchased the truck used in the bombing.

The three other indicted men — Hussein Oneissi, Assad Sabra and Hassan Merhi, all born in Beirut — were said to have been involved in setting up the false trail pointing to the fictitious “Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria” group. Merhi was also said to have coordinated the search for a suitable person to appear in the video claiming responsibility and later for ensuring the video reached Al Jazeera’s office.

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah refused to allow the men’s arrest, saying they would never be handed over to the authorities “even in 300 years”. Nevertheless, the trial went ahead in their absence with defense lawyers appointed to represent their interests.

Following the outbreak of war in Syria, Badreddine went on to become a commander of Hezbollah forces supporting the Assad regime. In 2016, he was killed by an unexplained explosion near Damascus. Hezbollah claimed he had been targeted by Israel and gave him a hero’s funeral. After some initial uncertainty as to whether Badreddine was really dead, the tribunal struck his name out of the indictment.

The prosecution’s case relied heavily on the phone data, but while it was relatively easy to identify phones connected with the assassination, linking them to specific suspects proved more difficult. Much of the evidence was based on “co-location” – showing that the accused had been in an area served by a certain cell tower when the phone was connected to it. Repeated examples of that happening could be used to build a persuasive if circumstantial case, but it was not absolute proof of the suspect using the phone.

In August 2020, the panel of five judges delivered their verdict, finding Ayyash guilty of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act but acquitting the other three defendants on grounds that the evidence was inconclusive. The prosecution then appealed against the acquittals of Merhi and Oneissi, and in March of this year a different panel of judges decided the evidence was sufficient to convict them. On June 16, Merhi and Oneissi were sentenced in their absence to life imprisonment. That completed legal proceedings in the Hariri case. On July 1, the tribunal will transition into what is officially described as “a dormant entity.”

Critics have asked why all this effort was expended over Hariri’s death when Lebanon had witnessed so many other assassinations and when atrocities committed during the civil war had been quietly set aside in a general amnesty. Thus, from the outset, there were people who saw it as a case of selective justice: It was difficult to imagine a similar effort if the assassins’ target had been less favorably regarded in the West or if suspicion had fallen on Western allies rather than Syria and Hezbollah.

That didn’t lessen the enormity of the crime, though, and the hope was that pursuit of Hariri’s killers would serve a broader goal by challenging the culture of impunity, discouraging further attacks and ultimately strengthening the rule of law. Mehlis saw the arrest of Lebanese security chiefs as an essential step in that direction, but detaining them for years and then releasing them without charge after being chastised by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council was not a good look. Meanwhile, there were no obvious signs of a deterrent effect on political violence: During the first four years after Hariri’s killing there were 12 more assassinations, three attempted assassinations and 10 bomb attacks. Under powers granted by the U.N., the tribunal began a separate prosecution of Ayyash in connection with three additional attacks, but it never got beyond the pretrial stage and was eventually suspended for lack of funds.

Despite early hopes that the findings of the international investigation would be generally accepted within Lebanon, it became a flashpoint in the ongoing political wrangling as Hariri’s foes sought to undermine its credibility. The end result was far from satisfactory, but it gave both sides something they could regard as a success. Hariri’s side secured three convictions, while Hezbollah escaped retribution, thanks to the impotence of the Lebanese state. In hindsight, there was never much prospect that it would turn out otherwise and every likelihood that it would succumb eventually to the “Lebanon effect.”

Meanwhile, the culture of impunity shows no sign of ending. In August 2020, just as the tribunal was about to announce its first verdicts, a gigantic explosion wrecked large parts of Beirut. More than 200 people died, thousands were injured and countless others became homeless. Total damage was estimated at $15 billion. The cause this time was not a bomb but some 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored for six years in unsafe conditions at the city’s port.

Numerous officials had known of the danger but nothing had been done to remedy it. A Lebanese judge was appointed to investigate but his efforts met with resistance and obstruction. Once again, real accountability was a distant prospect – and it’s likely to remain so without radical changes in the way the country is run. Novelist Rabih Alameddine echoed the despair of many Lebanese after the port explosion when he wrote in The Washington Post: “It’s not individuals or a certain group. It’s not bad apples, it’s the whole orchard, all the orchards. It’s a systemic failure of governance.”

It’s not only about Lebanon, though. The same lack of justice — and of accountability more generally — is a continuing plague in many parts of the world, including most of the Middle East, and the Hariri case raises difficult questions over what can be done about it internationally. Syria’s suspected involvement gave it an international dimension, which put the U.N. on the spot. Merely denouncing the atrocity without some backup action risked sending a signal that the perpetrators of similar crimes had nothing to fear. Thus was the International Independent Investigation Commission born.

The first mistake was to assume the commission’s international character would shield it from the influences that hampered Lebanese investigators. This, of course, turned out to be an unrealistic hope. Impunity for assassinations couldn’t be tackled in isolation because it was just one aspect of the country’s underlying malaise.

All of this points to a broader problem with efforts to develop a system of international justice through such bodies as the International Criminal Court in The Hague. International justice can’t function unless international politics allow it, which inevitably means it’s applied selectively rather than universally. That shouldn’t be an excuse for doing nothing about war crimes, crimes against humanity, etc. But it’s important to be aware of the limitations.

Ludicrous as it might seem now, the U.N. Security Council initially asked the Hariri investigators to complete their task within three months, with the possibility of a three-month extension if that proved necessary. At the time, no one imagined it would drag on for 17 years, another reason for its failure. The sense of outrage that had triggered the investigation gradually faded as new issues came to the fore, and the longer it went on the less it seemed to matter.

Political realities have a habit of overtaking principles, making it easier to forget than to remember. Some four years after Rafik Hariri’s death, his son, Saad (by then prime minister of Lebanon), traveled to Damascus for “friendly, open and positive” talks with Assad — the man he had previously accused of killing his father.

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