By BASSEM MROUE
BEIRUT (AP) — A U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said Wednesday it is facing a severe funding crisis and will not be able to operate beyond July without immediate assistance.
The announcement by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon came as the country is in the grips of an unprecedented economic crisis — a culmination of decades of widespread corruption and mismanagement.
Although the tribunal’s verdict issued last August, 15 years after Hariri’s killing was disappointing for many Lebanese, ending the tribunal’s work would raise concerns in the tiny country where political killings have gone without punishment for decades.
It comes at a time when some Lebanese are demanding an international investigation into the Aug. 4, blast at Beirut’s port that killed 211, wounded more than 6,000 and damaged nearby neighborhoods.
The STL has formally notified U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres of its financial situation, “which will result in the Tribunal’s inability to complete its work if no contributions are forthcoming prior to the end of July,” the tribunal said.
Lebanon, which is mandated to pay 49% of the tribunal’s costs, faces a dire financial situation which has left the tribunal with a serious funding shortfall. The remaining 51% of the tribunal’s funding comes from voluntary contributions from nations around the world.
The tribunal said given the challenging circumstances generated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis in Lebanon, the STL had already reduced its budget by approximatively 37% for 2021 compared with the previous years.
Lebanon’s economic crisis began in late 2019 and has intensified in recent months. The World Bank said Tuesday the crisis is likely to rank as one of the worst the world has seen in more than 150 years, adding that the economy contracted 20.3% in 2020 and is expected to shrink 9.5% this year.
In March 2020, Lebanon defaulted on paying back its debt for the first time in its history as the local currency lost more than 85% of its value. Tens of thousands have lost their jobs while many others left the country seeking opportunities abroad. Nearly half the country’s 5 million people live in poverty.
“Despite taking significant cuts of staff and across the board reductions, without additional funding, the Tribunal will be forced to close its doors in the coming months,” said STL’s Registrar David Tolbert. He added that this will leave “important cases unfinished to the detriment of victims, the fight against impunity and the rule of law.”
The Valentine’s Day 2005 truck bombing on Beirut’s seafront that killed former prime minister Hariri and 21 others sparked huge protests against Syria, which was widely seen as culpable. Damascus denied involvement but was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after 29 years of occupation.
The U.N. investigation into Hariri’s assassination was broadened to include 14 other Lebanese killings.
The Netherlands-based Special Tribunal sentenced Salim Ayyash, a member of the Hezbollah militant group, in absentia to life imprisonment in December for his involvement in Hariri’s assassination. Ayyash has never been arrested. Three other Hezbollah members tried with him were acquitted.