The Unique Characteristics of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon

By Anthony Zurcher

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s (STL) primary mandate is “to hold trials for the people accused of carrying out the attack of 14 February 2005 which killed 22 people, including the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri.” Often referred to as the “Hariri Tribunal,” the STL has yet to make any formal convictions, even though it was inaugurated in 2009. This had led many to criticize it as a waste of time, resources, and energy. Nonetheless, a compelling argument can be made for its utility. The tribunal boasts a number of unique characteristics, providing the international community with a concrete example of a hybrid court that has been tailored and molded to meet precise goals.

Specificity of mandate

The STL is “the first tribunal of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime.” Considering that the United Nations Security Council has described terrorism as a direct “threat to international peace and security,” a tribunal created specifically to address this crime is particularly constructive. The STL’s appeals chamber used Lebanese law to define terrorism as an international crime for the first time, a step that may lead other hybrid courts to follow suit.        

Victim participation

Victims who have suffered harm in the attacks “may participate in the trial to present their view and concerns.” Even though the victims are not allowed to actually seek compensation, their presence is certainly a novel approach to hybrid courts. Victims can “become involved in the STL once the investigation phase is over and the indictments have been confirmed.” Assuring a balance between the rights of the accused and those of the victims is part of the tribunal’s strategy, one that could easily be adopted by other hybrid courts.

Trial in absentia

A trial in absentia means “a trial that takes place without the accused being present or in the custody of the tribunal.” Other international courts have largely refused to apply this principle, yet the STL’s rationale is to ensure “justice not be thwarted by the will of the accused or the intent of a state which refuses to hand him over.” According to the STL’s rules, a trial in absentia is only possible when: “(1) the accused has waived the right to be present, (2) the accused cannot be found or has fled, or (3) the state concerned has not handed the accused over to the tribunal.” While trials in absentia are generally criticized, the STL has created an additional protection through the establishment of an independent “Defence Office.” The Defence office “has status equal to that of the prosecutor” with a mandate to “protect the rights of the accused at all stages to ensure they get a fair trial.” As the STL progresses in its mission, this feature will likely face intense scrutiny, as a positive and fair result could lead to application of trials in absentia in other international contexts.


The STL is not actually located in Lebanon; rather the tribunal has its seat in Leidschendam in the Netherlands. Security concerns led to the establishment of the STL’s headquarters outside of its country of origin, a quite unusual step for a tribunal of such importance. While some argue that this leads to less participation from the local population and creates a more detached tribunal, others point to positives such as the elimination of corruption as a potential influence. Furthermore, a European headquarters has allowed more international involvement in the case.

What are your thoughts on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon? Do you think it provides a positive example of an international hybrid court? Leave your comments below!