BEIRUT: Lebanon will seek accountability at the United Nations over the Israeli sinking of a Lebanese ship in 1982 that killed 25 people, but a path to real redress will be difficult, international law experts said Tuesday.
Reports in Israeli media over the weekend revealed that an Israeli submarine had fired torpedoes at the ship carrying 54 Lebanese nationals and foreign workers, sinking it off the coast of Tripoli. According to the Times of Israel, the submarine’s captain, identified as Maj. A., believed the boat to be carrying Palestinian fighters fleeing from the Israeli army.
Ghady al-Khoury, the Foreign Ministry’s political affairs director, told The Daily Star Tuesday that Lebanon would file a complaint to the U.N.’s Security Council and seek compensation over the incident. But, given past attempts at U.N.-level accountability, this path is unlikely to yield any concrete results.
The U.N. General Assembly previously endorsed a non-binding resolution asking Israel to pay over $850 million in damages to Lebanon for an oil spill it had caused by bombing oil storage tanks in Jiyyeh in the 2006 July War. Israel never paid up.
Holding Israel accountable for the attack would require proof of a command issued by high ranking Israeli officials, said Shafic al-Masri, an international law expert and a former professor in the field at the American University of Beirut. “The Lebanese state cannot suffice with press reports on the incident or the admission of the captain: It must prove that the Israeli state is the one who ordered this,” he told The Daily Star.
With the current level of information, he added that it was more likely individuals would be held accountable instead of the state.
Jessica Jones, a barrister and international law expert, said Lebanon could seek to extradite particular individuals involved in the crime to its territories and try them in a Lebanese court.
“Lebanon and Israel being officially at war doesn’t stop Lebanon from seeking extradition if it can identify perpetrator: It could seek their extradition if they travel to other countries,” she said.
“It’s likely to be really difficult to get proper accountability,” she added. While trying individuals involved in the case at the International Criminal Court would be “the obvious route,” Jones said this wouldn’t be possible given that the ICC has no jurisdiction on events that took place before its founding. The body was formed in 2002, 20 years after the incident.
But it is far more likely that Lebanon would be able to seek some form of political redress by attempting to obtain a U.N. resolution condemning the Israeli act, Jones said. However, Masri believes that establishing the culpability of Israeli officials will still be difficult, pointing to the ongoing U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon against four people alleged to be involved in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. All four Hezbollah-linked suspects are being tried in absentia, and Hezbollah itself is facing no charges.
“It’s been difficult [seeking accountability] in the case of Hariri, and that’s a trial against individuals even though they are known to belong to a specific group,” Masri said. “So imagine trying to hold a state accountable.”