By Stephen Dockery
BEIRUT: Minor reforms of Lebanon’s human rights laws have been eclipsed by a general stagnation in protecting rights, local activists say as they look back on their efforts over the past year.
Human rights activists say Saturday’s United Nations Human Rights Day marking the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, isn’t cause for much celebration in Lebanon.
NGO leaders say their groups have seen increased civil society efforts in 2011 yield limited gains while rights violations persist and that Lebanon has become a more difficult environment for rights reporters to work in.
“You would say there was progress if there were strategies and policies and a protection framework in place and I don’t see those yet,” says Darine al-Hage from ALEF, an independent human rights group based in Lebanon. “Look at the variety of these topics and the little that has been done.”
This year Lebanese legislators made small steps in implementing some of the reforms demanded by civil society organizations. Activists mainly claim two small victories in 2011 over the issues of torture and human trafficking.
A draft law moved forward in Parliament to crack down on human traffickers with the backing of the interior minister while government officials have made steps in recognizing the issue of torture by the security services.
But legal gains by activists have been few and far between.
Major news stories of the year like the hunger strikes at Roumieh prison over poor conditions, reports of detention of Syrian dissidents and legal cases against human rights activists have emphasized some of the major issues that remain unaddressed, activists say.
Lawmakers took little legislative action on issues like arbitrary detention, prison conditions, domestic worker abuse, racism, marriage laws as well as legal status and rights for Palestinians.
Hage says the limited action is because lawmakers are free to pick and choose the issues they want to enforce, and ignore the others.
“If you have an individual in power who sympathizes with human rights than you have it protected but there is no full legal framework or system that can protect this issue,” she adds.
When it comes to legal frameworks Lebanon is a signatory to a number of international human rights declarations. But activists say by and large these documents like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture haven’t been implemented in law, enforced or for a handful of international agreements even reported on.
“We are so good at ratifying, but we don’t know the true meaning of what we are ratifying,” Hage says. “They take the reporting as a diplomatic exercise and they don’t take it as an opportunity to really reflect on what they have been doing on this level all these years.”
NGO leaders say 2011 saw an encouraging increase in the number of rights campaigns in Lebanon. But they add the increased efforts by activists have not yielded meaningful results, leading to frustration and malaise.
“Even if civil society organizations grow in number that really doesn’t have an effect on the ground,” says Maya Ammar from KAFA, a women’s rights organization in Lebanon.
Ammar adds that her organization has found lobbying efforts this year to be slow and largely unfruitful despite the group’s documented increase in support and awareness among women and rights supporters in Lebanon.
Lawmakers recently removed a section of a major anti-domestic violence draft law the organization was backing that would have criminalized marital rape.
Ammar says after all their efforts to move the issue forward over a number of years, working through the legal process has become disheartening as legislation is stripped of its effectiveness. “At a certain point we don’t want it any more,” she says about major revisions to draft laws.
NGO leaders say moving forward human rights issues in Parliament only to strip them of their effectiveness papers over major problems and can compound difficulties in the future when the issue comes to a head.
“To a certain point it makes things worse,” Ammar adds.
Even more worrying to activists is an increase in government efforts to detain and prosecute human rights activists for their reporting.
Head of the human rights group Alkarama, Saadeddine Shatila, was detained and questioned by Lebanese security in July after his investigation into torture by security services. Law enforcement also opened an investigation into the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, also over the issue of torture reporting.
NGO groups say the detentions and investigations are government efforts to silence unfavorable reports through intimidation, while security services say they are working to protect Lebanese national security.
Whatever the case, activists say that the past year has been a less favorable environment to work in.
In a year marked by regional popular uprisings demanding political and human rights from Middle East regimes, Lebanon has remained an unusual anomaly, removed thus far from the waves of change.
“At a time when the entire region is pulling and pushing for more rights, more freedom of expression, it would be sad and ironic if Lebanon takes a step back or stays in its place,” says Nadim Houry, from the Beirut branch of Human Rights Watch.
Houry adds that Lebanon in general remains mired in a legal and bureaucratic morass that takes minor steps to fix major issues.
Lebanon is known for having relatively more freedoms than many neighboring states, but it also has limited rule of law and is rarely able to enact and implement legal protections for those freedoms due to an unstable local and regional political situation.
Houry says the difficult political situation Lebanon has existed in since it’s inception is no excuse for not implementing reforms.
“The number of draft laws are piling up in drawers,” he adds. “What you are left with is short term fixes that don’t solve the problem but minimize the pain.”
Despite previous failures and frustrations, Houry says legal reform can still be an effective way of implementing change. “Now is the time to open up the dusty draws in parliament and enact these reforms,” he adds. “I think the issue is a state that is dysfunctional, and you just need to keep pushing until these things are enacted.”