Lebanon’s 18 confessions are “deadly poison”, and the country’s political system is “fundamentally flawed.” So said US activist Franklyn Lamb during last week’s Human Rights Watch (HRW) roundtable on obstacles to improving Lebanon’s human rights record.
“We need to take the civil rights move to the streets,” said the director of the local Sabra and Shatila Foundation, questioning the mere potential of improving the human rights’ situation from within. The move will come from the outside, he added.
This past Tuesday, activists, journalists and several HRW staff and international committee members came together to address key challenges to reforming the situation of human rights in Lebanon, with a particular focus on a women’s right to transfer her citizenship, Palestinian refugees’ rights, and those of refugees and migrants who have served time in prison. Though opinions varied, the confesssionalist system, unreliable state institutions, and lack of political will to address key issues, were the most pressing concerns.
“We appreciate the Lebanese sophistication for human rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, qualifying Lebanon’s civil society of dynamic and reputable in the region. On Wednesday, during its Voices for Justice diner, the international watchdog launched its first non-western committee, to be based in Beirut.
Lawyer and human rights activist, Nizar Saghieh, opened the debate by addressing refugees’ plight following the end of any sentence they might have served. He stressed on the disconnect between the legal authorities and the country’s security apparatuses, pointing to examples in which the Internal Security Forces have blatantly ignored the judicial process and decisions. According to him, the ISF are obnoxious, question legal authorities, and frequently react with the attitude that “we detain and free whoever we want.” He questioned the role of the various state institutions and spoke of the country’s tangled web of authority.
Sari Hanafi, a Palestinian activist and associate professor at AUB’s department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, echoed Saghieh’s concern. “We know for instance, about the autonomy of the Resistance vis-à-vis the state, but [that of the security apparatuses from the legal authorities] is something new, and it is very scary,” Hanafi told NOWLebanon. Headded that all the Palestinian problems in Nahr el Bared, and Ain el Helweh are related to this, with the increasingly wretched conditions likely to push camp inhabitants towards a life of violence.
Palestinians always come up as a “security issue,” said Head of Norwegian People’s Aid Wafa’ Yasir, reiterating their lack of right to own property and their restriction of freedom. She also noted that while many hailed the amendment to lift certain restrictions on Palestinian employment rights last August, the small print remains ambiguous. “What is the exact mechanism to obtain a work permit? Do they need a sponsor?” she asked.
For head of the women’s right to pass on their nationality campaign Rola Masri, who pioneered the campaign back in 2008, the country is drowning in a pool of legal issues. Although Interior Minister Ziad Baroud attempted to support the relevant reform, the bill has yet to pass in parliament, she said, while multiple versions of the draft law are still floating around. A first proposal consists in allowing the woman to transfer nationality to her children and husband as long as her husband is not Palestinian or belongs to a “recognized state.” A separate proposal for the law gives the woman a right to transfer citizenship to her children but not to her husband.
According to Masri, the main problems are confessionalism and the religious authorities, which hinder progress, she said. “Lebanon is based on consensus between religions, and not on equality, and lip service solutions are unacceptable,” she said.
Like Hanafi and Saghiyeh, Masri also voiced concern over state institutions’ attitude toward the judiciary, noting the case of Judge Azzi, who was allegedly removed from office after allowing a Lebanese woman married to an Egyptian to pass on her Lebanese nationality to her children.
Although Change and Reform Bloc, MP Ghassan Moukheiber, the single representative of the government, emphasized the positive increase from approximately four human rights organizations in the 90s to 103 today, he did not offer any explanation as to why certain draft laws related to human rights’ issues were still gathering dust in parliament’s drawers. He did however mention that many organizations are politically affiliated, which thwarts their efficiency.
But if Nadim Houry, head of HRW in Lebanon, had to pinpoint what he thought prevents the reform of human rights, he stressed the lack of effective and accountable state institutions. “Investigations are opened but you rarely see what they lead to…There’s a lot of paying lip service, without concrete action,” he said, noting the lack of political will as another significant factor to Lebanon’s failing formula, despite the presence of important ingredients, such as a vibrant civil society and media as well as certain key ministers. When asked about confessionalism, he told NOW Lebanon it was directly related to the aforementioned problems.
Director of SOLIDE (Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile) Ghazi Aad however thinks otherwise. The country’s different confessions are not the main problem, it’s the incontestable lack of political will, he said.
“The same perpetrators of the war are governing the country. Whenever you raise the issue, they react with accusations that we are trying to implicate them,” he said; “The process will be slow, and you have to do your own work, but we are still there, and we are hanging on.”