By Simona Sikimic
Friday, December 31, 2010
BEIRUT: Human-rights abuses in the form of allegations of torture, forced detention and harassment have all made the headlines this year. But for the first time, these discussions have been underpinned by an unprecedented spate of high-level dialogue that is helping to raise expectations.
Parliament’s approval in August of relaxing right-to-work restrictions for the 430,000 registered Palestinian refugees, many of whom live in deplorable conditions, was notable.
“We have recognized that they have the right to work, which is very important and has real potential,” said Lina Hamdan, spokesperson for the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) operating under the patronage of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. “We have been following the ratification process and, so far, it is exactly what was outlined.”
Implementation of the decree is still under discussion, with final resu
lts expected in early 2011, but human rights groups deem reforms “insufficient.”
“Many questions about how easy it will be to access work permits remain unclear,” said Nadim Khoury, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Lebanon director. “The devil, as always, is in the details.
“[But] it is a big step that the rights of Palestinians were finally discussed openly in Parliament. It is now vital to not stop the dialogue.”
Indeed, 2011 may see a renewed burst of advocacy with the LPDC expected to complete a report addressing the right to own property, currently denied to Palestinians.
Much will depend on developments at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, which was destroyed in 2007 in fighting between the Lebanese Army and extremist group Fatah al-Islam.
The first reconstruction phase is scheduled for completion in February 2011, when some residents will be allowed to return. But with the camp remaining under military administration, the prospect of life returning to normal remains slim.
Over the last 12 months, the site has witnessed several altercations between activists and the army, with allegations flying that campaigners were detained for criticizing security measures.
The army has dismissed the allegations, claiming the arrests were unrelated to camp activities.
While the LPDC seems optimistic reforms will take shape in February, the guidelines for an army pull-out from Nahr al-Bared are murky. Real progress must ultimately come from the highest echelon of the political establishment, Hamdan admits.
Other clampdowns on freedom of speech have also been recorded.
“In 2010 we saw an increase in harassment of bloggers and journalists, especially those who have written about President [Michel] Sleiman or talked about the army,” said Khoury. “I fear that this will continue and that if anything we will see deterioration.”
With the courts unwilling or unable to interfere, the level of protection on human rights issues is low, especially for marginalized groups such as foreign migrant workers or refugees.
“We would say the greatest challenge is weakness in law enforcement and the persistence of impunity,” said Darine el-Hage, executive director of Lebanese NGO Alef (Act for Human Rights.)
Civil rights groups have vowed to spread awareness in the coming months, while HRW will investigate abuses experienced by these groups. With some estimates of foreign workers as high as 600,000, activists have their work cut out for them.
Minorities may be the most at risk, but they are not the only victims of abuse and mistreatment. Overcrowding in prisons remains a leading human rights concern, with HRW estimating that some 70 percent of detainees are still awaiting trial.
Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar has pledged to step up reforms, including bulking up the General Directorate for Human Rights and Freedom at the ministry. He has also announced plans for a draft law regulating sentencing procedures, but his self-professed ability to operate in light of equipment and resource shortages, and political disputes in the national arena, signals that progress will be slow.
The ministry will likely confront the death penalty issue, which promises to be a growing bone of contention over the coming 12 months as more alleged Israeli spies and Fatah al-Islam operatives come to trial.
“There has been no progress on the abolishment of the death penalty … 2010 has witnessed a particular setback,” said Hage.
Concerns are not purely humanitarian. With the authorities accused of permitting evidence under torture, and military tribunals not allowing appeals, worries persist that courts are unequipped to hand down such punishments.
“We have to ask whether we are potentially going to be executing innocent people,” said Khoury. “It is a great worry that we will see executions being handed down out of political convenience.”
Although no death sentences were carried out in 2010, several have been issued and the ad hoc moratorium on capital punishment in recent years may be overturned, although the political establishment remains split on the matter.
The only certainly is that, as with all human-rights concerns, the issue will play hostage to political developments.
“Politically instability threatens progress.” said Khoury. “We still have a government that is completely paralyzed by just one issue … but we have seen a main change in 2010, with more politicians expressing positive intentions.
“These are the first step to implementation. It may be slow but at least discourse is finally out in the open.”