Eroding Civil Rights In Lebanon


Habib C. Malik   (Courtsy of USCFL)


September 1997

The valiant response by Lebanon's civil society to the mounting challenges and pressures it faces have not arrested the gradual qualitative erosion of its immunity, leading perhaps to irreversible damage. In its 1994 annual report, one local non-governmental human rights organization posed three telling questions: "Have freedoms in Lebanon, both as theoretical values and an actual reality, become a thing of the past; Was the period stretching from 1861 to 1975, when freedoms flourished, an exceptional one; and Is the country now reverting back to the regional pattern of oriental despotism?" Though the report points optimistically to tangible indications suggesting the situation is not so desperate, it does not hesitate to present a graphic and sobering account of the widespread infringement of individual and collective rights in Syrian-dominated Lebanon.

Internationally renowned human rights groups have corroborated this assessment of the situation in Lebanon. The section on Lebanon in Amnesty International's 1997 annual report begins, "Scores of possible prisoners of conscience were arrested by the security forces" and goes on to note that "there were continuing allegations of torture and other forms of ill-treatment in custody." The report also indicates that Lebanese government forces and Syrian personnel stationed in Lebanon jointly conducted the arrests. Washington-based Freedom House, which uses an intricate system to sort countries into three basic categories—"free," "partly free," and "not free"—stated in its 1995 report that Lebanon slipped from "partly free" in 1994 to "not free" in 1995 because the country's legislature unilaterally extended the incumbent president's term indefinitely.' Freedom House ranked Syria fourteenth among the eighteen most repressive states in the world. At a December 1995 press conference in Washington, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth criticized the Clinton administration for pursuing the Middle East peace process "as if human rights were irrelevant to it," decrying what he said was "a marked tendency . . . for the U.S. government to downplay serious human rights abuses in an effort to get everybody around the negotiating table and to secure a peace agreement." He affirmed that Human Rights Watch had been outspoken in its criticism of human rights abuses "in Lebanon and elsewhere without regard to how that might offend the potential negotiating partners such as Syria's Assad."

The following year and coinciding with Prime Minister Hariri's October 1996 visit to Washington, Human Rights Watch President sent the prime minister an open letter protesting "the abduction of Lebanese citizens and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by Syrian security forces." She called upon Hariri to take immediate "firm measures" to ensure that the unlawful "disappearances" of civilians come to an end. The letter also noted reports "that Lebanese security forces have participated in the hand over of their own citizens to the Syrians, who use torture to elicit information during interrogation." Human Rights President suggested that Hariri issue a public declaration prohibiting Syrian forces from operating with impunity on Lebanese soil, order the Lebanese judiciary and police to institute procedures for taking written complaints about disappearances, and establish a special legal office to investigate all cases of disappearances "in a prompt and transparent manner."

Needless to say, the letter went unacknowledged and absolutely nothing was done. This is perhaps not surprising, given that the entire process of accusation and detention of suspects is riddled with human rights violations, even by the most elastic standards. Only 10 percent of political cases ever go to trial—let alone reach a verdict. The rest are interminably stalled at the pre-trial detention stage, where most of the abuses are perpetrated. Harassment of defense lawyers by the authorities has become common. Another factor that has contributed to human rights violations in Lebanon in recent years has been the inordinate powers of Lebanon's military court, which was established in 1968 and which has accrued greater power ever since. The very existence of a military court that interferes in civilian legal proceedings under the pretext of a "security threat" is highly problematic; this is compounded by the arbitrary and outrageous extent of its reach. In March 1994, for example, the government-appointed presiding judge boasted that the court had tried 350 cases in a single day—a phenomenal amount considering that the court has only five permanent judges. Little justice or due process could have been meted out at such a pace. In effect, this amounts to the unmistakable "militarization" of the Lebanese judiciary, as more and more civilian cases are tried by the military.

In 1994, President Hrawi announced that "the era of the gallows has arrived." and in the space of five months, four civilians were hanged— compared to only eleven executions in the previous fifty years since Lebanon's independence. In addition to the fundamental ethical questions capital punishment raises, the alacrity with which the trials were conducted, verdicts pronounced, appeals denied, and sentences carried out was, to say the least, unsettling. It clearly signaled an underlying political agenda coupled with a calculated show of force by the authorities designed to intimidate any political opposition into submission.

Yet opposition was neither preempted nor silenced. In June 1994, an extraordinary gathering of individuals and groups opposed to the post-Taif status quo in Lebanon took place in Paris. They came from all over the world, including Lebanon itself; the defiant and brave departed from Beirut airport, risking the humiliating treatment some occasionally received at the hands of the security forces and the clear danger that awaited them on the return trip. What came to be known as the Lebanese National Conference was dominated by supporters of Gen. Michel Aoun (who did not personally attend the conference even though he was living in a Paris suburb at the time), but also included many people who simply shared the general's aversion to the ongoing ravages of occupation back in Lebanon. It was the first time in Lebanon's history that such an event had taken place: a kind of opposition "Woodstock-in-exile," the sequel to the heady days in 1989 when the hundreds of thousands camped out around the presidential palace overlooking Beirut when Aoun was its resident.

The conference's final communiqué consisted of a thirteen-page statement that dealt with five specific topics that had been discussed: liberation and freedom in Lebanon, civil liberties and human rights, the Middle East peace process, serious national dialogue and the various constitutional proposals, and reconstruction and the quality of life in postwar Lebanon. It called for the departure of all foreign forces—meaning Israeli and Syrian—from Lebanon, and expressed the desire for "excellent" relations with all Lebanon's neighbors. Also prominent on the list of resolutions were free parliamentary elections and the strengthening of the Lebanese army to enable it to assume full security duties throughout the country. It castigated the government for a poorly conceived reconstruction plan that should have been preceded by the return of the displaced to their villages, the restoration of vital infrastructure, the protection of the archaeological heritage, and greater decentralization to involve more people and broader areas in the actual process of rebuilding.

Not much criticism of the Beirut government emanates from diplomatic circles abroad, mainly because Washington is loathe to say anything that might upset the Syrians, who need to be continuously coaxed to the negotiating table with Israel. One international capital where Lebanon's fortunes continue to matter is the Holy See at the Vatican. The Vatican's Special Synod on Lebanon, held in Rome from November 26 to December 14, 1995, took four years to come to fruition after Pope John Paul II first announced his desire to have such an event. Representatives from all the Christian churches in Lebanon were invited to participate and Muslims were invited as observers. The synod's concluding letter surpassed expectations in its outspokenness on the problems plaguing the country. In addition to reaffirming Lebanon's communal pluralism and cultural diversification, the ecclesiastical document strongly advocated "consensual democracy" in which the majority abide by a communal consensus rather than imposing decisions upon the different sects and denominations that were at variance with their special traditions, values, and belief systems. This was a reaffirmation of the dictum that true democracy is not merely majority rule, but must be coupled with minority rights.

The letter designated Lebanon as belonging culturally to the Arab world, while at the same time being fully open to the rest of the world. Most arresting was a bold call for the departure of both Israeli and Syrian forces. Rarely has an official Vatican-endorsed document been so explicit about Syria's involvement in Lebanon. Other issues raised in the document included the need for adequate affordable housing for newlyweds, less government interference in private education, better salaries for teachers, more attention paid to the impact of economic deterioration on the poor and the middle class, recognition of the pivotal socio-ethical role of the Lebanese family, respect for human rights and the dignity of women, and repatriation of Lebanese abroad and the return of the internally dislocated to their homes. Those who feared that the synod would amount to little more than a "spiritual Taif" and essentially confer its "blessing" on the preceding political agreement were pleasantly surprised by the text of the final letter. On the contrary, the synod drew a clear connection between the success of national reintegration and coexistence, and regaining Lebanese sovereignty. The document's significance will increase as it is carefully examined and appraised on the local parish level.

The infrequency of international scrutiny and publicity emboldens both the Beirut authorities and their Syrian overlords—sometimes to their detriment. In December 1996, for example, an anonymous attack on a Syrian civilian bus in the predominantly Christian area north of Beirut served as a convenient pretext for a wave of arrests that included Wail Kheir, managing director of Lebanon's leading human rights organization, the FHHRL. A local and international outcry ensued, led by lawyers, activists, and renowned human rights organizations abroad. Western diplomats and representatives of the leading democratic nations chimed in with their condemnations of the action. The stunned Beirut authorities were forced to release Kheir and others with apologies. In April 1997, Kheir and a team of human rights activists from Lebanon attended a meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee at UN headquarters in New York to discuss the Lebanese government's compliance with the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it had signed following the 1982 Israeli invasion. The assembled experts issued a scathing indictment of Lebanon's dismal human rights record. The Beirut press did not publish the committee's recommendations for three months out of fear of the government's reaction.

Pope John Paul II finally made a long-awaited, two-day pastoral visit to Lebanon in May 1997. Among other things, the event provided interesting demographic information. Unofficial estimates in the Beirut press put the number of participants in the papal Mass at around 700,000 (including a small number of non-Christians). As he made his way to the specially prepared cite for the Mass near the port of Beirut, the Pope passed through another 200,000 cheering Christians lining the streets in the area north of the city; it would have been physically impossible for these people to attend the subsequent Mass. In addition, a number of Christians, including the elderly and very young and many non-Catholics, chose to remain at home and watch the ceremony on television. No matter how these figures are assessed, one thing is clear: the myth—propagated by the Syrians and their local mouthpieces in Lebanon and parroted by some in the West—that the Christians constitute no more than 25-30 percent of Lebanon's population seems to have been shattered. They are much closer to 45 percent, and this refers only to those actually residing in the country. Even the Parliament Speaker Berri conceded on the day of the Pope's Mass that his Shi'a community was not the largest in Lebanon.