I recently had the great and humbling experience of being in the company of three great people who are leading advocates of human rights and accountability in Lebanon. In addition, I also had the privilege of meeting advocates for change in Lebanon from a number of US NGOs and Lebanese Civil Society Organizations. All were women, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has worked in the community. While men have their contributions and qualities, it is largely women that we rely on to hold together the fabric of our initiatives, keep our perspectives balanced, and create innovative strategies for overcoming obstacles.
The occasion of their visit to the US, organized by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), was to meet with officials in the US Congress and Administration and reinforce their messages of what must be/can be done in Lebanon to bring about more accountability in government. At one point when I remarked that Lebanon was on the edge of catastrophic failure, I was reminded that we shouldn’t confuse the government with its people.
Lesson learned. Whereas my work at ATFL focuses on US-Lebanon policy and analyzing various macroeconomic features of life in Lebanon that are a disaster, we cannot lose focus on the people and the institutions which should be serving them. The main purpose of their meetings was to discuss how to promote accountability in institutions in Lebanon given how endemic corruption is – upheld by the clientelism that is interwoven into Lebanese society and politics.
I was impressed that many of the professionals in the room were young women with expertise in such areas as corruption, judicial reform, sanctions, international legal issues, women rights, and related topics. They provided me an update as seen through the eyes and experiences of their expertise driven by strong values. TIMEP has become quite a resource in providing research and analysis on key Arab countries and even has an office in Beirut as well as in Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt, and Jordan.
Those who are working on the issue of accountability face many obstacles. Where to begin? Our basic fallback position is, “rule of law.” From that concern flows transparency, an independent judiciary, oversight and monitoring of government entities, and how the judiciary functions. Tania Daou Alam, one of the participants of the meeting, is a Lebanese lawyer who works with families of the survivors of the Beirut Port Explosion – having lost her own husband as well – despite her usual focus on civil and commercial litigation, corporate matters, and copyright law. Her family is generationally integrated into the law profession and she in particular is well qualified to speak on matters related to judicial reform and the impact of politics on the pathway to justice regarding the Port Explosion investigation.
After the Port explosion and banking sector implosion, the two issues frequently discussed in the public were corruption and the lack of respect for the law. What person could better describe these issues in Lebanon than Monika Borgmann, the widow of Lokman Slim. She noted that 17,000 people “disappeared” during the Lebanese Civil War and there have been 200+political assassinations since. She voiced her concern that the current state of the media freedoms was greatly curtailed by threats, physical and verbal abuse, and even assassinations. As a professional journalist and filmmaker, she, “has focused her career on high-level, geopolitically sensitive cases and has sat as a board member of the Interpol Foundation.”
There is no single person or institution that can root out and change the culture of corruption and lack of accountability in Lebanon. At all levels of society and in all areas of the country, accountability is missing or avoided. As Zena Wakim, the president of the Board of the Swiss foundation, Accountability Now, and an international lawyer emphasized, there are no shortcuts. Investigations, whether tied to financial misdeeds or crimes against humanity, are detailed and require a great deal of energy. She works with civil society to pursue accountability issues and most recently brought forward a suit in a Texas court for harm faced by US citizens as a result of the Beirut Port Explosion. She also trained as a war crime investigator with the Institute for International Criminal Investigations in The Hague.
The work is intense and sometimes dangerous, but without these advocates, Zena, Monnika, and Tania, and their colleagues, hope would be impossible. A big thanks to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Studies https://timep.org/for bringing their important work to the attention of policy makers in Washington, and for helping rebuild hope that we can cope with and overcome the current distress in Lebanon.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.