Lebanon Called Out on Its Human Rights Record

Monday, December 14, 2020
Opinion by Jean AbiNader
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Reminding the Lebanese government that the famous Lebanese diplomat Charles Malek was among the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Ambassadors of Canada, Denmark, Finland, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom sent a joint message on International Human Rights Day expressing their concern for the protection of human rights in Lebanon. They noted that the Declaration is enshrined in the preamble of Lebanon’s Constitution, and that their governments were willing to assist Lebanon in efforts to improve. The letter focused on seven areas.

The section on Women’s Rights called on the government to accept and implement certain recommendations and international protocols including: working against sexual harassment and domestic violence; improving rights related to divorce, property ownership and inheritance, and custody of children; reform of the nationality law so that Lebanese women can give their nationality to their children if married to a non-Lebanese; and enacting and enforcing a prohibition against child marriage.

The second area is concerned with preventing torture and ill-treatment including the creation and resources for a National Human Rights Institute as well as a National Preventive Mechanism on preventing torture; and steps to amplify this right by prosecuting and punishing those who torture during interrogations, whether civil or military.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press were emphasized as the ambassadors wrote, “We have seen a worrying trend limiting the right to freedom of expression, including press freedom, during the last year.” Statistics drawn from a local human rights foundation indicated that physical assaults against journalists and social media activists had increased almost 400% from the previous year (from 15 to 70); cases of arrest and detention increased from 9 to 13; and there were 16 cases of threats and verbal abuse compared to 7 last year.

Freedom of peaceful assembly drew particular attention as abuses have noted in the media and elsewhere leading to the charge that there is “a deteriorating situation concerning freedom of peaceful assembly, characterized by the use of excessive violence against demonstrators by the security forces, and particularly by the Parliamentary Police.” In line with this concern, the recommendations are to strengthen human rights training and performance of the security forces, and to implement measures that improve public accountability and transparency.

The letter noted that Lebanon has refused in the past to accept many recommendations regarding the rights of the LGBT community and encouraged the government to make improvements in this area.

Regarding refugee rights, the ambassadors expressed their dismay that “We have witnessed a stark deterioration in the protection space for refugees and IDPs in the country, including evictions, arbitrary arrests, and deportations.” Protection of refugees and a credible effort to abolish the Kafala system, which constraints the rights domestic workers, were two recommendations regarding refugee rights.

Independence of the Judiciary, a common refrain among those promoting systemic reforms, was the final area addressed in the letter. They mentioned the urgent need to strengthen the judiciary to reduce corruption, build trust, and improve accountability.

In closing, the ambassadors wrote, “We will continue to follow up with the authorities, and work with our international and local partners to advocate for actionable steps that will lead to progress to improve the respect for human rights in Lebanon.”

There are many reasons given for the lack of consistent and credible human rights policies in Lebanon: the sectarian system assigns policies and decisions on family and personal status matters to community bodies; conservative religious bodies oppose state interference in the personal/religious laws of their constituents; “shame-culture” vestiges promote negative perceptions of non-heterosexual orientations; socio-economic pressures and customs that promote underage employment and poor treatment of domestic and foreign workers; and regulations that seek to limit the impact of “foreign” marriages on citizenship for fear of diluting the national balance, are some of those most frequently cited. While in most Western countries, these would be considered outdated principles, they are still part of the plethora of reasons offered by those supporting the status quo who oppose any erosion of their control of their constituents.

It is useful to compare the concerns expressed by the ambassadors with the attitudes of youth recorded in the annual Arab Youth Survey as covered in an earlier blog, and the Arab Barometer. The results clearly demonstrate a disconnect between young people and the sectarian leadership in areas of social and political engagement. For example, a large majority (60% in Lebanon) do not approve of a role for religion in government. Similar results were evident in support for an independent judiciary (72%), the right to peacefully demonstrate (83%), and equality for women (81%). How this translates into a political agenda in Lebanon is still emerging, and is worth tracking.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.