Human Rights in Lebanon: There is a lot of work left to be done!

Rodrigue Elias Assi

“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened” (John F. Kennedy).

When I first decided to write about human rights in Lebanon, I was not aware of how important this subject is and how much it affects our daily life. However, the more I read, the more it started to hit me: If we do not preserve what we already achieved – which is honestly a little -, and do not fight for what is left – a LOT! -, how would we be able to survive as individuals and as a nation?

The term “slave” started to look extremely perspicuous to me…! And with this ‘image’ in mind, i started digging in the past (two to three decades ago), looking for the ‘What’ – human rights’ violations -, the ‘Why’ – the causes -, and the ‘Heroes’ – the organizations fighting for human rights -, in order to have a clearer perspective of our current and future situations. The following is just a quick reminder of historical and sociological/political facts.

Going back to the 80s and 90s, the state of human rights in Lebanon was not very satisfying. According to some studies, in 1989, human rights were not among the blessings the Taif settlement agreement promised. There were some tendencies to repress some individual rights like the freedom of media, of education and of political organizations and the trade unions. Plus, evidences concerning the collective rights show that the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon would be sacrificed for Syria’s benefit. Talking about political and legal rights, several violations of these rights were detected in matters of the freedom of peaceful assembly and associations: although the Constitution provided the freedom of assembly, the government restricted this right. The government banned all rallies in 1996, the labor unions, in particular, encountered throughout the past years difficulties to obtain permission to exercise their constitutional right to demonstrate. Another example on how the government always fought the General Confederation of Labor (CGTL) on several occasions by calling on the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to control the situation, including when the Lebanese Army encircled CGTL headquarters and prevented the Union leaders from leaving their offices, keeping them under provisional arrest for about 6 hours.

What was also true is that the Constitution stated that citizens have the right to change their government in fair elections, a thing that was not applied back then because those elections were never entirely free nor fair – also true nowadays! Moreover, what about the freedom of speech and press, a right that was partially limited by the government? Some would say “There are no free journals in Lebanon but there are free journalists.” The government used several tools at its disposal to control the freedom of expression. Also, the 1991 security agreement between Lebanon and Syria contained a provision that bans the publication of any information deemed damaging to the security of either state. Under the threat of prosecution, Lebanese journalists censored themselves on matters related to Syria.

Over the years since 1990, the government severely attacked press freedoms by filing charges against several newspapers. In a 10 day period in 1996, three dailies (ad-Diyar, al-Liwa’ and Nida’al Watan) and two weeklies (alKifah al -Arabi and al-Massira) were charged with defaming the President and the Prime Minister, and for publishing materials deemed provocative to one religious sect. The daily “ad-Diyar” alone was indicted five times and both the owner and editor-in-chief faced sentences of 2 months to 2 years of prison and fines equivalent to 30,000 to 60,000 US dollars if found guilty. The attack was not only on the newspapers but the government imposed a law which reduced the number of television and radio stations to just a few, related to important political figures. In May 1996 the General Security confiscated and banned some books as well – and it still does it, along with theater plays, movies, clothes with specific symbolism,…

What about individuals’ privacy when phones are tapped? And freedom of religion (and ‘no-religion’)? What about the disappearance of so many people, torture, prisons’ conditions, etc.? What kind of a country does not care about the protection of its children? Unfortunately, to this day, there are neither child welfare programs nor government institutions to oversee the implementation of children’s programs.  60 % of working children are below 13 years of age and 75% of them earn two thirds below the minimum wage. Women’s rights were violated (and still are), people with disabilities still need to be recognized by the government, appreciated by others and respected as well. Nowadays, public awareness of environmental issues is relatively new compared to other nations, meaning there’s a huge lack in different environmental aspects. On another hand, Palestinian refugees resident in Lebanon continue to face discrimination and to be denied access to adequate housing and certain categories of employment. Oh and there is also, of course, the Syrian refugees’ dramatic situation!

On the bright side, there were always active organizations in Lebanon fighting for human rights. For example: the Lebanese Foundation for Permanent Civil Peace (LFPCP) which was founded in 1987 when Beirut was divided into a Christian  east side on one hand and a Muslim west side on the other. A time when the gap between the communities was so big that it was very easy to manipulate people for personal political gain – gaps still exist, and people are still manipulated.  The creation of a collective memory in order to prevent the past from repeating in the future and maintaining civil peace in Lebanon were/are one of the most important goals of this organization. Also the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA) established in May 1999, which focuses on working with young people in order to change their attitudes and values toward corruption. And the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), founded in 2006 – motto: peace in the country can only last if human rights are not only respected, but safeguarded by institutions of the government. Last but not least: the Maharat Foundation, a team of Lebanese journalists working to promote and defend free expression in order to build a democratic society in Lebanon.

New dynamic organizations include MARCH, founded in 2010 by a group of young people with a vision of peace in Lebanon and freedom of expression. – “you have the right not to remain silent, feel free to speak and to express your own opinion”. Let us not forget Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights, and “Peace Labz “(The Lebanese Group for Transforming Conflicts), established and officially registered in 2012, and focused on projects related to peace building and conflict resolution.

There may be a closure to this article right now, but there will never be to the subject of human rights in Lebanon – a perpetual important matter which cannot be underestimated nor taken for granted . Therefore, I urge all of you Lebanese readers, and especially young people, to stop for a second and think about the urgency to take our rights’ issue into consideration, and about joining the established organizations fighting for those rights, or at least, if working individually, or wanting to create new movements/groups/organizations, thinking of building sustainable partnerships for a better future.



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