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    The State of Human Rights in Lebanon

    Every year on December 10, human rights defenders across the globe celebrate International Human Rights Day, which commemorates the release of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

    While Lebanon made a notable contribution to drafting the declaration, a general appraisal of the current state of human rights in Lebanon outlines the shortcomings to be addressed if the country is to meet the internationally-proclaimed standards to which it signed on.

    Prison conditions, torture and capital punishment

    Prison conditions in Lebanon are below internationally-accepted standards. Prisons are not only crowded — with all the moral and health issues that entails — but they lack the necessary facilities to turn them into rehabilitation centers rather than places of detention and punishment. This reality has led some inmates to riot against their wardens in a couple of prisons this year.

    According to reports collected by various local and international NGOs, torture is still applied in Lebanese detention centers, especially on migrant workers and asylum seekers. Torture is administered widely, especially in the pre-trial period, and in 2008, reports of death under duress were registered and even submitted to the Ministry of Interior. As a state party to the 1984 UN Convention against Torture (CAT) since 2000, Lebanon should “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.”

    Notwithstanding the almost six-year moratorium on the death penalty, Lebanon has yet to abolish this “cruel and inhuman” punishment and substitute it with life imprisonment and manual labor. Seen from a human-rights perspective, capital punishment is an inappropriate, unacceptable and irresponsible response to crime. Minister of Justice Ibrahim Najjar has taken the lead on this front, but his efforts have not produced any results thus far.

    Special courts

    In a democratic system normal courts are sufficient settings for all litigations, whether among citizens or between citizens and the state. In Lebanon, however, special courts, which are used by repressive regimes, operate. The three types used are military courts, The Judicial Council (Al-Majlis Al-Adli) and the Publication Court.

    In 1967, the military courts were established at a time when authorities were attempting to contain Palestinian agitation. In the decades that followed the jurisdiction of military courts was extended to cover all litigation that involved a military group and the elastic category of “attempts against national security.” The framework of military courts should be strictly limited to military trials and discipline. They should not be involved in proceedings against citizens outside the military.

    The Judicial Council, for its part, is a flagrant violation of international standards of justice, as there can be no appeals to its rulings. No justice can be done within a one-stage court. Moreover, the council violates the principle of separation of powers between the executive and judiciary, as it does not act independently, but operates based on referrals from the Council of Ministers.

    As for the Publication Court, there is mounting concern as of late in human rights and press circles about the draconian and intimidating measures this special court uses. Not only do its rulings levy overwhelming fines on journalists in cases of libel and slander, but in several cases, it has sentenced journalists to months of incarceration.

    Discrimination against women

    Discrimination against women is applied across the board in the family laws of the various religious communities, the labor law and in the nationality law, whereby a Lebanese woman married to a foreigner cannot grant her children Lebanese citizenship but under exceptional circumstances. Even the Lebanese penal code discriminates against women; evidence-gathering techniques and penalties issued for some crimes are harsher on women than on their male counterparts.

    Evidently, as state party to the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) since 1997, Lebanon has yet to “take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women” in accordance with Article 2(f) of the Convention.

    Electoral reforms

    The parliamentary elections of June 2009 witnessed significant reforms compared to previous ballots. Notably, the June polls were successfully conducted over one day, indelible ink was used, and the easily-forged electoral ID was substituted by the regular identification card.

    Yet if Lebanon is to move closer to international standards of free and fair elections, pending reforms should be introduced to the current electoral law. These include instituting universal suffrage by granting military personnel of various ranks the right to vote; lowering the voting age to 18 and enabling absentee voting; adopting “temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women” such as a women’s parliamentary quota in line with Article 4(1) of CEDAW; adopting certified and standardized preprinted ballots; allowing voting in place of residence and not only in place of birth; and establishing and resourcing an independent electoral commission, among others.

    Refugees and domestic helpers

    Many groups residing on Lebanese territory are discriminated against. Palestinian refugees in particular are subject to this violation of rights. They are banned from holding more than 40 occupations. They are also barred from benefiting from public medical services as well as studying in public schools on the pre-secondary level. In addition, the 2001 Law of Ownership of Real Estate by Foreigners singles out Palestinians and prohibits them from owning property.

    It is imperative not to confuse the political with the humanitarian in this regard. While all Lebanese politically reject Palestinian naturalization, this should not prohibit Palestinian refugees from benefitting from proper infrastructure and basic human rights, pending the solution of their predicament. Essentially, with the advancement of a two-state solution, Palestinian refugees residing anywhere would ipso facto become citizens of the newly-established Palestinian state in accordance with international law.

    Manual workers and domestic helpers, mainly from African and Asian countries, are subject to all forms of exploitation and have many of their rights denied, placing them in an untenable position in which they do not benefit from any legal protection. Of particular concern are the almost weekly suicides of mainly African domestic helpers during the last quarter of 2009.

    Lebanese detained in Syria and exiled to Israel

    The status of hundreds of Lebanese citizens detained in Syrian prisons, in many cases without any real trial, remains uncertain to date. These citizens were, between 1976 and 2000, transferred outside their national borders in violation of the 1949 Geneva Accord. While this matter has unfortunately been subject to much political bickering and exploitation, one important issue needs to be pointed out. The status of these “political” detainees should not be confused with those Lebanese convicted of criminal offenses in Syria. It should also be noted that while the authorities looked after the prisoners who had been held in the Israeli occupied zone until 2000, those released from Syrian prisons were completely ignored and remain marginalized to this date.

    The status of thousands of Lebanese exiled to Israel since May of 2000 remains equally unaddressed. The Lebanese penal code addresses cases of collaboration with the enemy. However, its provisions do not apply in times of occupation. Citizens in times of protracted occupations are lured, in way or another, to work with the enemy in order to sustain themselves. Lebanese who lived in the formerly-occupied southern zone and are currently exiled to Israel paid a heavy price over three decades and are eager to rejoin their families and relatives in Lebanon. Yet absent a political decision with legal ramifications that prevent them from unfair trials, those exiled Lebanese will not return, especially as several of their peers underwent unfair trials in the “special” military court.

    In conclusion

    One may plausibly argue that the chronic political crises with which Lebanon is constantly grappling are standing in the way of addressing the abovementioned shortcomings. Nevertheless, if equal human rights in their civil, political, social and economic dimensions have been part of the problem in Lebanon’s various crises, then they should also be part of the solution in any work toward reform.

    Jean-Pierre KATRIB
    NOW Lebanon

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