How many times have you sat in a traffic snarl at a road junction in Beirut while a policeman who should be coordinating a free flow of vehicles leans against a dysfunctional traffic light, puffing on a cigarette and chatting to his girlfriend on his cell phone? Well, with a little luck that scenario could soon be a thing of the past if the Internal Security Forces (ISF) chooses to properly implement a newly introduced code of conduct. The little blue book, which is now required reading for everyone in the ISF, explains the obligations and ethical standards to be followed by all policemen. Written in English and Arabic, it includes subject headings such as professional duty, honesty and integrity, impartiality and discipline.
The code of conduct emanates from the United Kingdom and arose from a strategic overview of the needs of the ISF, conducted in 2008. Since the departure of the Syrian army from Lebanon in 2005, Western nations have taken an interest in providing assistance to the Lebanese security services. But, according to diplomatic sources, too much emphasis was initially placed on providing equipment and training on an ad hoc basis, often without coordination among donor countries. For example, the United Arab Emirates stepped in to build new police stations around the country, but the design was that of a private house or villa rather than a functional and secure base to receive and handle prisoners, interrogate suspects and conduct police work, according to the sources. How are you supposed to question a suspect if you have to take them upstairs to a bedroom office? The ISF should have been in a position of making requests to donor countries for specific assistance, rather than simply accepting whatever was given to them.
“The ISF leadership needs to tell donors what they need for the coming three years, so that the ISF can receive specific training and support for the priorities it has developed,” said a diplomatic source familiar with the code of conduct initiative. After conducting a private poll on public attitudes toward the ISF, the British embassy decided to sponsor a project drawing up a new code of conduct to address issues of accountability, internal discipline and professionalism. The aim is to provide a bedrock, if you will, on which physical equipment and training can be properly utilized. The ISF apparently took some time to absorb the importance of the code of conduct but have now embraced it, with senior figures indicating they intend to ensure it is followed through.
Among the possible future changes we could see in the ISF will be proper identity cards carried by the police and identity numbers worn on uniforms. At present, if someone is mistreated by a policeman, the person cannot register a proper complaint because the policeman’s identity is unknown. The ISF’s uniforms may also be replaced to decrease the military appearance of the current mottled blue-gray camouflage pattern. The M-16 and AK-47 rifles usually carried by the ISF could be swapped for automatic pistols, with the larger weapons held out of sight for emergencies. The number of women police officers is set to increase as well and there is talk of instituting a ‘bobby on the beat’ system, similar to the old British tradition of assigning a policemen to patrol allocated neighborhoods on foot to develop personal relationships and trust with the local community.
Still, changing the way the police force operates requires a cultural shift, not just recommendations in a book. The machinery of Lebanon is lubricated by wasta (or connections), a sadly essential commodity that ensures things get done. But there will be no room for wasta to evade paying parking tickets or other illegal indiscretions if the little blue book is followed to the letter. The police will also have to adopt a proper public complaints system and develop a much sharper internal discipline system. There can be no more appeals to one’s zaim [sectarian leader] to escape disciplinary measures.
It is unquestionably a tall challenge. But the architects of the code of conduct program hope that the recommendations of the little blue book will gradually take hold within the ISF.
NICHOLAS BLANFORD is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London and author of “Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel.”