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Lebanon’s failing grade

Ending impunity should be the country’s priority in Geneva

by Nadim Houry

Lebanon’s seasonal rains brought with them more than the usual road chaos this year. Trash that had been left on sidewalks as a result of the government’s self-inflicted garbage crisis floated down the streets, sending a stark reminder of the impending health disaster.

Despite the multiple emergencies, Lebanon’s problems – like its garbage – are mounting while the government and the country’s political leaders while away the time. Lebanon’s political class seems to have turned procrastination into a governance strategy. Parliament can’t agree on an electoral law? No problem; its members have extended their own terms twice. No president? Let’s wait until the regional conflicts sort themselves out. Garbage piling up? Maybe the rain will just wash it away to the sea.

The lack of progress in the country will be clear in the outcome after Lebanon appears on November 2 for its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Think of the UPR as a rather friendly exam session where a country’s human rights record is reviewed by other states that are members of the Human Rights Council. At Lebanon’s first UPR, five years ago, it made a commitment to carry out various reforms, and it will need to show this time around the progress it has made since then. Unfortunately, there won’t be much to show for.

In its 2010 UPR, Lebanon agreed to establish a National Commission on Human Rights and to improve the fight against torture by criminalizing all forms of torture and ill-treatment. Five years later, the draft law for such a commission is still stuck in Parliament, alongside many other initiatives to improve the country. As for torture, security forces continue to ill-treat and abuse detainees amid a general climate of impunity. At best, when videos of abuse by security forces surface and create a scandal – such as the videos that emerged this summer showing several Internal Security Forces officers beating inmates in Roumieh prison – officials promise accountability and announce investigations that seem to fade away as soon as the media attention shifts to other scandals.

When confronted with their failure, many local officials will politely agree about the need for reform but disagree on the timing, arguing that no progress can be made due to a never-ending series of local or regional crises.  Lebanon is facing a number of challenges, but these excuses ring hollow and the countries reviewing Lebanon’s record in Geneva should recognize them as such.

The failure to prosecute human rights abusers, like the failure to find a solution to the garbage crisis, is not due to external crisis but rather is deeply rooted in the country’s culture of impunity. It is a culture that received an official seal of approval at the end of the civil war, when the warlords agreed on a general amnesty. This approach has since metastasized to all parts of the administration, making the struggle to end impunity a difficult one.

The challenges ahead were evident in the recent effort to hold security officers accountable for excessive violence against protesters demanding an end to the garbage crisis. Despite the opening of a judicial investigation into excessive use of force, two months later there is no indication that any judicial measure have been taken. For now, the only action seems to be light disciplinary measures against six security officials for acting without checking with their superiors.

Ending impunity should dominate Lebanon’s review at the UPR in Geneva. If Lebanon’s political class dismisses the demands for more transparency by local protesters, perhaps they will feel the need to respond to questions from peer states in Geneva. In the meantime, get ready for more garbage floating along a street near you.

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Nadim Houry

Nadim Houry is deputy MENA director at Human Rights Watch. He is also the director of the Beirut office.

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