Lebanon has had no head of state since President Michel Suleiman’s term ended on 25 May 2014. On 13 July 2016, the parliament convened for the 43rd time but failed to elect a president, since only 31 out of 128 MPs attended the session. As with previous sessions, it was adjourned due to a lack of a quorum. A two-thirds majority (86 of 128 MPs) is required for a quorum.
The political deadlock dates back to January 2011, when opposition ministers resigned after Prime Minister Saad Hariri refused to convene the cabinet to discuss how to name suspects in his father’s murder. The resignations caused the national unity government to collapse. The deadlock has taken its toll on state institutions, including the Lebanese parliament, which opted to postpone the elections scheduled for June 2013 and voted to extend its mandate.
On 31 May 2013, the parliament initially extended its mandate for 17 months. On 5 November 2014, parliament enacted another extension, keeping its mandate for an additional 31 months, until 20 June 2017. Together, these extensions amount to four years, or one political term. This is a clear-cut violation of Article 21 (the right to take part in government) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Lebanon has been a signatory since October 1945, and has dealt a huge blow to the reputation of Beirut, once considered the centre of democracy in the Arab world.
Additionally, Lebanon, which is a state party to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), is also in violation of Articles 2 & 25 of the covenant, which state that:
- Voting and participation in elections is a universal right not to be denied;
- Every citizen has the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
The aforementioned leadership vacuum and political deadlock have resulted in the government’s failure to provide even basic services, including garbage removal, electricity and water. This led in August 2015 to a wave of protests, which were violently quelled by Lebanese security forces, according to both national and international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights, the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (LIFE), and Act for Human Rights.
During the ‘You Stink’ protests – the name a reference to both the uncollected garbage piled in the streets and the widespread corruption in Lebanon – security personnel used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, rifle butts, and batons to subdue protesters. Security forces also fired live ammunition in the air and police forces beat and arrested protestors.
In July 2015, LIFE released its second legal status report on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which indicates that the situation of refugees continues to ‘deteriorate year after year’, and that living conditions for these individuals resemble a ‘huge prison’. With growing security threats and concerns over a possible spill over of the Syrian conflict, security forces are cracking down on those suspected of involvement in armed groups in Syria, regularly targeting Syrian refugee settlements and arbitrarily detaining all adult males and later ill-treating or torturing some of them. The report described Syrian refugees as living in ‘a large detention centre in Lebanon, deprived of their basic rights through unfair and arbitrary government decisions, or through arbitrary – and often illegal – actions practiced by the Lebanese security and military forces against them’.
In January 2015, Lebanon overturned its open-border policy and began restricting entry for Syrian refugees. It also continued to bar the entry of Palestinians fleeing the Syrian conflict. In May, Lebanon instructed UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, to provisionally suspend all new registrations of Syrian refugees. Refugees from Syria who entered Lebanon before January faced problems in renewing residency permits. Those who could not afford to renew annual residency permits, which are required to remain in Lebanon legally, became irregular in status and liable to arrest, detention and deportation.
The recurrence of such events eventually motivated Lebanese and Syrian activists, particularly in the border areas between Syria and Lebanon, to launch a campaign in July. Called ‘Get Us Out Of Lebanon’, it aims to shed light on the physical and psychological suffering of Syrian refugees.
On 27 June, a series of eight suicide bombings were carried out in the Lebanese border town of al-Qaa. The bombings, which were eventually claimed by the Islamic State (IS), sparked outrage, forcing the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to resume their widespread detention of Syrians on Lebanese soil. Sham Network, a Syrian pro-rebel media outlet, went on to document around 500 detentions as well as discriminatory decisions issued by several Lebanese municipalities, including imposing a curfew on the Syrian refugees within their administrative borders.
A year earlier, leaked videos showed members of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) torturing inmates in Roumieh Prison, north of Beirut, following a prison riot. The interior minister confirmed the authenticity of the videos. Lebanon has not yet established a national preventive mechanism to visit and monitor places of detention, as required under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which it ratified in 2008. With the ongoing government paralysis, legislation to create such a body has stalled in parliament.
Freedom of Expression
Historically, the generally respected right to freedom of expression has put Lebanon in a league of its own in relation to other Arab states. Yet several articles of the Lebanese penal code remain controversial. For instance, Article 386 criminalizes libel and defamation against the president, public officials and private individuals. In recent years, several public figures, activists and journalists have been indicted under this article. In January 2015, Lebanese authorities charged Faisal Qassem, an Al Jazeera journalist, with insulting the army on Facebook and, following his failure to show up to two hearings, issued a warrant against him.
In October 2015, security forces detained Michel Douaihy, a political activist, after General Security filed a complaint against him for Facebook posts that officials deemed libellous. He was released nine days later and fined $200. The same month, a Lebanese court sentenced journalist Mohammed Nazzal to six months in absentia and fined him $666 for a Facebook post criticizing the Lebanese judiciary.
In the early hours of 30 May 2016, the ISF stormed the house of Nabil al-Halabi, a lawyer and human rights activist, and charged him with criticizing government officials on Facebook. Khaled Kreydiyeh, one of al-Halabi’s lawyers, said the authorities told him that they arrested al-Halabi because he failed to appear for legal proceedings in a libel and defamation case filed against him by Maher Abou al-Khoudoud, a senior advisor to the interior minister.
These arrests raise serious questions about the official acceptance of and respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms.
LGBTQ Rights and Gender Equality
When it comes to sexual orientation, the regressive Article 534 of the penal code punishes ‘any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature’. In recent years, the authorities have carried out raids and arrested people allegedly involved in same-sex acts, some of whom were tortured. In August 2014, for example, police launched a sting operation targeting gay men across the country and making dozens of arrests. During one raid on Agha Hammam in Beirut, 27 men were arrested on charges of ‘indecency’ and engaging in ‘gay sex’. Unconfirmed reports of further raids on private establishments continue to surface.
However, slow progress is being made with regards to LGBTQ rights. A landmark court ruling in March 2014 decreed that sex between a transgender individual, previously a man, and another man could not be perceived as unnatural. Activists saw the case as a double win, as it was also the first ruling on a transgender individual. In arriving at his decision, the judge drew on a similar case from 2009, which ruled that homosexuality cannot be against human nature since man ‘is part of nature’.
Yet despite being ahead of its neighbours on women’s rights, women’s activism and participation in all aspects of society, Lebanon’s personal status laws, nationality laws and criminal code continue to uphold discriminatory provisions. Under the 15 different personal status laws, which are determined by an individual’s religious affiliation, women across religions continue to suffer discrimination, including unequal access to divorce, child custody and property rights. Unlike Lebanese men, Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationality to foreign husbands or children, and they continue to be subject to discriminatory inheritance laws.
Like the legislation to visit and monitor places of detention, draft laws to stop torture, advance gender equality and improve the treatment of migrant domestic workers have stalled in parliament.
Human rights organizations all agree that the country still lags behind in its compliance with international treaties and conventions. Yet as conflict and unrest continues to plague many parts of the Arab world, human rights have taken a backseat to national security. Rather than prioritizing one over the other, however, the best solution may lie in addressing both together. Hence, national security should not entail curbing rights and freedoms; and rights and freedoms should be able to be enjoyed without jeopardizing national security.